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The Popularity of YouTube Prison Lifestyle Videos

With prison reform a hot topic that has gained nationwide attention over the last decade, prison lifestyle videos on YouTube offer a window into the prison experience for many Americans.

Collectively, the four most popular prison channels on YouTube have more than 2.1 million subscribers. The most popular with 1.2 million is the After Prison Show, hosted by Joe Guerrero, which features videos about reintegrating into society and what it was like in prison. What started out as grainy amateurish vlogs has been going strong for three years now.

After 700 videos, Guerrero now earns a six-figure income from his social media presence and was able to quit his job as a laborer in a concrete factory.

About seven months after he started, he posted a video about how to make a prison tattoo gun, which racked up 2.3 million views. Before prison, Guerrero’s social media experience was limited to MySpace. “Until now, my life has been a constant failure,” said Guerrero. “I told myself that if I’m going to make it this time or if I’m going to fail, I want to show people what it’s like. A lot of people have no idea what it’s like to serve time and then try and restart their life.”

Many Americans want to know, though, and this likely stems from our record incarceration rate. At 698 Americans behind bars for every 100,000 people, the U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation on Earth, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The organization says about 2.3 million people are confined nationwide.

Christina Randall has also been running a YouTube channel about her life behind bars and her reentry challenges. According to YouTube statistics, most of her 400,000 subscribers are in the 18-34 age bracket, and 92% of them are women.

“I have a lot of sons, mothers, daughters, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents of people in prison who watch my videos to understand better what the person might be going through,” she said. Since the incarceration rate for women over the last 40 years has risen twice as fast as for men, it’s likely her viewers are also women who have been released from prison and feel a sense of community from Randall’s videos.

Former bank robber and federal prisoner Marcus “Big Herc” Timmons has risen to the status of social media star, and his videos are used to teach and inspire others.

Kevin Boyle, retired Army colonel and professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, has had Timmons speak in person to his “Deprivation of Liberty” class. “Every college in America should have a class that features Big Herc,” said Boyle. “You can go on a prison tour, but to have somebody who is really authentic talk freely about that world is a totally different experience.”

Such videos may be at times controversial or voyeuristic — see How to Cut the Window Out of Your Jail Cell by Bryan Burton of Florida Prison Stories — but they draw attention to the stark reality of incarceration in America in a way that defies scripted stereotypes and sometimes misleading “reality TV” shows. “We absolutely need prison reform, look at our recidivism rate,” said Randall. “It’s labeled the Department of Corrections, but they’re not correcting anything.” 



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