At the end of his seven-year sentence for cocaine and firearm possession in 2015, Joe Guerrero was 32 years old and directionless.
The Virginia native had spent much of his adult life wrestling with the state's criminal justice system, the result, he now says, of a drug addiction that began in his teens and led to years of robbery, partying and destructive behaviour.
Lacking a career or any professional credentials, suffering from anxiety that made it difficult to leave home, his relationship with his family on the verge of collapse, Guerrero feared he was destined to return to prison.
As a last-ditch effort to prove, if only to himself, that he was trying to repair his life, the former inmate began documenting his struggle to reintegrate into society on YouTube. He filmed visits to temp agencies and posted videos discussing his frustrations with probation. When he needed a new discount wardrobe at Ross Dress for Less, Guerrero brought his camera with him.
At first, nobody seemed to notice. And then, seven months after he started, Guerrero posted a video about how to make a prison tattoo gun. The clip went viral, eventually racking up 2.3 million views.
Three years and more than 700 videos later, what began as a series of grainy, amateurish vlogs has blossomed into a YouTube channel with 1.2 million subscribers called the "After Prison Show." Guerrero's channel now is his full-time job, netting him a six-figure income that allowed him to quit his most recent job as a laborer at a concrete factory.
"Until now, my life had been a constant failure," said Guerrero, whose social media experience before prison was limited to Myspace. "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."
The "After Prison Show" is the flagship among the growing number of YouTube channels devoted to the gritty reality of life in prison. Their growing popularity has arrived at a time when prison figures prominently in the American psyche.
Collectively, the four most popular prison channels on YouTube have more than 2.1 million subscribers and about 342 million page views. Devoted fans routinely leave thousands of comments under high-traffic videos and correspond with the channel's hosts via email and fan mail.
Run by a handful of charismatic former convicts, the channels offer a rare window into a myth-filled world defined by trite television tropes and Hollywood screenplays. Part how-to guides and part horror, their videos teach viewers how to bathe and use the bathroom in prison, defend against sexual assault, negotiate with gang members and make prison-style pizza using ramen noodles, trash bags and Doritos.
There are videos offering advice on how to survive a prison riot (tip: don't sit down prematurely and stay away from trigger-happy guards), the proper etiquette for standing in the prison shower, and how to use peanut butter to hide contraband.
The YouTube videos allow prisoners and ex-prisoners to reclaim their own narrative, Cecil said, and that's helped feed the reform movement. "We are becoming more familiar with life behind bars and the people who end up there," Cecil said. "There's a humanization process going on, and it's good because we're realising that these are not necessarily evil people - most of them are like you and me if we'd made a couple different decisions."
Though the channels clearly appeal to a grim curiosity among viewers, hosts say their often controversial content attracts a surprisingly wide audience. Viewers include curious former inmates who turn to YouTube for a sense of community, relatives who want to know what their loved ones are experiencing behind bars and white-collar criminals preparing to serve time.
"A lot of our audience was originally ex-prisoners, but now we're starting to get people from the outside who have never entertained life in prison - people would come from a more productive environment and they're watching the show and leaving comments and questions," explains ex convict and YouTuber Marcus "Big Herc" Timmons.
Like Guerrero, the 46-year-old considers himself lucky.
In February 2000, Timmons was 24 years old and living in Los Angeles. Though he dreamed of starting a successful record label, the bodybuilder with the playful, boyish face was drifting through life, occasionally dabbling in porn to make ends meet.
On a whim, Timmons agreed to rob a bank outside Calabasas with two other men. The crew modeled its haphazard plan after the 1995 bank heist thriller "Heat," starring Robert De Niro. Though sloppy, the robbery was briefly successful, netting the trio $94,000, which they stuffed inside a bag. But a swarm of police spotted the men as they fled in a bright red Lincoln Navigator.
A high-speed chase up California's U.S. Highway 101 ensued, a wall of police cars and a helicopter in close pursuit.
Thirty miles later, police brought the vehicle to a stop using a spike strip, and its occupants scattered on foot. Timmons scrambled up an embankment and headed toward the Ventura Pier, a popular boardwalk jutting into the Pacific Ocean. It would prove to be his last few minutes of freedom for much of the next decade. A few minutes later, Timmons was lying facedown in the sand in handcuffs.
"In that moment I just thought: 'What have I done? What was the point?" he said. "I just remember looking at the ocean and thinking, 'This is the last time I'm going to see the ocean for a long, long time.' "
Timmons served just under nine years in federal prison, where he amassed a library of harrowing personal stories that he now shares with his fans on YouTube. For some viewers, the brutish tales of life behind bars are a curiosity that keeps them clicking.Washington Post