Every aspect of modern life is documented on Instagram—people photograph their guns and stolen cash, their horrific drug abuse episodes, and their attendance at funerals. People expand their “personal brands” through Instagram, they document their consumption of luxury goods, they even use the app to sell sizzurp. Just about the only images missing from Instagram are photos of the insides of America’s prisons.
Smart phones aren’t allowed inside penal institutions, and most of the time the only cameras that get access to such places belong to reality TV shows approved by prison authorities. The closest Instagram comes to the prison-industrial complex is selfies young women have taken in parking lots, in cars, in bathroom mirrors having just done their hair—shots hashtagged with the facilities they're about to visit (#rikers or #sanquentin) and sometimes also with what they're wearing (#michaelkors) or how they're feeling (#tooearlyforthis).
There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and 93 percent of them are male. That means there are millions of people whose boyfriends, husbands, and partners are on the inside. For them, long drives, dress codes, and fickle corrections officers' rules rapidly become a normal part of seeing their loved ones, moments just as instagrammable as other parts of everyday life.
Alex Dimichel's fiance is in Rikers Island in New York City. Even though the charges against him have been dropped, he's stuck in prison for around a year because he violated parole when he got arrested. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays visiting hours are in the morning, so when Alex goes to see him she has to wake up at five AM—on her Instagram you can see selfies tagged #morning and #tired and #goingtoseemybaby. She has to take a train and a bus and go through processing at Rikers before she can see him, so she’s not face to face with him until around nine.
“It's basically like the airport,” Alex told me. The visitors line up, put their belongings in buckets to be X-rayed, and walk through a metal detector.
Then, when she gets to the building her fiancé is in held in, there's a more involved search. “You take your bra off, shake it out,” she said. “Take your socks down half way. Take your sneakers off. They have to go around your waistline with their fingers, unbutton or unzip your pants. Take your hair out if we have our hair in a ponytail. Take it down, shake it out. Open your mouth. They put their fingers inside of our mouths. All of that takes about an hour.” As is the case in all prisons, phones aren’t allowed inside.
On the other side of the country, Mindy Masters has a similar routine. She drives at least six hours to and from Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California, to visit her high-school sweetheart Cody, who got a life sentence 19 years ago. When he was 18, he robbed a gas station with another teenager who freaked out during the robbery and stabbed several people to death. The kid who committed the murders was a minor, so he only got seven years while Cody, who had no weapons on him, has already served nearly three times that due to a California statute that allows an accomplice to a crime in which a murder was committed to get sentence to life without parole. Unless that law changes, he's going to be behind bars for the rest of his life.
“I'm sure my mother and my father would much rather have me be with someone who could actually bring me flowers or make me dinner,” said Mindy of their relationship. “But that's just not how it is for me. It's different.”
It's a three-hour drive from Mindy's home to Delano when there's no traffic. When I talked to her on the phone, she'd already been in the car for four hours. She makes this trek every Saturday; once a month she gets a hotel room in Delano and visits Cody on both Saturday and Sunday. Her relationship is documented on her Instagram account, where she posts pre-visit selfies and screenshots of her recent call history after phone calls with Cody, shares letter-writing campaigns in support of allowing lifers conjugal and family visits, and regrams the prison photobooth pictures you can print with tokens during visiting hours—often hashtagged #highschoolsweathearts or #kvsp, for Kern Valley State Prison.
When Instagram is used this way, it’s more than mere vanity for women like Mindy and Alex. Hashtags like #prisonwife, #visitday, and #freemybaby help women connect and share stories and experiences. Mindy told me Instagram is somewhere she can find support without judgment, adding that in the rest of the world “there are too many negative comments and ideas about why I'm with a prisoner.”
In comment threads, women give each other advice on the finer details of the dress codes for various facilities. There are accounts devoted to communities of prison wives and girlfriends like @an_inmate_loves_me and @strongprisonwives that post inspirational text art, regram their followers’ photos from visits, and share the letters and drawings their inmates have sent them.
Supportive communities have always existed for women to share their experiences loving and visiting someone on the inside, said asha bandele, a drug law and prison reform advocate who penned the memoir The Prisoner’s Wife about her relationship with a man behind bars. (She spells her name without capital letters.). “Right now the manner in which we do it is social media, it's Instagram,” she told me. “Prison seems to isolate but the natural thing for human beings is to be connected.”
Having an incarcerated loved one is its own kind of prison—you’re separated not just by walls and cages but often by long distances, and just getting to the facility where they’re kept can be difficult. What makes it worse, asha told me, is the practice of some states shipping their inmates to private prisons outside their borders.
“The more reliance states have on private prisons, the more people have to cross state lines,” she said. This is especially hard on the families of prisoners from Hawaii—when their loved ones are sent to facilities other states, they literally have to cross an ocean to see them.
If you can afford the costs of traveling to the prison where your husband or boyfriend or son is, the challenges don't end there. “There may be one set of rules that is interpreted differently depending on the guard the families encounter,” said asha. At Rikers, Alex had visited many times with her lip ring in, but one day a guard noticed her wearing it and threatened not let her touch her fiancé during the visit.
The women’s clothing is monitored carefully by the corrections officers, who are free to penalize or bully them. When she visited her husband when she was in her 20s, asha said she suffered “subtle forms of sexual harassment that happen to wives, especially younger women.” Once she had to take her bra off and put it in a bag; another time she was forced to shake out thongs she had packed for a trailer visit in front of a group of people.
Mindy has been harassed on occasion as well. “The same thing that I had worn multiple, multiple times, one guard was giving me a hard time about it,” she said, adding that the dress code for visitors to Kern Valley is extremely strict, discouraging sexy outfits, any items that hint at gang affiliation, and anything that could lead to visitors being mistaken for inmates or guards.
“Nothing form-fitting. Nothing too short. No armpit or cleavage. Nothing blue. Nothing khaki. Nothing green. Nothing brown. Nothing that would resemble what the guards wear,” was how Mindy described the dress code. “And you can't wear solid white shirts because the inmates wear solid white shirts as well. So that way if we all have to get down on the ground, the gunner up in the top of the tower can see which is an inmate and which is not.
“That's one of the stresses. When you are clothes shopping, you think, Is this going to be OK to wear in [to the prison]?”
At Rikers, Alex said, the big no-nos are camouflage, ripped jeans, and leggings. “If you wear leggings, they make you wear this big ugly lime green shirt. I'm five-foot-five and it's longer than myself.”
“All of those kinds of things that go on are humiliating,” noted asha. “Every moment [of the visitors’ experience] is sexual humiliation.”
Mindy recalled once visitation 16 years ago when her boyfriend was at a different facility. “We were in front of a padded screen that X-rayed your body, and they could see if you had metal underwire bra on or a tampon in. That was a little weird and uncomfortable, that male officers were scanning your body.”
The attitude of the correction officers matters as much as formal regulations, and most of them don’t have much compassion for visitors.
“The guards themselves, you've got you're nice ones and you've got the ones who are jerks,” explained Mindy. “There's one officer, he doesn't look at us like we are scum. But there are some… I swear they are passing judgment the way they look at me.”
Alex experiences the same treatment from guards at Rikers. “I feel like they feel like they are above us,” she said. “I come from a good family. I don't want to be treated like I'm an inmate. I want to be treated like I'm coming there to see my loved one who is incarcerated.” She once saw a woman get handcuffed to a railing after she got into an argument with a guard. “Don't get me wrong, some of the visitors can get rowdy, but this one woman didn't do anything,” she said. “I feel like they don't want you to bring cameras in there because they don't want you to shoot what's really going on. I'm pretty sure that's why we aren't allowed our cellphones.”
Even though millions of Americans are incarcerated and millions more come to see them, visitors are routinely treated as if they are abnormal, or as if they have done something wrong. Many family members, asha said, feel like “because I love somebody who has been incarcerated or because I have given birth to someone who has been incarcerated, I too have wronged. There is something wrong with me.”
Asha believes that the US prison system is a “shaming process,” one that targets people of color in particular. “[Family members and loved ones of inmates] are embarrassed, and black people even more so because black people are already at the bottom of every social marker in this country,” she said. “You really feel ashamed and silenced despite the fact that so many people are in prison.” It’s worth noting that asha is the only woman of color I spoke to for this article—of the many women I contacted through Instagram, only white women agreed to be interviewed.
Prison inmates aren’t allowed phones for fear that they’d be able to run criminal enterprises from behind bars and plan escapes. Like every other piece of contraband, however, smartphones find their way inside. At Kern Valley, Mindy said, it was normal for corrupt corrections officers to smuggle phones in and sell them for $1,000 or $1,500 in cash. The skinny Samsung Juke is the most popular model, according to what Mindy’s boyfriend told her. “Those are what the guards are selling because that way the guys can stick them up their rectums to hide them,” she said.
While prohibitions on gadgets don’t prevent the truly motivated criminals from getting their hands on phones, they do make it harder for inmates to relate to the outside world. Mindy’s boyfriend Cody went to prison in 1994, before the internet became a part of most people’s everyday lives, so he’s completely out of the loop—if he’s ever released, he’ll have an extremely difficult time adapting to the changes of the past 20 years.
“I had to explain to him what Facebook was, what Instagram was, what YouTube was,” Mindy said. One day Cody saw a KFC commercial on TV that invited viewers to like the company on Facebook. “He asked me, ‘What is the purpose of liking something on Facebook?’ and I was like, ‘You know, I really don't know.’”
This exclusion from the world of social media means that prisoners can’t maintain the social-media relationships that most of us take for granted. While families and couples separated by distance can today connect through a variety of communications devices, inmates can't like or regram the photos their girlfriends take before they visit. They can't send a sext or an emoticon heart or a simple “i miss u.”
The last time I talked with Mindy, her boyfriend Cody's wing was on lockdown, which meant they couldn't share their usual permitted 15-minute phone call every other day. “To be able to text, call, share pictures or videos absolutely [usually] fills that void [in long-distance relationships],” she wrote in an email. “What's filling my void now is any mail that I receive while waiting for this lockdown to be over.”
@whitneymallett is a writer and documentary filmmaker.