The Rise (and Real Value) of #PrisonTokby@drewchapin
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The Rise (and Real Value) of #PrisonTok

by Drew Chapin4mApril 13th, 2024
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#PrisonTok offers a window into a world many know only through the lens of mass media and news reports and the benefit extends well-beyond entertainment and human interest: as consultant Sam Mangel shares, social media provides critical information for those facing their darkest days.
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It happens every few months: an article or video describing a shocking new TikTok trend lands in one of your feeds, one you simply can not believe is real. From people biting into Tide detergent pods and trying to climb across stacked crates to eating corn on the cob attached to a power drill, these trends become a core part of the cultural discourse for a few days or weeks before the world turns and moves on to the next one.

As TikTok is fundamentally an entertainment vehicle, it’s not surprising its users seek this sort of thing out, nor is it surprising the algorithm built to capture your attention rewards these content creators.

What those who don’t use TikTok may find surprising is there is increasing visibility and popularity of edutainment communities, people who gather around content subjects designed to entertain and also educate. There is an untold number of these communities, including #BookTok, #FoodTok, #MoneyTok, and #BeautyTok. But there’s one that has really lifted off in the last year or two that no one saw coming: #PrisonTok.

#PrisonTok is an Eye-Opener

Like many niche communities on TikTok, #PrisonTok offers a window into a world many know only through the lens of mass media and news reports. #PrisonTok creators come from all angles, including legal professionals, those who work in prisons, the formerly incarcerated, and even, believe it or not, those who are currently serving time and accessing the internet with a smartphone they’re not allowed to have.

One leading #PrisonTok influencer, Sabrena Morgan, has built an engaged audience with more than 51,000 followers as she shares her journey from addiction and self-destruction to her four years in federal prison and where she is now, re-entering society while trying to spark a broader conversation about the justice-related things people tend to shy away from.

In a recent episode of the Nightmare Success podcast with Brent Cassity, Sabrena shares the emotional evolution she underwent while on pre-trial and away at prison and how that helped her not only develop good, healthy habits but also to live a life driven by intention and a desire to, in her words, “not waste time.”

The honest, raw perspective of someone who re-invents their fundamental approach to life is not one that makes its way through to Hollywood, but its popularity on TikTok tells us that it is a mistake by the major studios and producers: people want these stories.

Beyond Entertainment and Human Interest

And while other #PrisonTok influencers take a sillier approach to their content, offering up things like prison recipes, it’s important to understand the real value of #PrisonTok extends beyond entertainment and human interest.

In the words of federal prison consultant Sam Mangel, #PrisonTok and related communities have become an important step for those facing the prospect of incarceration: “Unfortunately, for many years, there has been a lack of information to those who are going to prison. That’s a very big problem that social media is beginning to address, and the availability of this information has already had a meaningful impact on thousands of people.”

Mangel, who offers similar, complementary, and informative content about prison on his YouTube channel, knows first-hand. After he was arrested for insurance fraud violations in 2016, Mangel engaged an attorney who specializes in white-collar criminal defense. Despite his purported expertise, Mangel’s lawyer failed to prepare him for several key pre-sentencing steps, which culminated in a sixty-month sentence, more than three times greater than the guideline recommendation for his crime.

Mangel turned his attention to what he could do to return to his family as quickly as possible, which was a tall order in the pre-#PrisonTok world. Mangel ultimately served less than two years of his sixty-month sentence, returned home, and now assists white-collar offenders (including CEOs, medical professionals, politicians, and foreign nationals) in preparing for incarceration as a federal prison consultant.

If he were faced with the same circumstances in today’s information environment, it’s likely Mangel would have been better informed and would have known to speak with his attorney about the critical steps they missed. It’s possible he would have engaged the services of a consultant for personalized guidance. And armed with all of that, it’s likely he would have found himself with a far better outcome than a sixty-month sentence.

The Power of Breaking Down Information Silos

That’s why it’s important to highlight communities like these, which clearly offer so much help to those in need. These are an important counter-point to the current discourse around TikTok and social media. While many media outlets focus on security concerns that threaten to ban TikTok in the United States and groups that liken social media use to smoking cigarettes, communities like #PrisonTok offer what has long been the promise of social media and the internet broadly: breaking down data silos, improving access to critical information, and connecting people.