The Politics of Prison-Tok and Prison Art

Updated: Jun 6, 2021

Should we view incarcerated individuals as humans and citizens with rights? Should they be treated as such whilst imprisoned? What rights do states have over life? Both Prison-Tok and prison art raise these questions and can be used to explore ‘bare life’, biopolitics and necropolitics.

Prison-Tok refers to videos uploaded onto the social media network TikTok, by incarcerated individuals using contraband phones. Prison art is work created by inmates in permitted art classes and is sometimes displayed in public galleries.

For some, these phenomena question the purpose of prisons. They allow individuals to engage in the activities of normal people and make a virtual connection to the outside world when they are supposed to be in prison as punishment. For better or for worse, Prison-Tok and prison art make public the identities, experiences and views of those otherwise not meant to be seen. Both highlight wider discussions of prison reform. However, Prison-Tok videos uploaded by the non-imprisoned wives of imprisoned men, also show how incarceration impacts those outside prison walls.

Prison-Tok, ‘bare life’, and dehumanising practices

Agamben’s (1998; 2008) ‘bare life’ involves individuals being excluded from the population of the state and protection under state laws. Whilst Agamben originally described these individuals as homo sacer, the man available to be killed, Wells (2019) argues homo dolorosus, the man available to be made to suffer, is more suitable as people increasingly do not accept that the state has a right to freely kill.

Guantanamo Bay is one of the most cited examples. Suspected terrorists are kept alive but their exclusion from American and sometimes international law by the United States (Agamben, 2008: pp. 3-4) has placed them in a prolonged period of suffering. Detainees are held under indefinite detention, and human rights abuses are widely known. A formal review into the detention centre has been proposed by current President of the United States, Joe Biden, who also intends to close the facility before he leaves office (Biden, 2021).

Unlike Guantanamo Bay detainees, inmates in regular US prisons are still supposed to be protected under American law. However, whilst regular prisons therefore do not fulfil all the ‘bare life’ criteria, Prison-Tok has shown that in practice, inmates do not always receive the same humane treatment as non-criminal American citizens.

In an interview with Vice, PrisonToker Kevin Smith, who had just left prison at the time, stated, “I knew that it was a bunch of kids on there, so I kind of wanted to post it as like a reality of what would happen if you go to prison... It's not any place that you want to end up” (Smith in Borrello et al 2020). Whilst some of his videos show inmates suffering from the failure to prevent prison drug-use, others show the poor quality of prison food such as bread covered in mould.

Although regular inmates do not fulfil the homo dolorous description as much as those at Guantanamo Bay, they are still sometimes placed in a precarious climate where they are kept alive but are made available to suffer with conditions that do not always meet those of non-incarcerated citizens.

Prison art, the morality of necropolitics, and identity

Prison art can similarly act as a medium to expose the conditions of incarceration. However, for many on death row, prison art goes further than Prison-Tok as it also attempts to question whether capital punishment should exist at all. Is necropolitics, ‘subjugating life to the power of death’ (Mbembe, 2019: 92), a right that sovereign states should have?

Myuran Sukumaran was executed on death row for his involvement in the Bali Nine drug trafficking group. The artwork he produced whilst in prison was displayed in an exhibition in Sydney, Australia, titled ‘Another Day in Paradise’.

He ‘created a visual language that would speak out against the barbarism of the death penalty around the world,’ said Ben Quilty, an Australian artist who mentored Sukumaran in his production of art (Quilty in Cremin, 2017). Sukumaran’s artwork (see cover image) included disfigured self-portraits and - particularly in his last 72-hours when he was given notice of his execution - contorted limbs in tight positions. Cremin argues these display the ‘psychological toll of long-term imprisonment’ (2017).

Verghis importantly questions, ‘Why should these men – convicted of the worst crimes – be provided a public platform for creativity? What of their victims, and their victims’ families, and their rights in this?’. She notes some of the arguments given by those who advocate prison art: contested guilt, many come from ‘poor and minority backgrounds’, and race and class possibly influence legal outcomes. Others echo Tom Williams, an art professor who previously supported the death penalty and now works with prisoners to exhibit their work. Williams believes, ‘If we’re going to kill these men, then we should be willing to listen to what they have to say’ (Williams in Verghis, 2017).

As discussed earlier, prisons can potentially treat incarcerated individuals as homo dolorosus. Part of this process in a prison environment involves their voice and identity being subdued. Amicus, a charity that provides legal representation and aid to those on death row (Amicus, 2021), frequently receives artwork from death row prisoners. Their director, Margot Ravenscroft, states, ‘Generally, but more extremely on death row, part of the incarceration process involves stripping away your identity as a human being’. With this in mind, ‘the expression of art is a way of redressing that dehumanisation and identifying yourself as an individual and as a member of society’ (Ravenscroft in Cremin, 2017).

Some incarcerated artists like Sukumaran were guilty with little question. Others have been campaigning for a different sentence, or to have the same fate as the other 160 individuals since 1973 who have been exonerated from the death sentence (Biden Harris Democrats, 2021). Kenneth Reams for example has been campaigning for a different sentence, on evidence that he was not the gunman in the altercation that killed Gary Turner in 1993 (Cremin, 2017). Regardless of innocence, prison artists have aimed to challenge necropolitical capital punishment. The mere existence of their artwork attempts to expose that those on death row have identities, which makes them appear more human and, they suggest, worthy of life.

Many inmates use Prison-Tok to keep up with trends, with others also putting CashApp in their bios so that the public can send them money. However, whilst noting these uses (Combs in Borrello et al, 2020), one PrisonToker, Jeron Combs, emphasizes that 'Some people think that [jail is] all about violence and what they hear or see on TV, but it's so much more to what people don't see. I want to be able to enlighten them on what's going on behind these walls.’ (Combs in Green, 2020).

Like prisoner artwork, Combs’ Prison-Tok attempts to show that prisoners have identities beyond their violent stereotype or what they have been convicted for. His TikTok account - which includes some videos with over 10 million views - shows him making food on the DIY grill of his metal bed heated by an old hot plate underneath. He particularly likes making burritos (Combs in Crump, 2020).

Prison-Tok, biopolitics, and how prison affects those not incarcerated

The bulk of this Juncture review has focused on Prison-Tok and prison art through the lens of inmates. However, Prison-Tok also allows the public to see the experience of a prisoner’s family and friends.

Prison wives who upload to TikTok do hope that it gives ‘a different perspective of someone who is in prison’ (Martinez in Borrello et al, 2020), and that their husband should be allowed to keep his ‘basic human rights and dignity intact’ (Goodman in Matsakis, 2020).

Nonetheless, they also see Prison-Tok as a space to feel part of a community (Martinez in Borrello et al, 2020). Ashley Martinez’ videos include phone calls with her incarcerated husband, and ‘put a finger down’ posts. The latter encourage other prison wives to replicate the video and relate to each other. They record themselves with ten fingers up, putting a finger down whenever they share a prison wife experience that Martinez’ audio recalls.

For PrisonwifeToker Samantha Goodman, ‘The most important thing to me is just raising awareness about prison families in general’ (in Matsakis, 2020).

American prison wives have spoken out about the costs of keeping in contact with an incarcerated loved one. This draws attention to current campaigns for prison reform. Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, has been campaigning for prison phone reforms to reduce their exorbitant prices which she argues is a key factor in prohibited mobile phones being used by prisoners. Combs not only has a phone to make cooking videos but to keep in contact with his family first (Borrello et al, 2020).

One such proposed bill, The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, exposes biopolitical realities. To ‘improve the condition of the population, to increase its wealth, its longevity, and its health’ (Foucault, 2007: p. 105), biopolitics involves power of the sovereign state ‘to make live and to let die’ (Foucault, 2003: p. 241).

Some have advocated the legislation by highlighting studies show that recidivism rates and therefore taxpayer dollars are reduced when the incarcerated can keep in contact with their family members. Most frequently however, advocates argue the bill aims to prevent recurrences of Mrs Martha Wright-Reed's experience. Exorbitant prices forced her to choose between contacting her imprisoned grandson and paying for her heart medicine (Portman, 2021).

Both of these reasonings behind supporting the bill aim to biopolitically improve the wealth and health of the population not capitalist individuals. However, Wright-Reed's personal case also exemplifies that those outside of prison can be rendered homo dolorosus, made available to suffer without state protection.


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