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How Do Prisoners Have Social Media or TikTok?

TikTok has become one of the most popular social media platforms, with over 1 billion monthly active users. However, access to TikTok and other social media sites is usually restricted in prisons. This has led many to wonder – how do prisoners have TikTok? Here is an in-depth look at how prisoners gain access to TikTok and the implications.

Overview of Social Media Access in Prisons

Access to social media and the internet in prisons is limited due to security concerns. Prisons aim to cut off communication channels that could allow prisoners to harass victims, plan criminal activity, or coordinate escapes. However, prisoners have found creative ways to work around restrictions and get online.

Why Access is Restricted

Here are some of the main reasons prisons restrict internet and social media access:

  • Safety and security – Prisons want to prevent the spread of criminal plots, harassment of victims, witness tampering etc. Unmonitored internet access can facilitate this.
  • Contraband smuggling – Prisoners could use social media to coordinate getting contraband smuggled in. This includes drugs, weapons and cell phones.
  • Reputation management – Prison authorities want to control communications from prisoners to the outside world, to manage the reputation and public perception of the prison.
  • Staff oversight – It is easier for prison staff to monitor and control prisoners’ communications through landline phones and mail. Internet and social media access makes this oversight more difficult.

Current Access Policies

Rules regarding prisoner access to technology and communications vary between different prison systems and security levels. However, most prisons in the US operate on one of the following models:

  • Complete restriction of internet access and personal devices. Communicating with the outside world is limited postal mail and supervised landline calls.
  • Allowing limited, monitored internet access. This may be for educational programs or job searches. Access is highly restricted, like blocking social media sites.
  • Permitting prisoners to use personal devices like tablets or MP3 players, but without unrestricted internet access. The devices have whitelisted apps and functions.

So generally, social media like TikTok is considered contraband and officially disallowed in most prisons. But as we’ll see, prisoners find ways to work around this through ingenuity and workarounds.

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How Prisoners Get Access to Banned Social Media

Despite restrictions, prisoners are accessing social media like TikTok through a variety of means. Here are some of the common ways they get access:

1. Contraband Cell Phones

The primary way prisoners access prohibited apps and websites is through contraband cell phones that have been smuggled into prisons. According to a 2019 NBC News report, contraband cell phones in prisons increased from 1,774 in 2007 to 49,000 in 2019.

Contraband phones are smuggled in through various channels:

  • Visitors – Friends or relatives hide phones in clothes or private body cavities when visiting prisoners. The phones are then transferred to the prisoner during the visit.
  • Staff – Corrupt prison staff accept bribes from prisoners to smuggle in cell phones along with other contraband.
  • New intakes – New prisoners conceal phones on their person when first entering the prison. Later they hand over the phone to someone in their social circle.
  • External accomplices – Phones are sometimes thrown over fences or hidden in packages delivered to prisons to be found by a particular prisoner.

So through these means, thousands of contraband phones make it into prison facilities each year. With an internet-connected phone, prisoners can freely sign up for and use apps like TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and more.

2. Authorized Device Workarounds

In some facilities, prisoners are allowed devices like tablets or MP3 players with whitelisted, monitored apps. However, clever prisoners find ways to work around the limitations and get on prohibited sites.

For example, they may:

  • Hack or jailbreak the device to bypass restrictions.
  • Discover glitches and loopholes in the app whitelisting or monitoring systems.
  • Install virtual private network (VPN) apps to mask traffic and access blocked sites.

So in facilities where prisoners have such devices, exceptions in the system security allow some to access unapproved social media apps.

3. Shared Contraband Phones

Due to the high cost of smuggling (up to $500 per phone), contraband cell phones are considered valuable commodities in prisons.

A common system is one prisoner manages getting a phone smuggled in. He then rents out access to other prisoners for a fee.

For example, prisoners may rent 30 minutes of access to apps like TikTok for $5. The phone owner monitors them to ensure they don’t snitch or misuse the time.

This shared access allows prisoners who can’t afford their own phone to still get temporary access via rental.

4. Authorized Supervised Use

In some prisons, authorities allow prisoners supervised access to computers with whitelisted websites and apps. The aim is usually education, job searches or keeping in touch with family.

Prisoners in these programs sometimes get around supervision to sneak onto prohibited social media. For instance, they may:

  • Use screen reflection in windows or glasses to view the monitor of the prisoner in front of them.
  • Shield the screen from supervisors’ view with their body or materials.
  • Distract and misdirect supervisors by talking to them during use.
  • Quickly switch screens when supervisors approach.

So prisoners in authorized internet access programs still manage to secretly access banned apps by being crafty.

Implications and Dangers of Prisoner Social Media Access

Prison authorities restrict social media usage because it has many implications for safety, security, and public perception. Some of the key dangers and risks include:

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1. Gang Activity Coordination

Gangs are prevalent in the US prison system. Prison officials estimate up to 80% of prisoners have some gang affiliation.

Access to social media allows gang members from different facilities and regions to easily coordinate:

  • Recruitment drives and initiation of new members.
  • Continuing illicit activity through direction to outside associates. For instance, intimidating witnesses, ordering hits, or directing drug operations.
  • Organizing violence and disruption between rival gangs both inside and outside prison.

So unmonitored social media access facilitates gang coordination that threatens stability and safety in facilities.

2. Harassment and Intimidation

Prisoners have used social media to harass, intimidate and coerce victims, witnesses and public officials. For example:

  • A prisoner in Alabama used a contraband phone to send threatening Facebook messages to the police officer that arrested him.
  • A gang member tried to intimidate witnesses through Facebook posts.
  • Prisoners have cyber-stalked and sent death threats to ex-partners via social media.

Authorities want to avoid prisoners using social media as a tool for harassment, coercion and threats.

3. Reputational Damage

Videos of violence, drug abuse and other misconduct uploaded from inside prisons can damage the public image of correctional facilities.

Prison officials aim to control the narrative and visibility into what happens inside prisons. Viral videos of scandals and violence shared by prisoners hurt the reputation of their institutions.

4. Radicalization and Extremism

Prisons have long been centers of radicalization for ideologies like white nationalism.

Unfettered social media access allows extremist groups and leaders to recruit within prisons. It also facilitates radicalization through selective content that warps prisoners’ perspectives.

Authorities want to restrict radicalizing influences to help deradicalize extremists and prevent new recruits.

So in summary, unrestricted social media access has many dangerous implications for safety, security and public perception. However, despite restrictions, prisoners keep finding new ways to get online and connect through apps like TikTok.

Notable Examples of Prisoner Social Media Use

Here are some notable examples of prisoners using social media that illustrate the implications:

1. Access Facilitating Crime

A contraband cell phone allowed a prisoner in Georgia to direct kidnappings and assaults through Facebook while imprisoned for murder. Another prisoner used a phone to post Snapchat videos of drug abuse from inside a maximum security prison.

2. Violent and Inciting Content

Prisoners have posted TikTok and YouTube videos of dying victims, drug abuse, fighting and other violent misconduct. Some videos also aimed to stir tensions and incite riots.

3. Viral Videos Hurting Reputation

A video of South Carolina maximum security prisoners participating in an illegal fight tournament went viral after being shared on social media. This prompted public outrage and damaged the prison’s reputation.

4. Radicalization and Extremism

A white nationalist gang leader used a contraband phone to upload radicalizing videos on YouTube and direct recruitment drives and criminal operations from prison.

So these examples demonstrate the serious security, criminal, reputational and radicalizing threats posed by unrestricted social media access in prisons.

Measures to Restrict Social Media Access

Prison authorities use various measures to restrict contraband phones and impose barriers to social media access. Some key measures include:

  • Contraband phone detection – Use of body orifers, scanners, and phone signal detection tools to find smuggled phones. Phone detecting dogs are also used.
  • Signal jammers – Install cell signal jammers to block network access within prison perimeters to render smuggled phones useless. However, jammers are illegal in the US under FCC regulations.
  • Monitoring authorized device use – Use screen monitoring tools and surveillance cameras to deter and catch improper authorized device use.
  • Punitive deterrence – Impose punishments like loss of privileges on prisoners caught using contraband phones. Sentence extensions may also be added.
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However, prisoners adapt to circumvent new restrictions. Technology also improves access. So the cat-and-mouse game continues, forcing prisons to regularly reassess policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common FAQs about prisoners using TikTok and social media:

How do prisoners charge contraband cell phones?

They may charge using illegal makeshift chargers rigged to tap into prison electrical systems. Paid guards also sometimes allow prisoners to charge devices. Backup batteries and swapping out phones help maintain charge.

Can authorities track down contraband phones?

Yes, prison authorities deploy technologies like IMSI catchers that spoof cell towers and intercept contraband device signals. This allows pinpointing the location of illegal phones. However, as prisoners wise up the phones keep getting harder to detect.

What happens when a prisoner is caught with a phone?

The punishments vary between prisons but often include sanctions like loss of privileges, fines, solitary confinement as well as extension of sentences. The phones are confiscated.

Are prisons allowed to jam signals?

No, the Federal Communications Commission prohibits state and local prison authorities from jamming cell signals. Only federal prisons are allowed to use jammers.

How do prisoners have internet access if cell signals are blocked?

Contraband phones use cellular data to access the internet. Prison wifi jammers only block the wifi frequency while cell data uses different bands. So phones can still access data.

Can prisoners get caught by their social media posts?

Yes, sometimes prisoners reveal their location in posts or get reported to authorities by outside contacts. Video evidence can also help identify contraband device owners. But not all get caught.


In conclusion, prisoners access prohibited social media apps like TikTok through contraband cell phones smuggled into facilities. They use ingenuity to work around restrictions on authorized devices.

Unmonitored social media access facilitates gang activity, harassment of victims, reputational damage, and radicalization. However, prisons face challenges restricting new phones coming in and evolving tactics.

The stakes are raised by tech-savvy prisoners misusing social media. Prisons need adaptive policies and enforcement mechanisms to restrict dangerous use. But technology seems to be moving faster than corrective responses.

So the cat-and-mouse game goes on, with prisoners finding new ways to leverage social media, even as prisons scramble to cut off their access. The implications of this unauthorized use for public safety and security continue to raise complex concerns.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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