Instagram, for most of us, is a simple app that allows us to share photos of our brunches, nail art and cats or, in other words, our (slightly edited) day-to-day lives. For others, however, Instagram is more than that. It's a helpful tool for building communities based on common experiences, all of which are discovered through hashtags. Sure, it sounds trite on the surface, but dig a little deeper into one such community — the community of women with incarcerated loved ones — and you'll learn that it's anything but.
In a stirring article for Vice called "Instagram Prison Visit," writer Whitney Mallett speaks to several wives and girlfriends of prison inmates across the country about how access (or, in their partners' case, lack of access) to social media has both hindered their relationships and put them in touch with other women in their situation.
As most people know, prison inmates are not allowed access to the internet or any type of social media. As such, prisoners often find themselves living in a different and more out-of-touch world from their loved ones and families in a technological sense as well as a social sense. Naturally, this affects their wives and girlfriends, too.
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."
Prison visitors are thoroughly searched before entering the visitation room and seeing their jailed loved one. They are not allowed to bring in cell phones or cameras, which — in a world where we document even the most mundane moments of our day (brunch, nails and cats) — leads many women to update their Facebook statuses and Instagram feeds on the often hours-long commute to the incarceration facility:
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.
The article, which starts off exploring the seemingly shallow topic of prison parking lot selfies, soon takes an interesting turn, instead focusing on how the U.S. prison system punished not only those who are serving time, but the people on the outside who dare to love someone who is being punished by the law:
"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."
Then there's the disturbing issue of guards sexually harassing female visitors and the trouble with ever-changing dress codes:
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 [who chooses to spell her name lower-case] 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.
Some problems come down to simple logistics. Many inmates are sent to prisons that are states away from their families, meaning only the family members who can afford to travel are given the opportunity to visit.
Instagram, it seems, is a small silver-lining for the women with incarcerated loved ones, allowing them to find each other and relate without fear of judgement.
As Mallett puts it:
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."
You can find Mallett's entire article here. It is eye-opening and well worth the read.
Image via AP Images.