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'American Prison' presents a highly disturbing insider's view of a private prison

Award-winning reporter Shane Bauer worked as a corrections officer at a prison run by private company CoreCivic. The result is a harrowing but very important book.

American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment By Shane Bauer Penguin Press 368 pp.

With 2.1 million people in prison, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. The only other country with a number of prisoners that comes even close is China, with 1.6 million.  American incarceration rates skyrocketed beginning in the 1980s with draconian sentencing for drug violations that disproportionately targeted African-Americans and continued in the 1990s with 3-strikes-you’re out laws that condemned many repeat offenders to life sentences. 

However, the US penal system was unable to house its exploding population. The country couldn’t build prisons fast enough.  And as so often happens, someone looked at a national crisis and saw a business opportunity. Terrell Don Hutto, a former warden of prison complexes in Texas, cofounded the Corrections Corporation of America (since renamed CoreCivic) in 1983.  His timing could hardly have been better: according to the ACLU, the private prison population increased 1,600% between 1990 and 2009.  More recently CoreCivic and other private prison companies have found another lucrative growth opportunity: running ICE detention facilities.

But outsourcing incarceration to private companies has an inherent problem. The avowed goal of  the US penal system is humane treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners; but housing, educating and caring for people is expensive, and shareholders expect the biggest profits possible.

Award-winning Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer wanted a first-hand view of the prison business, and successfully applied for a corrections officer job at CCA (his preferred name for the company throughout the book).  In American Prison, he writes about his time at the CCA facility in Winn, Louisiana, where he witnessed barbarous treatment of prisoners and a corporate culture of callous cost-cutting and almost unfathomable negligence.

For starters, hiring staff at CCA don’t seem to do background checks.  When Bauer applied for work as a prison guard using his real name no one seems to have even Googled him. If they had, they would have learned he’s an investigative reporter who writes about the penal system.

And the problem inherent in applying the business model to prisons was apparent from Bauer’s first day, when it was made clear the profit margin was more important than the well-being of staff, let alone prisoners.  At the time he was hired, CCA prison guards in Winn were paid $9 an hour—a wage comparable to those in nearby Walmarts. During Bauer’s training, another new hire with asthma was told that if she had an attack while at work, she would get no help from prison medical staff. And working conditions were unsafe even by prison standards: Bauer reports that at Winn there was 1 guard for every 176 inmates (in federal prisons the average staff-to-inmate ratio is 1 to 4.4).

And if CCA’s treatment of staff is appalling, their treatment of prisoners is horrifying. When Bauer was writing "American Prison," the state of Louisiana paid CCA $34 per inmate per day: money to cover prisoners’ housing, food, clothing and medical care – all to be kept at a low enough cost that CCA makes a profit. During his second week of training Bauer met Robert Scott, an inmate missing both his legs and a few fingers. He had arrived at Winn with all his appendages, but prison infirmary staff ignored his complaints of pain and sore spots on his feet. In four months he made at least nine requests to see a doctor, and was threatened with a disciplinary write-up for malingering.  When he was finally taken to a local hospital, amputation was the only option. Another Winn inmate who attempted suicide has been sued by CCA for reimbursement of the cost of his hospital visit.

intentionBauer’s prose isn’t the sort that calls attention to itself, which is only to the good. The facts he reports, the prisoners he interviews, and the corrections officers he quotes are more telling about conditions at Winn than the finest nonfiction prose could ever be. And conditions at Winn have one goal: to dehumanize prisoners. 

The medical neglect that costs a prisoner his legs is but the most grotesque example of the brutality of life at Winn. Bauer recounts when he first searched inmates’ cells for contraband, he tried to respectfully put everything back where he found it.  His supervisor corrected him: throw everything on their beds.  In Winn’s high-security wing, he finds that two prisoners are usually assigned to each of the 8 x 8-foot cells. And corrections officers are taught to encourage hostility among inmates. In training Bauer’s told, “You just pit ‘em against each other and that’s the easiest way to get your job done.”  Like most other American prisons, Winn isn’t a place where prisoners change their ways—unless it’s to be brutalized into becoming better criminals.

"American Prison" is a disturbing, moving, and important book.

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