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American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of… (2018)

by Shane Bauer

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3721453,841 (4.28)17
After his 2014 expose about his experiences as a prison guard in a Lousisiana for-profit prison, Shane Bauer soon realised the cruelty of the current American system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration cannot be understood without first understanding its origins. In American Prison, Bauer weaves together a deeper reckoning of his prison guard experience with a thorough history of for-profit prisons in America. A blistering accusation of the private prison system in the United States, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in the USA.… (more)

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In 2014 Shane Bauer went to work undercover as a CO in a CCA prison in Louisiana for only $9/hr, and turned the piece into a lengthy exposé in Mother Jones. This book is an expansion and elaboration of that work--much of the direct experience was already published in MJ.

Here he expands it into a history of prisons and profit, and how the South in particular used convict labor as a new slavery, profiting off the labor of prisoners--increasingly black men. CCA was born from that legacy, and as its predecessors did, makes its profit at the expense of inmates. Public prisons are bad enough; CCAs are worse. Winn is understaffed, out of control, falsifies data to the state, provides inadequate medical care, and stopped providing recreational and work opportunities for inmates to save money.

It's not a pretty picture of the prison system. ( )
  arosoff | Jul 11, 2021 |
Un-put-downable - I read it in a day.

Shane Bauer goes undercover for four months as a guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana, run by Correction Corporation of America (CCA), as it then was, now "rebranded" as Core Civic. Bauer, as it happens, was one of the three American journalists consigned to Tehran's notorious Evin prison for two years for accidentally wandering too close to the Iranian border, so he knows a little bit about the other side of the bars. Carrying an audio-recording pen, a notebook, and a coffee thermos with a camera built into the cap, he records and chronicles the daily nightmare that is the Winn prison. Pay starts (and remains, regardless of length of tenure) at $9/hour - well, eventually they raise it to $10 to remain at parity with the local WalMart pay scale. Dangerously understaffed (the bare minimum staff levels required by the state contract under which they operate are frequently not met), lunch in the chow hall for over 300 inmates is supervised by two guards. Two. Cost cutting means there is no one in the watch towers - an escaped inmate isn't missed for hours. There is no full time psychiatrist, there is one full time social worker. There are no classes, no education, no organized recreation, medical care is marginal at best - an inmate doubled up with chest pain is given Motrin until he collapses and dies days later. Inmates stew, complain, shriek abuse and threats, and try to kill themselves. Who can blame them? Bauer watches, engages, observes and is appalled. He struggles with his own fears and confusion: how tough should he be? how kind dare he be? who's trying to manipulate him? It's every man and woman for him or herself, and the price exacted in basic humanity is beyond payment.

As if this front-line coverage isn't enough, Bauer alternates his own experience with powerfully in-depth research of the history of the American for-profit prison system. If you thought it was a recent invention, you are very much mistaken. Once the slaves were freed, the South had lost its labor force - and slaves at least were considered rather valuable property. But prisoners? Who cared? They were free for the taking. Lose one? There were plenty more where he came from. Plantation and manufacturing barons quickly shifted to leasing prisoners for the worst physical labor and drove many to their deaths, chained, whipped, tortured, and starved. Any child born to a woman convict (who were routinely sexually abused and raped by foremen and bosses) was legally the property of the state and taken away when the child was 10, and sent to the fields to work. State governments hired out their prisoners to private industrialists and farmers and made money that way, and the owners made even more on the backs of this cheap, limitless "human resource." The type of labor shifted from agricultural to mining and railroad works... the death rates were routinely higher than those in the worst years of the Soviet gulags.

Yes, there was some pushback, there were some reformers. But when the revenue started dropping, the reformers were dismissed. And now we have CoreCivic and LaSalle, continuing in a handsome sanitized form, promising to house prisoners for $24 a day. You can do that if, for example, you only feed them a few hundred calories a day, as prisoners in the high-security suicide-watch ward are at Winn, under the contemptuous gaze of men dressed like black Ninjas who particularly enjoy using pepper spray and who know exactly what corners the security cameras (many of which don't work) don't cover. Bauer relates incident after incident, both observed firsthand and reported by immates or fellow staff members, and when CCA responds, the response is either they didn't know, they have no record, it was "contrary to policy," or they settled out of court. They like to say they are "committed to..." a lot of things, but don't actually DO any of them.

Bauer finally quits. He finds himself poisoned by the experience, his innate humanity clogged with the sewage of the prison chaos. But he has written a fine and important book - his reporting as well as other audits showing higher levels of violence, waste, and unacceptable performance in for-profit prisons than in state-run facilities influenced the Obama administration to refuse to contract with for-profit entities for federal prison services. You know how that ended, right? The federal contracting was immediately reinstated by Jeff Sessions.

Depressing, appalling, enlightening, gruesome (more than enough graphic sexual abuse and acting out is described), humane. This book should not be ignored. ( )
  JulieStielstra | May 17, 2021 |
Great investigative reporting. Shane Bauer (famous as one of the 3 American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran for allegedly crossing the Iraqi-Iran border, but likely abducted from Iraq; who knows?) is now a writer for Mother Jones, and took a multi-month undercover operation to be a prison guard at one of America's private prisons - the oldest private medium security facility, in Louisiana.

A lot of the details of prisons, long prison sentences, etc. all being horrible are known, but the details are striking whenever you encounter them. However, the specifics of how CCA runs their operations (very low staffing levels, low staff training, avoiding higher cost services) are exceptional. Another thing I learned was how the penitentiary system was invented (mainly as an alternative to "transportation to the colonies" or capital punishment), and how private or commercial interest was involved from the beginning (as well as how transported convicts were used as indentured/slave labor).

Overall, a great book. I would have liked to have seen more internal forensic accounting data, training information, and information about the contracting process, but that's at least another book if not several. ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
This is a quite beautifully written, straightforward book about the history and the current state of the American prison system; the author goes undercover in a privately owned prison and basically sees what happens. And if management would infer that the man’s work is fake, he wore a video and an audio recorder. Bingo.

You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.
Corrections Corporation of America cofounder Thomas Beasley

Bauer’s work to begin with is highly interesting, as he has been imprisoned for two years in Iran. He doesn’t tell his coworkers that. Nor does he tell management he’s a journalist, which is something that blows minds afterwards.

We have about eighty thousand people in solitary confinement in this country, more than anywhere in the world. In California’s Pelican Bay state prison alone, more than five hundred prisoners had spent at least a decade in the hole. Eighty-nine had been there for at least twenty years. One had been in solitary for forty-two years.

I became interested in this book as I am severely interested in the criminal justice system. I live in Sweden, where people are quite prone to thinking that we’re not at all like people in the USA are; oh god! they have guns! they throw people into jail forever; these are actually things happening in Sweden today. However, we don’t have privately owned prisons. Yet.

The schooling of Bauer into the prison to which he was hired is special.

Four more students trickle in, and then the HR director. She scolds Reynolds for napping, and he perks up when she tells us that if we recruit a friend to work here, we’ll get five hundred bucks. She gives us a random assortment of other tips: Don’t eat the food given to inmates; don’t have sex with the inmates or you could be fined $10,000 or get sentenced to “ten years at hard labor”; try not to get sick, because we don’t get paid sick time. If we have friends or relatives incarcerated here, we need to report it. She hands out magnets to put on our fridges with a hotline to call in case we become suicidal or begin fighting with our families. We get three counseling sessions for free.

I studiously jot down notes as the HR director fires up a video of the company’s CEO, who tells us in a corporate-promotional tone what a great opportunity it is to be a corrections officer at CCA. He is our shining light, an example of a man who climbed all the way up the ladder. (In 2018 he makes $4 million a year, twenty times the salary of the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.)

Money has poured into the privately owned prisons for ages, and I was about to write since slavery, but technically—it is slavery.

Forced labor was undeniably productive. An enslaved person in an antebellum cotton field picked around 75 percent more cotton per hour than a free farmer. Similarly, Texas prison farms into the 1960s produced a higher yield than farms worked by free laborers in the surrounding area. The reason is simple: People work harder when driven by torture. Texas allowed whipping in its prisons until 1941. Other states banned it much later. Arkansas prisons used the lash until 1967. But even after the whip, prisons found other ways to make inmates work harder. The morning after Sample’s first day of picking in 1956, the guards sent him, along with eight other men, to a four-by-eight-foot concrete and steel chamber to punish them for not making quota. The room was called “the pisser” and there was no light or water inside. A hole the size of a fifty-cent piece in the center of the floor served as the lavatory. The men’s panting breaths depleted the oxygen in the rancid air. “The nine of us writhed and twisted for space like maggots in a cesspool,” Sample recalled in his memoir. If someone took up too much space, a fight could break out. They stayed in the pisser all night, each taking turns lying down as the rest stood or squatted. In the morning they were brought straight out to the cotton fields.

Yes, with slavery comes punishment.

Back to the schooling:

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said stop fighting.” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!” He turns to face us. “Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. Hell, they both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.

Approximately one-quarter of all British immigrants to America in the eighteenth century were convicts.

Well, the book is very well written, and the best parts are a) the history of the prison system, b) the interaction between Bauer and the inmates, and c) how Bauer feels and mentally changes when he’s doing his work, and in his private life.

To say this book has changed things in the USA is an understatement, but also, it was underway; then, the Trump administration turned up. Still, the people in power want to continue to make the money, and that they do.

This book points out the issues with the prison system in America in a big way, by pointing out the little bits. It’s a massive achievement. The book breathes; this massive an achievement could easily have drowned books with the best of intentions.

I can strongly recommend this, perhaps paired with the seminal “Ghettocide: A Story Of Murder In America“ by Jill Leovy. ( )
  pivic | Mar 21, 2020 |
This is a shocking read, but in my opinion should be read by every American as well as those concerned about for-profit prisons in other countries. It’s a condemnation of the current prisons-for-profit scheme as well as a damning look at the history of prisons for profit in America.

Author Shane Bauer’s work is incredibly well documented with more than 25% of the book listing his references and original research.

Bauer began by going undercover as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center, a for-profit prison in Winnfield, Louisiana.

What he found was a dangerously understaffed, unregulated prison, with prisoners often running the show. There was little in the way of prisoner enrichment programs, medical care, and GED education – all mandated by the state and federal agencies. Records were carefully forged to show these programs existed. The truth is, however, that they were curtailed because every penny spent on these programs, as well as mandated personnel numbers (also carefully and spuriously documented), came out of the bottom line of the corporation’s profits.

In alternating chapters Bauer also provides the history of for-profit prisons in America. They came of age after the civil war, when thousands of free blacks had no way to support themselves and there was a shortage of workers for dangerous tasks. Black prisoners died like flies in mines, building roads and railways and other dangerous work.

““Before the war, we owned the negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him: if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” P 130.

“The torture and slaughter of thousands of African American men was no secret during the six-odd decades of postbellum convict leasing. From the beginning, newspapers had published exposés, legislative investigations had revealed startling numbers of deaths, and penal reformers and individual legislators had pushed for abolition. But outcry over humanitarian concerns had never been enough to end convict leasing on its own. It was only when leasing stopped bringing enormous profits to powerful businessmen and state treasuries that the system came apart.” P 168

Although reparations for descendants of former slaves is a hot topic in American politics, after reading this you may become an advocate for reparations for descendants of ‘free’ blacks held in American prisons. ( )
2 vote streamsong | Mar 2, 2020 |
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We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment. . . . For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.

—Philip Zimbardo
You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.

—Corrections Corporation of America cofounder Thomas Beasley
For the prisoners of America
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Two weeks after accepting the job, in November 2014, having grown a goatee, pulled the plugs from my earlobes, and bought a beat-up Dodge Ram pickup, I pull into Winnfield a town of approximately forty-six hundred people three hours north of Baton Rouge.
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After his 2014 expose about his experiences as a prison guard in a Lousisiana for-profit prison, Shane Bauer soon realised the cruelty of the current American system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration cannot be understood without first understanding its origins. In American Prison, Bauer weaves together a deeper reckoning of his prison guard experience with a thorough history of for-profit prisons in America. A blistering accusation of the private prison system in the United States, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in the USA.

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