On Sunday, dressed in spandex leggings and a workout top while she filmed herself in the mirror, Jenna Ryan patted her exposed stomach and even weighed herself on camera while asking TikTok viewers to avert their eyes from her feet because she’s been “too freaked out to have a pedicure lately.” “OK, so here’s the deal…,” said Ryan. “The first week in January, I have to report to prison, and the only thing that I can see that’s good about having to go to prison is that I’m going to be able to work out a lot and do a lot of yoga and detox.” For her role in storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020, Ryan, a Texas real estate agent, was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
“Everyone’s telling me that I’ll lose weight,” she continued. “So, hopefully I’ll finally get down to my ideal weight, because I won’t be able to drink… and I won’t be able to eat stupid stuff like chips… You have to look at the bright side of everything you do, and that’s what I’m trying to do, so wish me luck!” The video cuts as she flashes a quick thumbs-up at the camera. After heavy criticism and a flurry of media attention, Ryan posted a second video clarifying, “I do not think prison is going to be a great time at all.”
These videos, which went viral after being reposted to Twitter, are the kind of social media antics that’s characterized the people who broke into the Capitol last January 6. Ryan is a particularly shining example: The 50-year-old documented her private jet flight to the “Stop the Steal” Rally, posted incessantly from the riot itself, and then months later tweeted publicly that she would not be going to jail because she’s a white woman with blonde hair. Yes, really.
Ryan’s initial TikTok is jarring because it’s a particularly heady cocktail of delusion and ignorance—like when she says she hopes she’ll have access to protein bars and plans to lose 30 pounds, an average of half a pound a day. Still, her ideas about what prison life will be like didn’t materialise out of thin air. She’s living in a culture that connects incarceration and “getting jacked” so deeply that there are jail-themed gyms and fitness programs (often—but not always!—the product of the formerly incarcerated) that promise to give people a “prison-style” workout. It's the same culture that pushes prisons and carceral punishment as a one-size-fits-all solution for social ills. But that solution only works if you don’t know about what being incarcerated is actually like and you don’t think about who the incarcerated population is actually made up of.
Some of Ryan’s J6 compatriots made headlines in October decrying the unimaginable, unsustainable horror of Washington, D.C. jail conditions. “For the first 120 days in DC’s Gitmo, Jan 6ers experienced DAILY LOCKDOWNS for 23-24 HOURS before being allowed to leave our small 120 sq. ft cell,” Capitol rioter Nathan DeGrave said in a letter tweeted by his lawyer. “The PHYSICAL and MENTAL ANGUISH that results from this kind of SEVERE ISOLATION has caused many people to go on a RAPID mental decline. As a result, a large percentage of us are HEAVILY MEDICATED with anti-anxiety and [antidepressant] drugs, which helps to cope with the psychological and mental ABUSE we endure.”
Yeah man, no shit: That’s what happens when you’re in jail. Direct experience with incarceration will instantly illuminate the entire prison system’s constant barrage of banal horrors—but, ironically, the people most likely to be incarcerated are also the ones who the powers that be are least likely to listen to. That’s why it’s no coincidence that DeGrave’s concerns, which also included medical neglect, non-functional sewage systems, shitty food, and visitation interruptions, turned out to be identical to the ones that other people detained in the same jails had been raising for years, which only intensified during COVID-19.
It’s in the carceral system’s best interest that we don’t understand what we’re asking for when we ask for someone to be sent to jail or prison. It’s very important that we don’t think very hard about what every day is like for the people we confine and for the people who love them—because if a critical mass of people knew and acknowledged the fact that daily, systemic human rights violations are the dominant feature of the lives of the 2.1 million people incarcerated in the U.S., the carceral system might lose its stranglehold on the concept of justice. Instead, the near-inevitable end result of our societal ignorance is a woman envisioning herself leaving a U.S. prison—one of the most toxic environments on the planet—“detoxed,” better-read, and finally at her goal weight.
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