USA: life after prison, on YouTube

In May 2008, when Christina Randall was released from prison after serving nearly three years for battery, robbery and escape, she had nothing but $30 and the brand-new, ill-fitting clothes on her back. She took up in a women’s shelter in South Florida, eight hours away from her friends and family, with a plan to start fresh.

First, she got a job as a line cook at Wendy’s. “I worked my butt off cooking chicken nuggets and French fries,” Ms. Randall, 35, said, in order to save for a car. Then she enrolled in an undergraduate program, where she studied social work while employed as a janitor. “I’ve always wanted to help people,” she said.

But after graduation, she couldn’t get hired; history always seemed to get in the way. Once, she said, she was offered a role working with children, but the organization promptly rescinded the offer after running a background check. “I went home and cried for like three days,” she said. “I felt like I’d hit a brick wall.”

For a long time, Ms. Randall didn’t think she would ever get to do the work. Then she started a YouTube channel. In the three years since, she’s brought more than 400,000 subscribers — “my lovelies, my beauties, my friends,” as she calls them in her videos. She’s a lot like other creators in the lifestyle category, except that in addition to sharing beauty tips, wedding-day memories and unboxing videos, she also talks candidly about life behind bars and the process of re-entry.

Ms. Randall is one of a handful of former prisoners building an audience on YouTube. She has explained the “unspoken rules of prison,” showed her viewers how to turn coffee grounds and water into makeshift jailhouse mascara, and interviewed a former correctional officer about corruption among prison guards. But most importantly, she has offered an empathic, first-person perspective on incarceration.

“I have a lot of sons, mothers, daughters, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents of people in prison who watch my videos to understand better what the person might be going through,” she said.

Most of Ms. Randall’s viewers are American, in the 18-to-34 age bracket and women (92 percent, according to data from YouTube). Some of them send fan mail. Earlier this year, Ms. Randall received a note from a woman who saw her story as a cautionary tale. “I was starting to walk a bad path and I started to hang around the wrong sort of people,” the viewer wrote, “but seeing your videos and hearing your story helped me find the right path and better friends.”

Dr. Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and the author of “The Psychodynamics of Social Networking,” said that there are “pros and cons” to people like Ms. Randall sharing their stories online with a potential audience of millions. “It offers access and insights into people’s experiences and stories that may be otherwise difficult to access,” he said. “This can increase an individual’s sense of belonging and inclusion, and decrease a sense of loneliness or isolation.”

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