Two weeks after Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine, began his undercover stint as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in rural Louisiana, an inmate jumped the razor-wire fence and sprinted into the surrounding woods. There were no officers in the guard towers to witness his escape; the private prison company hired by the state of Louisiana to run the facility, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), had decided to save money by leaving those posts empty. An alarm sounded in the control room, but a guard ostensibly monitoring the battery of surveillance cameras saw nothing. Rather than review the footage, she simply switched off the alarm and returned her attention to whatever was occupying it beforehand. Hours passed before anybody noticed that the inmate was gone.
The situation at Winn went downhill from there, as Bauer revealed in a 35,000-word exposé that ran in Mother Jones in the summer of 2016, an article that immediately became one of the most celebrated achievements in that venerable publication’s recent renaissance. “American Prison” reprises that page-turning narrative, and adds not only the fascinating back story of CCA, the nation’s first private prison company, but also an eye-opening examination of the history of corrections as a profit-making enterprise, of which the advent of the private prisons that now house 8 percent of American inmates is only the latest chapter.
Bauer’s reporting has inevitably sparked comparisons to Ted Conover’s book “Newjack,” for which the renowned journalist spent a year in the late 1990s working at New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison to better understand what it’s like to pursue a career as a professional jailer. But this is not what Bauer is writing about, because a career is not what a company like CCA offers its employees. At Sing Sing, which is staffed by state employees, new hires spend two months at a training academy, enjoy good pay and benefits guaranteed by a strong union, are supervised by seasoned officers and can look forward to a decent retirement. At Winn, Bauer gets four weeks of training — when his instructors show up, that is — and the pay starts at $9 per hour. He soon discovers that all guards earn that rate, no matter how long they have worked at Winn. The only way to earn more is to make rank, but most don’t stay long enough to get promoted. Turnover is so high and staffing so short that Bauer himself is asked to begin training cadets less than seven weeks into his tenure.
The company’s main concern seems to be maintaining parity with the local Walmart, where the pay is comparable, and the conditions presumably less anxiety-inducing. “People say … we’ll hire anybody,” the prison’s head of training tells Bauer and his fellow cadets. “Which is not really true, but if you come here and you breathing and you got a valid driver’s license and you willing to work, then we’re willing to hire you.” (Yes, that is an exact quote — Bauer carried a recording device concealed in a pen.) If you like that line, you’ll love this book; the sheer number of forehead-slapping quotes from Bauer’s superiors and fellow guards alone are worth the price of admission.
Every management decision at Winn, Bauer discovers, is dictated by one imperative: maintaining profitability by squeezing expenses. This begins with the low pay, which leads to staffing shortages dire enough to threaten the safety of both guards and inmates. But the crisis at Winn goes much deeper. During his four-month tenure, Bauer documents a dozen stabbings; scores of “use of force” incidents (far more than at comparable state-run units); cell doors that can be opened by inmates; atrocious medical care; and a seemingly preventable inmate suicide. He records guards shamelessly admitting that they trained bloodhounds by using actual inmates, beat inmates outside the view of cameras and routinely failed to perform the most basic elements of their jobs.
“Ain’t no order here,” a convict says. “Inmates run this bitch, son.” It is less of a boast than a complaint, because the situation is dangerous for everybody involved. If Conover set out to discover what it’s like to be in charge of a prison, Bauer asks a different question: What is it like to work — or serve time — in a prison where nobody is in charge?
His survey of profit-driven incarceration begins in the mid-19th century and strikes a familiar theme, that mass incarceration in the South was simply slavery by another name. But Bauer adds new details, especially about the history of convict leasing, in which entire prisons — filled mostly with African-American inmates — were rented out to individuals or companies to provide a captive work force. Convicts did more than plant cotton. The textile mill inside Texas’ first penitentiary became the largest factory in the state, and inmates were used throughout the South to dig mines and build railroads, generally working under horrible conditions. Death rates were staggeringly high; convicts, unlike slaves, cost nothing to replace. As much as anything, this is the story of the South trying to compete with Northern industry without disturbing the region’s existing power structure, which is to say, without labor unions. Inmates were the original scabs.
Prisons operated by companies like CCA (recently rebranded as CoreCivic), which was founded in 1983 and is now a $3.04 billion publicly traded concern, don’t typically grow crops or manufacture anything of value. Inmates themselves are the commodities, and money is made by persuading legislators that a private operator can confine and care for them more cheaply — in Winn’s case, $34 per inmate per day — than the state. Of course, penny-pinching and staff shortages are found at state-run lockups, too (especially in places like Louisiana), but there is another consideration when a profit-seeking middleman gets involved: What happens when setting a prisoner free is detrimental to a company’s bottom line? Bauer discovers that a Winn inmate was held for a full year after he was eligible for release, ostensibly because he had no address in Louisiana that would take him in — a technicality that presumably earned the company an additional $12,410 from his continued incarceration.
It’s not just the convicts who are being exploited. Most of the guards at Winn, like Bauer himself, are afraid of their charges and resentful of the chaos that makes their jobs more dangerous. Bauer is a generous narrator with a nice ear for detail, and his colleagues come across as sympathetic characters, with a few notable exceptions. In a wonderful twist, he interviews a number of them after his deception is eventually exposed. How much loyalty does $9 per hour buy? About as much as you’d imagine; most are all too happy to help pull the curtain back on CCA.
Bauer’s takeaway is that private prisons like Winn can’t be fixed, that the profit motive inevitably drives companies to take risks and cut corners. He’s not the only one to draw that conclusion; after Mother Jones ran his article, Bauer was invited to Washington to talk to federal officials studying the efficacy of private prisons. Not long after, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Justice would no longer contract with CCA or its ilk. It turned out to be a short-lived mandate, reversed almost immediately by the incoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Today the industry is thriving thanks to a bull market in immigrant detention.
As for Winn, conditions at the unit continued to deteriorate until personnel from a state-run prison stormed in and temporarily regained control. Two weeks after Bauer left, CCA voluntarily withdrew from its contract, essentially admitting that the facility was a lost cause. Louisiana officials didn’t see it that way, however. Another company, LaSalle Corrections, promptly took over management of Winn, though the state is no longer paying CCA’s bargain rate of $34 per day.
LaSalle agreed to do the job for $24.