Undercover Reporting and the Disturbing History of For-Profit Prisons in America

Book review: American Prison, by Shane Bauer

The United States imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world. In 2017 we had 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the last forty years. We now have almost 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of its prisoners.

This book focuses on one private prison during a four-month period. It also examines how the profit motive has shaped America’s prison system for the last 250 years. 

I read Shane Bauer’s long-form reporting on his four-month undercover stint in a private, corporate-run prison in Louisiana, an assignment undertaken for Mother Jones, in The Best American Magazine Writing 2017. It’s harrowing, but completely gripping. In his book-length account of this experience as a prison guard, Bauer expands on the incidents described there, with commentary on the policies and culture of prisons for profit. The inside look at private prisons and their organization and operation is interspersed with chapters about the background of for-profit prisons in America and the country’s dark history of convict leasing and the abuses it entailed.

American Prison is no easy read but neither should it be ignored. Bauer’s experiences as a guard with Corrections Corporation of America, one of three private companies running US prisons, would be hard to believe for the sheer inhumanity factor if many of them weren’t surreptitiously recorded and corroborated not only by Bauer’s coworkers at Winn Correctional in Winnfield, Louisiana, but by CCA employees around the country as well.

Systemic abuse, neglect, and concern solely for the bottom line are rampant. Not to mention the basic structure of the guard’s work, which Bauer covers in thorough detail: no educational or experience requirements, background checks are minimal, training is slapdash, and the pay a measly $9 an hour. Not only is this extremely difficult to live on, leading to high turnover, but it doesn’t create motivation or attract candidates who aren’t desperate.

Bauer sets out his thinking in terms of transparency about his background in this “undercover” operation. He applied using his own name and personal information, without any attempt to hide his work as a social issues reporter, nor the fact that he’d actually been a prisoner himself: “A quick search would have brought up my prison reporting and articles about the two years I spent as a prisoner in Iran. He (CCA recruiter) doesn’t ask about many of the things I feared he would, so I don’t bring them up.”

Even the idea that this book can exist is astonishing. Turnover among prison employees is so high, leading to constant hiring pushes, and it’s clear recruitment didn’t do the most basic research on who they were hiring. About his own prison time, in 2009 Bauer and two other Americans who’d been working in Iraqi Kurdistan were arrested at the Iraq-Iran border while visiting a tourist spot, and held on charges of espionage. He was released after two years, and uses his time incarcerated to bring a certain sensitivity to the conditions the prisoners he guards are in. With this background experience, some of the comparisons he’s able to make are especially disheartening. After visiting solitary blocks at another facility following his work at Winn, he observes:

The four months I’d spent in solitary confinement in Iran was an eternity I will never erase from my psyche, but the abyss of isolation these prisoners lived in helped me to put my own struggle into perspective.

One of the most upsetting stories told is that of Damien Coestly, a young black man imprisoned after shooting three people (one died) in a hotblooded fight. Wracked with guilt and regret, Coestly descends into mental illness, hearing voices and becoming suicidal, but the prison ignores his mental health needs and locks him on the suicide watch ward, where he’s kept naked, without a mattress and only a blanket.

He’s denied his requested vegetarian meals, so ends up eating only slices of bread and carrot, celery and apple sticks. At the time of his death, he weighed 78 pounds. Prison officials’ main concern was removing him from the prison after a suicide attempt so that he’d die outside their custody and they wouldn’t have to log his death as occurring at the prison. His whole story is disgustingly inhumane. To think that we’d never know it, and that Coestly’s mother wouldn’t have known the truth about what happened to her son if Bauer hadn’t observed it, is horrifying.

Bauer catalogs, with the aid of hidden recording devices, the words and attitudes of his superiors about their work. Treatment of Coestly and others, the horror of solitary confinement, and a general lack of concern for prisoners’ wellbeing is the norm. The assistant warden tells the guards at Winn about a crackdown on “individualized” clothing:

“We want them institutionalized not individualized. Is that sort of a mind game? Yup. But you know what? It’s worked over the couple hundred years that we’ve had prisons in this country. So that’s why we do it. We don’t want them to feel as though they are individuals. We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle. We’re just moving them from point A to point B, letting them graze in the dining hall and then go back to the barn.”

Then there’s the repression of social justice prevalent across the prison system. Solitary confinement is infamous for being inhumane and exacerbating, if not contributing to the development, of adverse mental conditions. Bauer writes that the reasons for being put into solitary are many and unconscionable:

Some were indeed dangerous gang members, while others were put in solitary because of people they hung out with, for their work as jailhouse lawyers, or because they possessed books on African American history…

…Cracking down on black political consciousness in prison is common nationwide. In Texas, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s My Awakening are allowed, but books by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright are banned.

The outrages in this account come fast and frequently, and they aren’t limited to the present state of things. Bauer explains how we got here: prisons for profit are nothing new. He details the convict leasing system, and how after abolition, slavery was legally repackaged via prison forced labor:

…the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, left a loophole. it said that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in the United States “except as punishment for a crime.” As long as black men were convicted of crimes, Texas could lease all of its prisoners to private cotton and sugar plantations and companies running lumber camps, coal mines, and building railroads. It did this for five decades after the abolition of slavery, but the state eventually became jealous of the revenue private companies and planters were earning from its prisoners. So the state bought thirteen plantations of its own. In 1913 it began running them as prisons.

In his historical reporting of the convict leasing/forced labor system, Bauer points out that despite the inherent racism in this system, it was only when a white prisoner was murdered by a guard during forced labor in Florida that his death became a cause celebre and led to the end of Florida’s convict leasing system. “Private companies had been torturing and slaughtering black men for decades. It took the murder of a white man for the country to pay attention.”

Thoroughly researched, sensitively reported, painful and crucial. Bauer’s reporting is difficult and disturbing to read but it’s a wakeup call, especially taken alongside the work of Bryan Stevenson’s Just MercyWe can do better than this and we have to.

American Prison:
A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment
by Shane Bauer
published September 18, 2018 by Penguin
Amazon

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

19 thoughts on “Undercover Reporting and the Disturbing History of For-Profit Prisons in America

  1. For the life of me, I can’t understand why common sense doesn’t rule here given that many of these prisoners will eventually be released back into society. The system is such a failure. Don’t know if I can read this one as I can’t even handle fictional prison stories.

    As always, outstanding review of a relevant topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me neither, it’s senseless. “Correctional” at its root implies a change, yet less money is allocated toward any programs or services that would help with reintegrating someone into society or lowering recidivism. It’s such a mess and completely clear that those running it couldn’t care less because it’s a business.

      It’s not an easy read at all and I completely understand not wanting to get into it. When I even think of the story of the inmate I shared in the review I get shaky. It’s infuriating.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. It’s probably about twenty years now since the first private prisons opened and we’re already having regular scandals about safety and conditions. All to save a few ££s, but you have to wonder what cost it will have to society in the long run… grrr!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, exactly! Whatever money they save is actually costing something else, and I don’t understand how they can’t see that. It’s barbaric. I didn’t know private prisons were such a recent institution in the U.K.! Why they would choose to go that route when the conditions aren’t really much of a secret in America is beyond me..

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! It’s the same for me, fascinated and appalled – I’m only somewhat recently coming to the topic of what’s going on in prisons, for way too long I let myself remain blind about it. This is an excellent, eye-opening read…should be a cautionary tale for the UK’s changes there as well!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s indeed horrifying but worthwhile. I really recommend it, tough as some of it is to absorb…I’m glad to be aware of it, I think I understood some of the topics and problems here only superficially before reading this.

      Liked by 1 person

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