By Alfred King, Journalism Guild Writer
The prison experience meets social media. The popularity of YouTube prison channels that show viewers a slice of life behind prison walls has exploded. Former inmates, grappling with anxiety and family problems after release, have taken to popular social media networks to share their experiences behind bars.
The YouTube videos—part horror story, part prison survival guide—teach viewers how to use the bathroom, bathe, defend against sexual assault, negotiate with gang members, make prison-style pizza, and even how to survive a prison riot.
Combined, the top four prison-themed YouTube channels have over 2.1 million subscribers and 342 million page views.
“Though the United States is home to thousands of prisons, those facilities, and the stories inside them, remained off-limits to outsiders till the onset of the internet and social media,” said Dawn K. Cecil, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Florida.
Increased public interest in prison-themed media coincides with public pushes for criminal justice reform, Cecil said.
YouTube is not the only platform seeing a surge in prison-themed programming.
Netflix recently premiered a six-part documentary about the violent world of Sacramento’s County Jail for women, titled “Jailbirds.” San Quentin State Prison inmates produce the award-winning podcast, “Ear Hustle,”
which provides an un-filtered glimpse into the harsh realities of prison life.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 698 out of every 100,000 Americans live behind bars.
“Everyone in America right now has a family member or a friend or knows someone in prison,” said Shaun Attwood, a former drug dealer. Attwood’s YouTube channel about the brutality of prison life has 175,000 subscribers.
Long-time prisoner Joe Guerrero said his life lacked real direction. He suffered from anxiety and felt his family was falling apart when he began to upload videos about his life on YouTube.
At first, no one noticed. Then he uploaded a video on how to make a prison tattoo gun. The clip went viral and now, 700 videos later, his YouTube channel, “After Prison Show,” has 1.2 million subscribers. Making the videos is a full-time job, but advertising revenue from the videos provides Guerrero a six-figure salary.
Marcus “Big Herc” Timmons is another YouTube star. At 24, the Los Angeles native had drifted through life—until he and two other men decided to rob a bank near Calabasas, Calif.
The robbery netted the trio $94,000, but they were spotted leaving the robbery in a bright red Lincoln Navigator. They led the police on a high-speed chase up U.S. Highway 101, pursued by police helicopters. They were finally brought to a stop with a spike strip. Timmons spent nearly nine years in federal prison. Now, he shares stories from his time behind bars with his YouTube fans.
“Every college in America should have a class that features “Big Herc,’” said Kevin Boyle, a retired army colonel and former advocate judge, who teaches at American University’s School of Public Affairs.“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.”
College professors like Boyle show the videos in criminal justice and law enforcement classes across the nation.