This led Naomi to sign up to a US prison pen pal service. "I’d thought, Who could need a friend now more than a prisoner?" she recalls. "I went on the website and randomly scrolled through prisoners. I decided that whoever my mouse stopped on, I’d go with."
This just so happened to be Victor Oquendo, a 31-year-old inmate who was 11 years into a 24-year sentence for double homicide. "I’d just gotten out of a relationship so I wasn’t looking for anything," says Naomi, "but we just clicked." Almost a year after exchanging their first letters, the couple is now engaged.
Fearing judgement from family and friends, Naomi says she kept her relationship quiet for the first six months of them dating. That was until earlier this year, when she started posting about their relationship on TikTok, sharing clips of the gifts and love letters Victor regularly showers her with, recordings of intimate phone conversations and when celebrating various milestones.
These videos are typically met with a deluge of replies from devoted followers: "I AM SCREAMING I NEED THIS TO BE A [TV] SERIES"; "this makes my heart melt"; "I can’t WAIT for you guys to be together".
According to Naomi, the real value of sharing her story on TikTok has been less about viral fame and more about the community of prison girlfriends and wives she’s found via the app. In one video uploaded by Naomi, she is seen going on a 'double date' in London with another prison wife who she met through TikTok, each bringing along a cushion ‘mini me’ of their partner.
This community – aka 'prison wife TikTok' – is offering the partners of prisoners space to vent their frustrations with the criminal justice system, exchange advice on surviving the time apart (as TikToker Ashley suggests, "reassure him you're there to stay" and "buy toys") and educating others on what it’s like to date someone who's incarcerated. One prison wife even filmed her prison wedding ceremony via the app. The hashtag #prisonwife has around 562 million views on the app, while #prisongirlfriend has around 72m.
Finding this kind of community is invaluable for the partners of prisoners, who are often made to feel isolated in the offline world. "People in prison face a huge amount of stigma and this extends onto families and partners as well," explains Lauren Hall, a lecturer in criminology at Lincoln University and a board member of Partners of Prisoners, a charity supporting families through their contact with the criminal justice system.
"As a result, it can mean that they don’t feel able to access support, but also there’s not a lot of support out there for them," adds Lauren. This is despite the fact that 24% of inmates report living with a partner when they entered custody, while 8% are married, meaning there are tens of thousands of partners of prisoners living in the UK. (This, of course, doesn’t account for people like Naomi who met their partner while they were incarcerated.)
"Becoming more visible on TikTok can definitely break down those barriers to support," says Lauren. "Women often find out about certain prison procedures and processes from each other, so the fact that it’s starting to become more accessible and acceptable to talk about is a really good thing."
Overwhelmingly, partners of prisoners are met with an outpouring of support on the app. "You get the odd [negative] comments, like 'He must be a bad person because he’s in jail'," says Toni, a 30-year-old prison girlfriend from Birmingham who is about to start a criminology MA. "But generally, the response [on TikTok] has been really lovely."
Naomi echoes this, describing how "invested" people on TikTok are in her relationship. "We had two fan pages set up for us, which is kind of crazy," she explains. "We also set up a petition to grant Victor clemency [in a video shared on TikTok]. The support for that has been unreal. We're going to give it to the governor next year."
Similarly, 28-year-old Ashley – a prison wife from Texas whose husband has been in prison for two and a half years and is due to be released on parole soon – says she’s been heartened to meet people on the app who "genuinely care" about her relationship. "I know a lot of people are looking forward to his first day out and want to see his first meal as free," she says. "I’m gonna document everything."
Toni prefers to host TikTok 'lives' to update her followers on her partner's situation. "People can take me for who I am, more than in a quick video," she explains. "They come round to the idea of the relationship, and can see I’m not an idiot."
Having this kind of support network is vital for the partners of prisoners, who come up against a system that does not facilitate romantic relationships. Among the frustrations often portrayed on TikTok are having already limited phone calls to prison cut short (particularly in the middle of an argument), working overtime to support their incarcerated partner and driving thousands of miles to visit prison.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated many of these struggles, with some inmates forced to spend 23 hours a day in their cells, unable to contact their families. Naomi and Toni are yet to meet their partners in person due to COVID, while Ashley and her four children have not seen her husband for a year because of restrictions. "The hardest thing has been my kids asking, 'When is daddy coming home?'" says Ashley. "They really need that physical meeting."
On top of her calls being cut short because of technical glitches, in one video Toni describes how her attempt at a kinky video call got her in trouble with prison security. "This is just a little warning to tell you," she says in the video, laughing. "They are watching the whole damn thing."
For Naomi, it’s meant prolonged periods of no contact with Victor whatsoever. She was unable to speak to him for a 10-day stretch due to restrictions, followed by an additional two weeks when he caught COVID. Not long after, he was placed into segregation for 55 days for getting caught up in a prison riot. "It was just unbearable," she recalls.
According to Naomi, posting about these particularly difficult few weeks on TikTok is what got her through it. "It was so nice to be able to talk about him like it's a normal situation, instead of hiding it," she explains.
"I wouldn't wish this type of relationship on anyone because it's excruciating at times," continues Naomi. "But saying that, I wouldn't change it for the world because it's brought me him – and he is the love of my life."
In some cases, the challenges inflicted by COVID have only strengthened relationships. "Our communication hadn't been the best when he was out of prison. I'm not a very emotional person," explains Ashley. "But you need that communication and trust due to the circumstances so I had to break down those barriers. Now our love is stronger."
Lauren argues that prisons ought to do more to nurture relationships, noting the huge amount of research indicating that positive relationships can stop prisoners reoffending. "If we want to prevent future victims of crime, then [partners of prisoners] are doing a huge public service to us," she says. "But of course, their relationships are much more than just about reducing reoffending. It’s just a shame that in order to reduce the stigma that these relationships face, that's what we have to focus on."
For prison wife TikTokers, reducing stigma comes down to showing their followers that healthy, loving relationships with inmates are possible. "A lot of people reach out to me [on TikTok] and are grateful that I show that you can still enjoy your life; it’s not sad all of the time," says Toni.
Ashley expresses similar ambitions for her platform: "I want to break down the stereotype that people have for incarcerated men and to normalise prison relationships." By taking ownership of their stories, TikTok’s prison wives are discrediting the idea that inmates somehow don’t deserve love and asserting that their devotion is worthy of celebration. As Ashley put it in one viral video: "Jail does not end relationships. It tests loyalty."