This article originally appeared on VICE France.
A few weeks ago, while I was mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, I saw a video that caught my attention. In it, a guy with a strong southern French accent was answering questions asked by fans during a live stream. Nothing new, except for the setting of the video – in the background, I could see a barred window, and beyond it, a courtyard lit by lamp posts and complete with a watchtower. The guy was clearly filming in a prison.
Thanks to the magic of algorithms, I found myself watching more and more live streams and Tiktok videos filmed inside prison cells. Some of the creators cover their faces with t-shirts, others fearlessly show who they are.
Even though smartphones are technically banned in French prisons and jammers are often used to block the signals they rely on, many inmates have found their way onto social media. Many started on Snapchat, sharing their lives with friends, relatives and followers. While some still use the platform, others have moved to TikTok, which differs from Snapchat in that all profiles are public and can be viewed by anyone. TikTok also allows content creators to interact with their audience through live streams and the comment section.
The most famous French TikToker behind bars goes by the screen name UnTikTolard (a play on words for “a TikTok convict” in French). His profile recently exploded and now he has more than 100,000 subscribers. In the beginning, he was only publishing videos of his prison recipes, made with the few ingredients and even fewer pieces of equipment available on the wing. Now, he’s pivoted to more educational and amusing content to tell his audience about the realities of life on the inside.
I called him on a July evening, after the guards did their last round of checks, to ask him about his new life as an incarcerated influencer.
VICE: Hey. Where are you from?
UnTikTolard: I’m quite paranoid about personal information. What I can say is that I am in my twenties, I am from the Ile-de-France region [which surrounds Paris] and I’ve been in prison for five years. I'm coming to the end of my sentence, I have about a year to go. I don't really want to say why I'm here, because it would make me easily identifiable. [Comments under some of his videos say he’s in for robbery, and suggest that he might have accidentally mentioned his name in a live stream once].
How did you smuggle in the phone?
I bought it from someone for €800. He got it in here, I don't really know how. This is the second phone I’ve had inside. Once, I got caught red-handed. I was on my phone, the guard opened the door and there it was… I was given ten days in disciplinary quarters [a special part of the prison with fewer amenities] for that.
How do you access the Internet?
With 4G. Some friends on the outside pay for it for me. But it is getting harder now that they’ve started installing jammers. That's why I can't do too many live streams, it’s too buggy.
How did you get started on social networks?
I've been on Snapchat for a long time, mostly sharing cooking videos, because I love to cook and I’m good at it. I saw TikTok come in as the new trend. I was there as a viewer, to pass the time. And then I started posting cooking videos and they did well. I’m good at making people laugh and explaining things. So I carried on.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by life in prisons?
It's a world that people don't know about. Prison is totally closed off, not much comes out of here, except a few Snaps. And also seeing people who are locked up is a novelty. My audience is made up to a large extent by young people who love prison shows and movies. I think that also plays a part in it.
How are you engaging with your community?
I do live streams from time to time to answer questions but it's a hassle, I always have connection problems. I still have a hundred people turning up every time, but not many regulars. Otherwise, I look at all the comments under my videos carefully, and I like to try to answer them, except when the questions are too personal.
Aren't you afraid of being recognised?
I don't answer private questions at all, so as not to give people clues about who I am. I never show specific details of my cell, you can only see my window and the door with the peephole. When I get out, I won’t care, I will show my face and everything, but right now I'm a little paranoid.
What are you risking if you get caught?
Disciplinary punishment, basically. Recently, an inmate told me one of the guards recognised me. But for the moment, I’ve heard nothing more about it.
Do your fellow inmates know you have a TikTok account? What do they think?
I’m alone in my cell. But yes they know about it, I showed them. I wanted them to see my culinary and creative talents. They tell me that it's dangerous, that I could get caught, but they also like it because it shows people that prison is not only a place of hatred and violence.
Do you use other apps?
No, honestly I'm on TikTok almost all the time. Every evening I spend five or six hours on the platform. I work on my videos a lot, I spend roughly 30 minutes filming them, and 30 minutes editing on my phone.
One hundred thousand subscribers is enough to make money from on TikTok. Have you monetised your content?
Well, it's complicated. I tried to, but you need to register with an ID card and mine is blocked. But right now that’s not what I’m interested in doing with the platform. When I get out, yeah why not.
What is the most important thing you get out of it?
To be honest, it’s a form of therapy. When you’re in prison, you’re removed from society. On Tiktok, I can get attention from people and I receive super positive messages. TikTok is such a caring community. I have a bit of freedom, I can talk about my daily life and everything. I also know everything could come crashing down overnight. But I live every day as it comes and I stay positive.