Going hand in hand with my fascination with cults and other closed groups is my interest in prison (I mean, they’re all on the big list of Places I Will *Hopefully* Never Be, right?). I’ve got a list of ten other books I’ve read about prison; it’s one of those subjects that both intrigues and infuriates me, and I’ll almost always at least read the inside flap or back cover if the title makes it obvious prison is the subject of the book (and most of the time, the book ends up coming home with me). Hearing about American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer had me running straight for Goodreads and clicking on the Want to Read button.
In 2014, working with Mother Jones magazine, Shane Bauer went undercover at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, employed as a prison guard making $9 per hour. You read that correctly; starting pay for prison guards in a private correctional center, whose lives are in danger the second they step into their workplace, who suffer from rates of post-traumatic stress disorder higher than soldiers returning from the Middle East and who commit suicide at a rate two-and-a-half times higher than the general population, barely make over minimum wage. This assignment wasn’t just a way for Bauer to get a sneak peek at the world of privately run prisons; it was personal. In 2009, Bauer, along with two others, were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and accidentally strayed too close to the Iranian border; as a result, Bauer spent 26 months in an Iranian prison. Upon his return home, still suffering from PTSD, he became interested in the US prison system and found himself at Winn, a private prison run by then-Corrections Corportation of America (CCA), now known as CoreCivic.
In the four months that Bauer spends as a guard at Winn, he witnesses a host of human rights violations, including denying inmates medical care (while no one died under Bauer’s watch, he does recount the story of several inmates passed away due to Winn’s negligence, and mentions contact with an inmate who lost his feet and fingers due to gangrene that Winn refused to treat until it was too late; Robert Scott eventually settled out of court with CCA, but you can read his complaint here, where they gave him corn removal strips and shoe inserts to treat his gangrene), denying them food and water, and cutting security in order to save money until no one is safe (one correctional officer watches video feeds from at least 30 cameras; at meal time, two unarmed officers supervise 800 inmates). Physical and mental health care for inmates is stripped to the bone or whatever is past that, and Bauer and his fellow guards have nothing but a radio with which to call for backup to protect themselves (presumably to call other officers who are armed solely with a radio?). If you’re familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, Bauer’s experiences at Winn mimic that; over time, he finds himself becoming angrier, enjoying the power he holds over the inmates, acting out of a sense of revenge and malice instead of the level-headed reporter he walked in as. He realizes he’s changing but is powerless to stop the prison’s effect on his thinking, his demeanor, his morale. Just as he’s considering quitting but is finding it difficult to break away, his hand is forced due to an emergency situation with a fellow reporter and the local police, and Shane Bauer flees Louisiana to write and publish his story.
Interspersed with Bauer’s personal tale is the history of corrections in America and how racism and the drive for profiting off the suffering of others has shaped the industry. There is no discussion of prison in America without delving heavily into America’s history of racism, and there’s a LOT of information in here that will have any decent person seeing red. Penitentiaries only came into favor in the South in order to give white people a separate punishment from slaves. Consider this quote: “People like Governor Claiborne worried that whites, kept in the same miserable quarters as enslaved African Americans, might naturally sympathize with their plight and become potential recruits for the abolitionist cause. A penitentiary would help that.” Adding to that horror is the fact that pre-Civil War Louisiana made money from selling inmates’ children into slavery; when slaves were imprisoned in mixed-gender populations, female prisoners would become pregnant, and though they were allowed to raise their children until the age of 10, past that, the child would be auctioned off, and the proceeds would be used to fund white schools. I spent a lot of time reading this book, staring off into space, taking a few deep breaths and quietly seething.
Beyond that, the history of American corrections is one that leans heavily on torture. There are content warnings for this book due to descriptions of fairly graphic punishments that absolutely qualify as torture, some of which result in death (multiple torture-based deaths are mentioned throughout the book). There are also multiple mentions of prison rape, but none are graphic; more disturbing is the general attitude of the corrections industry that rape in prison is inevitable and there’s no point or reason in trying to prevent it.
American Prison is an absolutely chilling and upsetting exposé that needs to be read by every American citizen. While I take no issue with prison itself and the need for a place to rehabilitate criminals, I very much take issue with our lack of rehabilitative programs in general. We are a society whose corrections correct nothing; instead of preparing criminals to return to society as better citizens and human beings, we exact revenge on them for their crimes, and if we return them to society at all, it’s as people who are far more damaged than when they went in, who have few or no skills necessary to make a healthy place for themselves in American society, and who have little chance to avoid returning to prison. (Along those lines, American society does little to invest in its people from the start; watching any show based on prison- Jailbirds on Netflix is an example of something I’ve recently watched- or reading anything about prisons and prisoners make it obvious that this is a society-deep problem; parents and parenting, lack of jobs that pay a living wage, drugs, lack of basic necessities such as food, medical care, and housing, underfunded educational systems, poor daycare options, all of this and more go into the failure of what leads people down the path to imprisonment, and we do little to counter any of it. The prisons alone aren’t at fault, but their brutality doesn’t remedy anything.)
Bauer does a phenomenal job of maintaining a cool journalistic mien in his reporting of the absolute hellhole that is CCA/CoreCivic. In many, many instances, CCA falsifies data to the state and remarks that they had no record of incidents that Bauer personally witnessed and recorded (and for which there would have been a paper trail). Bauer’s accounts of the travesties committed by CCA/CoreCivic aren’t the first criticisms I’ve read about the private prison industry, and I have nothing even close to resembling a positive opinion of them or the idea of making money off of forced labor or imprisonment.
If you’ve never read a book about prison, American Prison would be a good place to start. I’ve read quite a few, and while some of the historical information was both new and shocking to me, nothing Mr. Bauer stated about working in a private prison or about CCA/CoreCivic itself was new to me. Even before his article came out, the company was on the defensive, guns blazing, with accusations about Bauer’s journalistic integrity and his lack of understanding of company policy (which is rich, coming from a company who was ready to promote him right before he left). His every mention of CCA/CoreCivic left a bad taste in my mouth, and honestly, it’s horrifying to me that a company is allowed to run like this at all. In other words, based on the reading I’ve done over many years, I’m entirely confident in Mr. Bauer’s account of his time at Winn, I wouldn’t trust a single thing said by CCA/CoreCivic, and I highly recommend American Prison.