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.

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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 labourer 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.

With 698 Americans behind bars for every 100,000 residents, the United States locks up more people per capita than any other nation on earth, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organisation that studies the impact of mass criminalisation. Combining state and federal prison populations, with jails, immigration detention centers and facilities holding juveniles, the organisation claims there are about 2.3 million people confined nationwide.

"Everyone in America right now has a family member or a friend or knows someone in prison," said Shaun Attwood, a former drug dealer whose YouTube channel focused on the brutality of prison life has more than 175,000 subscribers. "Look at the incarceration rate — it's off the scale compared to the rest of the world, and that's a function of the insane war on drugs."

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.

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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 videos have been shown in college classrooms studying criminal justice and used as training for law enforcement. Among the most popular videos are those made by Marcus 'Big Herc' Timmons, 46, a hulking former inmate whose blunt yet comedic style has fuelled his rise from convicted bank robber to social media star.

"Every college in America should have a class that features Big Herc," said Kevin Boyle, a retired Army colonel and former judge advocate who teaches at American University's School of Public Affairs. He's had Timmons speak to his Deprivation of Liberty class multiple times. "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," he said.

That the rise of the YouTube channels coincides with efforts to reform the criminal justice system and decrease mandatory prison sentences is unsurprising, said Dawn Cecil, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. 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, she said.

First came Orange Is the New Black, author Piper Kerman's memoir documenting a one-year stint inside a federal women's prison, which was adapted in 2013 as a hit Netflix series by the same name.

Other media efforts followed. Ear Hustle, an award-winning podcast produced by San Quentin State Prison inmates serving time for robbery, offers listeners an unvarnished glimpse inside prison culture. And this month, Netflix premiered Jailbirds, a six-part docuseries about the complex, and violent, world of female inmates in the Sacramento County Jail.

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 humanisation 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," Timmons said.

Like Guerrero, Timmons 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 modelled its haphazard plan after the 1995 bank heist thriller Heat, starring Robert De Niro. Though sloppy, the robbery was briefly successful, netting the trio US$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 US 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. But for others, like Malik Rahim, the videos have proved far more meaningful.

After being wrongfully imprisoned on a robbery charge in 2017 and placed in isolation for days, Rahim says he lost his job and his life began to unravel. Broke, depressed and afraid of being misidentified by police each time he stepped outside, the 23-year-old San Franciscan locked himself in his room and started abusing Xanax and cocaine. At one point, he said, he didn't get a haircut for months.

Rahim was haunted by his experience in jail, which he blames on racial profiling.

"One thing can happen to you, and like the snap of a finger, everything can be taken from you," he said. "I thought I was going to prison for something I didn't do."

He said his recovery began with Timmons's videos, many of which implore viewers to stop feeling sorry for themselves and take control of their lives, even amid dire circumstances. If Timmons can survive a lengthy prison bid, he frequently reminds his viewers, they can overcome their struggles on the outside.

Rahim said it was a message he badly needed, especially from someone he could relate to.

"I pretty much have not had any black males in my life that I can hear some of this stuff from," said Rahim, who hasn't lived with his father in a decade. "It's different from a white man saying, 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself'. It meant more to me because it was coming from him and he is someone who never gave up on himself."

Rahim eventually got a new job as an equipment maintenance technician and moved out of his mother's home, where he'd returned in 2018 after he could no longer pay his rent. He has a new car and has applied to San Francisco State University. Drawing strength from Timmons, whom he's begun corresponding with via email, he says he's rebuilding his life piece by piece.

"Herc told me that as long as you still have your youth, whatever happens is a challenge you can overcome," Rahim said. "He says the only thing that's not replaceable is your time — and he would know."