In 2014, investigative reporter Shane Bauer — who three years earlier had been freed from a notorious Iranian prison — embarked on a daring journalistic experiment. He took a job as a $9-an-hour private-prison guard at Winn Correctional Facility in Louisiana, and with the help of a well-placed recorder and camera, managed to capture the inner workings of the sort of place reporters rarely ever venture to. What he experienced during his four-month tenure at Winn, which ended with his hastily fleeing his apartment after his ruse was discovered, was disturbing on many levels, from the gross mistreatment of inmates to his own transformation into hardened prison guard. Bauer wrote all about it in a widely hailed Mother Jones article in 2016. Now he has expanded that piece into a book, American Prison, in which he intersperses his story with the brutal, long, and little-known history of private prisons in America. (A sample eye-popping fact: prisoners caught up in the 19th-century “convict leasing” system experienced a higher death rate than those in Soviet gulags.)
Daily Intelligencer spoke with Bauer about the fundamental inhumanity of private prisons and the future of mass-incarceration reform.
You write a little about it in the book, but I was wondering if you could explain what compelled you to embark on this assignment after you’d been imprisoned in Iran for so long.
I’d been reporting in the Middle East — that’s where I started my career as a journalist. (Bauer and two friends were arrested and accused of spying by Iranian authorities in 2009 when they crossed into the country while on vacation. They were released in 2011 after extensive diplomatic negotiations.) I assumed I’d return after I got out of prison, but at the time, there was a huge hunger strike going on in California prisons, protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement. I’d been in solitary myself, so I was naturally drawn to that story as I watched it unfold. I wasn’t ready to go back to work yet, but I started digging into the issue, and that’s what my first story after being released was about. There were 80,000 people on a given day in solitary, including people who hadn’t committed any violent acts; one guy in California was in there for 40 years. I wrote about that along with my own experiences, and kept getting pulled deeper and deeper into the American prison system.
When I started to report on criminal justice, I became more and more frustrated by the walls that are put up around our prisons. It’s very difficult to get access to prison systems — they’re reluctant to even abide by public-records laws. It’s a very concerted effort to keep the public out, which I’ve since learned has gotten worse over time. And this is especially true with private prisons, because those laws often don’t even apply. So part of me was drawn to it just because we know so little about life inside of these places. I had the idea of applying for a job and getting inside that way. It only took an hour or two of my time to complete an application online, which I filled out truthfully. Within a couple of weeks I was getting phone calls, and had several job offers.
The place I worked was hiring people at $9 an hour, which is determined by the CoreCivics corporate office in Nashville, not the prison itself. They were so desperate for staff that it felt like they were trying to convince me to take the job. (CoreCivics changed its name from the Correction Corporation of America in October 2016, months after Bauer’s piece ran.)
You detail a lot of egregious behavior among the fellow guards you worked with, but also underline repeatedly how little they’re paid, how understaffed the place is, and how their training often encourages brutal tactics. Do you think the kind of person attracted to this work is any more prone to mistreatment than an average worker?
I didn’t have the feeling that my fellow cadets wanted to work in a prison or had any kind of sadistic motives — they arrived there out of desperation. They had no job experience, or were coming out of high school, or were single moms who needed to get some insurance. It’s true that there was a category of people more prone to brutality, with backgrounds in law enforcement or prison, who had been driven out of their former jobs because of things they did and couldn’t get hired anywhere else. But in general most people were there because they were poor and needed work. And once they got into the system, they were faced with a job that was nearly impossible. There were days where I’d come to work and there were 24 guards for almost 1,500 inmates. The duties that were required were literally not possible for us to fulfill. The guards and prisoners would get frustrated with how sloppily the place was run — some would lash out at prisoners, and some would just get by with the bare minimum, put in 12 hours and not really do much work. I should also say that the company was not even filling the positions required by contract.
Later on, after I quit, I bought one share of the company so I could attend a corporate meeting and raise some of these issues as a shareholder. I asked a question to the CoreCivics CEO, Damon Hininger, who didn’t acknowledge who I was, or that he knew who I was. He gave me a corporate-gloss answer about how well the company was doing, and as soon as the meeting was over, he took off quickly.
Much of the history of making prisoners into profit machines is closely intertwined with slavery, and then white supremacy after the Civil War. We know the justice system is full of racial disparities, but how much was this in evidence during your daily life at the prison?
The culture in Louisiana prisons was different from California, where prisoners were much more racially segregated. But about 75 percent of the prisoners at Winn were African-American, which is a clear illustration of the way racism plays into the criminal justice system. There are just a huge number of black people in prison, and Louisiana is one of the most incarcerated places in the world. The South, in general, has staggering rates of incarceration.
As you detail in the book, from convict leasing to chain gangs, the reality of private prisons in America is hardly unprecedented. What’s different about the situation today?
The size is unprecedented. The issue of the prison system being driven by a desire to turn a profit is not at all unprecedented; in fact, it’s the driving force of the institution throughout much of American history. There were times when states were debating whether they should keep using the penitentiary system. That system didn’t always exist — it was invented in America. Decades after it began, people were asking, “Is this a failed experiment? People aren’t being rehabilitated.” What saved it is that states discovered a way to make these places turn a profit and make money for them. Then they became addicted to the penitentiary. Southern states were using them as a way to try to industrialize, to compete with the North — before the Civil War, prisons in many southern states were the state’s largest factories. Even after the war, states leased penitentiary systems to private companies, and became hooked on them because they were making money for the state. Ten percent of Alabama’s state’s budget was coming from penitentiaries. But when you read back through old papers and op-eds, you see the same issue still coming up: people saying “Why are we continuing with this system that does not seem to be reducing crime or rehabilitating anyone?”
To state the obvious, many public prisons aren’t exactly hotbeds of good treatment and behavior. Do you think the problems you describe are specific to private institutions?
No, but it’s only in recent decades that the profit motive has been separated from the public prison system — before, they’d been intertwined. Now we have some private prisons, which are about 8 percent of the total, but their distinction was much more fuzzy during most of American history. There were times when we had corporations running prison systems, and other periods when the states were, because they were were intent on turning a profit. That’s not so much the case anymore, because of prison overpopulation.
Today, I wouldn’t make any distinction between public and private in terms of the possibility of rehabilitation — public prisons are also abysmal in that way. But there are certain conditions particular to private prisons, which have to do with companies cutting corners, lowering wages of staff, and being resistant to providing medical care. At the prison I was in, the contract said that if you had to send prisoners to the hospital, the company would have to foot the bill. I saw many situations where prisoners had severe medical conditions and the company wouldn’t do it. One guy had gangrene, wasn’t sent to the hospital, and eventually had to have his legs amputated. It’s not as if public prisons have great health care, but there’s an incentive to cut corners where they can, which almost always leads to worse conditions.
Do you think the profit motive automatically makes private prisons fatally flawed? Could there be such thing as a humane, successful one?
No, because the margin of profit is so small. If private prisons were regulated in a way that made them more humane and forced them to provide better health care, the profit margin would go away and the motive for states to use the company would disappear. It’s built into the system that they’re going to be less humane.
Something that’s worth noting here: the reason we have these private prison companies is that we have so many people in prison. This is an issue that goes way beyond incarceration. This is about policing, prosecutorial power, mandatory minimums, how long sentences are. These are the core issues, and the for-profit prisons are the symptoms of those problems.
Even since you published your Mother Jones piece, the prison reform movement has gained steam in America, with Trump’s election of course being a setback to that progress. As you write in the book, reform movements have ebbed and flowed throughout America’s history. Do you feel the current movement has real potential to change the way we think and act about prisons?
I do see potential. In recent years there has been a lot more attention paid to prisons than before, and I think there is a wider understanding of the problems with them. Ten years ago, it was very hard to get anyone to focus on the issue — the idea was that if people are in prison, they deserved it. That consciousness has changed. There’s an awareness on both the left and the right that we’ve gone in a bad direction and need to change course. There are a few reasons for this: the Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on policing, and there’s an increasing awareness about the racism in our criminal justice system.
Trump has definitely been a setback. A clear example of that is that weeks after my article came out, the Obama administration announced that it would stop using private prisons, and the stock prices of those companies tanked. CoreCivics was cut in half. The day after Trump won, their stock price skyrocketed more than any company in the stock market, and in the first few weeks of his administration, DOJ reversed the Obama administration’s decision. So he’s rolled back those changes, but there’s still opportunity to make progress on the state level.
After four months of working at the prison, what was your biggest, overarching takeaway about the state of incarceration in America?
There’s so much to say. I think that the state of incarceration in America is dismal, to put it mildly. We have the largest prison population in the entire world, a system so bloated that we’ve turned to companies to pick up the slack, to run prisons where the states can’t afford to.
It’s an unprecedented situation in world history. When we look back on this time decades from now, I think mass incarceration will be one of the defining issues of the moment we’re in.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.