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

by Shane Bauer

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2821067,948 (4.19)16
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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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 |
I hope this help will raise visibility about the huge crisis with prisons and incarceration in this country. The book is very readable and accessible, which should help to that end.

There were a couple things that didn't sit quite right. For example, how the book wrapped up kind tidy and clean at the end. The author steps back to their regular life while the problems within the prison and prison system remain- with this kind of tragic and emotionally charged this subject matter there isn't really an easy way to wind down and step away. Yet it still feels a little too clean and crisp, even though the author hints that it may not be that way for themselves either. Perhaps more acknowledgement of that might it seem less abrupt. Another example- the follow up on one inmates release and subsequent return to jail feels a little voyeuristic, even if it is relevant to the narrative. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
Bauer previously spent two years in prison in Iran, having inadvertently crossed the border, and then came back to the US and went undercover in a Louisiana private prison. Even with that background, he can’t help being changed into a prison guard—although the Stanford Prison Experiment has been justly criticized for a lot, it’s important to acknowledge that our actual prisons are set up to encourage indifference, at best, to prisoners’ welfare, and guards respond to those conditions. It’s an incredibly compelling and horrific story of how ill-paid guards subject to corporate profit-oriented rules must and do cut corners, which he integrates with a larger history of for-profit prisons and their intimate connection to chattel slavery in the US. Highly recommended but very hard to read. ( )
  rivkat | Dec 19, 2019 |
Shane Bauer went undercover as a prison guard at a corporate-owned prison. His book is more than just a horrifying, eye-opening account of what he saw and experienced, it is also a horrifying, eye-opening account of the history of convict labor and how the prison system became a way of perpetuating slavery and white dominance throughout the former Confederacy. Without ever mentioning reparations, it makes a convincing case for reparations to make restitution to African-Americans. Not a pleasant book for anyone to read, but a necessary one. ( )
  nmele | May 31, 2019 |
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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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