A couple of months ago, while scrolling lazily down Instagram's Explore section, I found myself on an account called 187gangstersz. The bio part stated: "prisonlife The one and only Gangster acc on instagram! We post real vidz from jail on FB and 187gangsters.com Are u in jail? Send trough Dm, or App 06-84628398." [sic]
The page was as great as its bio promised. It was packed with footage recorded within prison walls around the world. My mind couldn't really grasp what I was looking at. When did it become customary to have an iPhone in your cell? Who was behind this account? I got in touch with the account managers and after a couple of really long calls, I received permission to interview the only Dutch manager,because I'm Dutch. I'll keep his identity hidden for obvious reasons.
VICE: I must admit that I'm amazed by the amount of smartphones in all these prisons around the world and by how openly inmates seem to be using them.
187gangstersz: Everybody knows we live in a corrupt world, my friend. These days, you can bribe pretty much anybody to let you smuggle all kinds of things into jails.
A couple of years ago, I read a New York Times article stating that inmates with cell phones are a major problem in the United States. Phones apparently could be considered more dangerous than shanks or drugs, because prisoners can supposedly organize serious crimes inside and outside of the penitentiary.
That's complete bullshit. Do you really think that criminals do business with their iPhones? Nobody is that stupid. If you need to do business from prison, there are other ways to do that.
PGP phones are one example—you can't hack those things. They're extremely secure Blackberries that don't even have a microphone and can only communicate with other PGP phones. So you can't call or text with them. The only thing you can do is send emails to other PGPs. But believe me, not everybody has one in jail. You have to be a big fish to own one.
They're expensive and buying just one is useless. You have to buy one for everybody in your operation, which makes it a big investment.
So all these smartphones in prisons are harmless?
Definitely. People use them to stay in touch with their wives and children or to fight the boredom that comes with being incarcerated.
Are you the only admin for this account?
No, there are eight of us scattered all over the world. I'm the only Dutch person. Some of us are still locked up and some of us are out. We work on a tight schedule to make sure that the account is updated around the clock.
Why did you guys start this account?
One afternoon while surfing online, I thought that it was amazing how much dumb shit gets web traffic these days. I mean, you have all these vloggers filming themselves washing their boxer shorts and generating millions of views. We thought that if this bullshit could get popular, then real life could have the potential to really blow up. And it worked. We wanted to show people what prison is like, and in just a few weeks we managed to get more than 40,000 followers—without doing much to promote the page.
Can you explain the success of 187gangstersz?
People have always been fascinated by the criminal world. Knowing what crooks are up to and seeing what prison life is like is exciting for even the most innocent of souls. And there are no other pages like ours. We can't be copied.
Why can't anybody who has a phone in prison copy this formula?
There's no way for them to get all that footage. Do you think inmates just randomly send us pictures and videos? They know who we are and that we can be trusted. They know we're not cops and that's the reason they send us their material. I was in prison for over ten years, just like the rest of the crew that manages this account. The people who send us pictures and videos are our friends.
So every single person we can see on the account is your friend?
At first it was just people we knew but now that we've gotten this big, we get content from random people all over the world. But our world is still pretty small: inmates can ask around and immediately know who we are and whether we can be trusted.
Do you have a screening process?
We don't post anything violent. People are crazy—they send us videos of prison fights but these will never reach our page. We don't want to inspire anybody to do anything insane and we don't want Facebook or Instagram to block the account.
What are you looking to achieve with these posts?
People think that as long as you're not in a Mexican jail, prison is some kind of a hotel. We have footage from friends in France and in the UK and you can see that their life is hell. No one wants this kind of life so people should think twice before committing a crime.
But I've seen footage from a birthday party in a prison somewhere in the UK. In the video the inmates get shit-faced—everyone is drinking and doing drugs. [This video has now been removed by Instagram.]
That was an exception, it's not the norm. Besides, those guys weren't serving a long sentence. They were locked up for minor crimes, like burglary or unpaid fines. In that case, they put you in bigger cells and you don't get as thoroughly checked as others who've committed more serious crimes. Believe me, if you're doing ten years, life in prison is a living hell.
Aren't you guys breaking the law with this account?
No, why would we be breaking the law? We don't take the pictures. People just send them to us and we show them to the world. I've also checked with my lawyers and there's nothing illegal about our account.
On another note, you also post a ton of photos of breasts and butts on your page.
You won't believe what all these girls send us. We even have images of girls playing with themselves with 187gangstersz dildos but we won't publish anything like that, of course. I mean, it's fun if the inmates can have a peek at a pair of tits every once in a while but we're all about prison life. These women aren't prisoners, by the way. I guess it's just women who get turned on by the idea of showing their stuff to a bunch of criminals.
You guys have a lot of followers now and the account is still growing. What's the next step?
We're going to launch our own clothing line and the inmates will be the models in our lookbook and the online shop. That's never been done before. If everything goes according to plan, that will allow us to send a bit of cash to our friends in prisons around the world.
So this is a non-profit?
No, everybody is going to get a piece of the pie. I'll get my share as well, but it's really for our friends in prison. It's sad to see how people get written off by their family and friends once they're behind bars. Nobody'll send them anything and, believe it or not, you need money when you're in prison. With a clothing line we would be able to help our homies a bit.