"I was writing a story about prison TikTok and, in the course of reporting that story, decided to make a few. And then it sort of took off," explained the reporter, whose byline you may recognize from her time at The Houston Chronicle or The Marshall Project. "I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I'll keep doing this.’ And then I actually really met the whole group and realized that this is actually a good friend group."
The first full weekend of 2023, that group got together in Houston. Blakinger, Marci Simmons, Morgan Godvin, Ian Bick, Cass Michelle, Jesse Crosson and Michael Galloway served well more than 50 years. Now they have a collective of more than 2 million followers, some of whom showed up for a meet and greet at The Gypsy Poet in Midtown on Saturday.
"I'm glad to meet people that share that same vision, that goal for prison reform, for second chances," said Galloway.
On TikTok and offline, he shares his experience with the criminal justice system, which started when he was 12 and ended when he spent eight years in prison for criminally negligent homicide.
"I want to do everything that I can to prevent other people from making the same mistakes that I did," Galloway shared.
Simmons started her TikTok account to explain where she’d been for 11 years.
"That's part of my history and it's part of my story, but it's not my whole story," she said. "I hope to give courage to other people to share their story and to know that that's OK. You don't have to define yourself with your past."
More than 260,000 people follow her, including Rosie O’Donnell.
"We're working on a show. It's about my story coming out of prison and the family dynamics of rebuilding relationships with my children, my family," said Simmons. "The best part of it, though, is that it's going to have flashbacks of my time in prison, and that show is going to give an accurate portrayal of a Texas women's prison. That story needs to be heard."
Online, Simmons often answers questions from viewers and even shares prison recipes, but her goal is to be a voice for people who are incarcerated, especially women.
"When you're incarcerated, you don't have that and you have a feeling that nobody out here cares," she said. "And we're just trying to change that."
Blakinger echoed that, adding, "Every time that we're sharing our stories, and that there's a different group of people who can put a face to a felony. I think that changes how people perceive us."
Her book Corrections in Ink came out last year and her post-prison career has involved reporting on the criminal justice system, but Blakinger said she's learned from #prisontok too.
"It's been fascinating in that sense," she said. "But I think the bigger thing is that it's just been so great for me on a personal level to have this group of friends who understands what it's like to do time, but also understands what it's like to be very public about all of these aspects of your life and to have this very, you know, public social media presence."
The crime committed or time spent in prison isn't what defines him, Galloway said.
"Who I am and what defines these other prison TikTok creators is what they did after the fact that they made mistakes."
As Blakinger shared in this tweet, they’re running gyms, writing books, making podcasts, founding nonprofits and making lots and lots of TikToks.