- Associated Press - Sunday, December 15, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - On YouTube, a catchy hip-hop beat plays over an animated graphic of black ink dripping onto multi-colored text. “Florida Prison Stories,” it reads. The intro cuts to a shot of a kitchen and a man with brawny tattooed arms in a black T-shirt. He looks into the camera and gestures energetically as he speaks.

“What up, everybody,” Bryan Bruton says. “It’s your boy, B. And as you can see from the intro, I’m back with another lit Florida prison story.”

Thus begins a video in the popular online series Bryan Bruton Crazy Prison Stories.

Bruton spent 11 years in 10 Florida prisons after a manslaughter conviction stemming from a fatal hit and run in Jacksonville. He extended his stay by pulling off a brief escape. After his release in 2014, he moved to California to begin a new life.

From there he makes his videos. Some last more than an hour, others a few minutes. Almost all of them touch on some aspect of life in Florida’s prison system. Subjects range from a how-to on making Cuban coffee in a prison cell to some of the more frightening and unsavory aspects of incarceration: drugs, alcohol, weapons and the relative ease with which prisoners can obtain and conceal them.

A few videos contain content some might find objectionable. There are frank discussions about how contraband gets sold and smuggled. One clip bears the title “Light Your Prison Cell on Fire,” something Bruton says is not an infrequent occurrence. Another is called “How to Cut the Window Out of Your Jail Cell,” and features the tale of a man who did just that.

He also offers friendly advice.

“Through sharing my stories,” he says in one video, “my hope is that I’m able to encourage people or inspire people, or some young person will see my video and say ‘hey, man. That dude was crazy. I don’t want to go through none of that.’”

He created the channel about a year ago and now boasts more than 16,000 subscribers.

Bruton, 42, is far from the only former prisoner to do what he does. A discernible niche of formerly incarcerated people has been established on social media and in the blogosphere. In sharing their stories, some have developed sizable followings.

Joe Guerrero, a former Virginia prisoner, boasts more than 1 million subscribers to his After Prison Show.

Ear Hustle is a popular podcast produced by inmates in San Quentin Prison in California.

Bruton occasionally has guests in his videos - a practice he terms “convict collaboration” - like Marcus “Big Herc” Timmons, a former bank robber who now hosts the popular series Fresh Out: Life After the Penitentiary.

Dawn Cecil, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg who studies media depictions of prison life, said such videos can be a good thing, depending on how the information is conveyed.

She noted one of Bruton’s videos which shows incarcerated men reacting to the effects of spice, also known as synthetic marijuana, a common form of smuggled contraband. The footage alone may be problematic, but Bruton offers important commentary, she said.

Bryan puts it into context by talking about the history of many of these guys involving substance abuse as well as drugs being a coping mechanism for those who experience extreme pains of imprisonment,” she said.

In one video, Bruton gives reviews of each of the prisons he stayed in, ranking them from cleanest to dirtiest. (The worst, he says, was a specific building at a prison in northeast Florida so infested with roaches that he says he could see the walls moving at night). In another, he discusses the importance of staying physically fit in prison and exercises one can perform in confinement.

There are videos in which he demonstrates assorted prison hacks like how to create a crude heating implement that prisoners use to boil noodles or other foodstuffs in their cells.

Some videos are recorded live. Viewers leave comments in real time. Many appear to be people who were once incarcerated themselves. Bruton says he once got a message from a corrections officer in Ohio who told him his footage has been used to train new officers.

He doesn’t shy from talking about why he went to prison. He admits he used to sell drugs. But the case that cost him a decade involved a fatal hit-and-run. Media accounts say that a man named Michael Pierce was killed when he was hit by a commercial dump truck outside his Jacksonville home. In one of his videos, Bruton details the circumstances from his perspective and says the death was an accident and that he didn’t initially know he had hit anyone.

He netted a manslaughter conviction and a sentence of 10 years.

He added a year to his sentence when he and another inmate escaped in 2007 from a work camp in a remote area north of Gainesville. They did it with the help of a female corrections officer who ended up doing a year locked up herself. He recounts the harrowing tale on his channel.

The Florida Department of Corrections is aware of Bruton’s videos but declined to comment on them. Asked specifically about videos that address contraband in prison, the department’s communications office referred a reporter to recent testimony that Department Secretary Mark Inch gave to a legislative committee about their safety and security needs. The office also noted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget recommendation of more than $100 million to improve security and upgrade facilities and programs in the state’s prisons.

Asked by a Tampa Bay Times reporter why he does the videos, Bruton mentioned the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. and his message, oft-repeated on YouTube, that no matter what you’ve been through, you can always “bounce back.”

Also, though, there are words of caution.

“I hope that everyone who watches this video never finds their way to prison,” he says in one. “Why? Because prison sucks. Plain and simple. There is nothing fun about it. Stay free.”

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