Un­der­cover re­porter doc­u­ments time as guard in ‘Amer­i­can Pri­son’

The Commercial Appeal - - Mlife - Aram Goud­souzian | CHAPTER16.ORG

As a pri­son guard, Shane Bauer saw scenes that came straight from hell. In­mates stabbed each other. They lit fires to protest their con­di­tions. They en­dured the sting of pep­per spray. They clam­ored for the ne­ces­si­ties of hu­man ex­is­tence. And they be­rated and threat­ened him, al­ter­ing the chem­istry in his brain, ren­der­ing him edgy and bel­liger­ent, mak­ing him ques­tion his very iden­tity.

He got paid $9 an hour. He later got a $1 raise, which meant he was mak­ing the same wage as work­ers at the lo­cal Wal­mart.

In “Amer­i­can Pri­son,” Bauer de­scribes his four-month stint at Winn Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in Lou­i­si­ana, a fa­cil­ity run by Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­ica (now called CoreCivic). An un­der­cover re­porter, he metic­u­lously and evoca­tively de­scribed the de­pri­va­tions of this pri­son in a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award-win­ning ar­ti­cle for Mother Jones. Bauer’s book elab­o­rates upon this ex­pe­ri­ence and pro­vides a deeper his­tory of for-profit pris­ons.

Bauer brings a unique per­spec­tive to in­car­cer­a­tion. In 2009, he and two fel­low Amer­i­cans were hik­ing in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan and un­wit­tingly drifted across the Ira­nian bor­der. In a saga of in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, he spent two years in Iran’s no­to­ri­ous Evin Pri­son, strug­gling to pre­serve his hope and san­ity. (His 2014 book about the ex­pe­ri­ence, co-writ­ten with his fel­low pris­on­ers Joshua Fat­tal and Sarah Shourd, is “A Sliver of Light.”)

When ap­ply­ing for the job at Winn Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in 2014, Bauer en­vi­sioned him­self as a voice for jus­tice. Seek­ing the high­est profit mar­gins, Bauer writes, pris­ons run by CCA rou­tinely cut cor­ners — their bare-bones staff lacks the re­sources to main­tain or­der, pris­on­ers re­ceive ter­ri­ble health care, and of­fi­cers ig­nore stan­dards for se­cu­rity checks and pris­oner wel­fare.

Know­ing all this go­ing in, Bauer nev­er­the­less felt the job’s pres­sures chang­ing him. He felt iso­lated and con­flicted. At times, he and a pris­oner could see each other as flesh-and-blood peo­ple, but later the ex­pe­ri­ence would make him ques­tion whether he was be­ing ex­ploited. In­stead of de­cry­ing the flawed struc­ture of for-profit im­pris­on­ment, he di­rected his fury at the pris­on­ers them­selves.

“It is get­ting in my blood,” he writes in “Amer­i­can Pri­son,” which some­times un­folds in the present tense, like a se­ries of jour­nal en­tries. “The bound­ary be­tween plea­sure and anger is blur­ring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take plea­sure in say­ing no to pris­on­ers.” He de­scribes the plea­sure of met­ing out small pun­ish­ments, the thrill he felt at the prospect of a riot. “Every­one would be cough­ing and gasp­ing, in­clud­ing me, and it would be good be­cause it would be ac­tion. All that mat­ters any­more is ac­tion.”

Bauer in­ter­sperses th­ese sear­ing first-per­son ac­counts with a his­tory of the pri­vateprison sys­tem. Con­vict la­bor dates to colo­nial-era set­tle­ment, and the prac­tice thrived in the mid-19th cen­tury. In 1865 the Thir­teenth Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion banned slav­ery “ex­cept as a pun­ish­ment for a crime.” Plan­ta­tion own­ers and in­dus­trial in­ter­ests ex­ploited that loop­hole, build­ing em­pires on the backs of dirt-cheap la­bor who could be lit­er­ally worked to death.

A 2016 De­part­ment of Jus­tice re­port stated that pri­vate pris­ons had higher lev­els of vi­o­lence, of­fered fewer cor­rec­tional pro­grams, and failed to save sub­stan­tial costs; con­se­quently, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment ceased con­tract­ing with pri­vate pris­ons. Yet in early 2017, new at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions re­versed that de­ci­sion. CoreCivic’s stock prices again rose.

Of the 1.5 mil­lion pris­on­ers in the United States, ap­prox­i­mately 130,000 are in pri­vately-run pris­ons. Bauer holds out lit­tle hope of any le­git­i­mate re­form: “If CCA raised guards’ wages, hired enough staff, and pro­vided ad­e­quate staff, it would lose its profit mar­gins,” he writes. “If, on the other hand, states raised their rates to cover the costs of re­forms, they would no longer be sav­ing money, which means there would be no rea­son for them to rely on pri­vate com­pa­nies to run their pris­ons.” As “Amer­i­can Pri­son” trag­i­cally makes clear, the weight of this para­dox lands on the shoul­ders of the peo­ple in the pri­son sys­tem.

For more lo­cal book cov­er­age, please visit Chapter16.org, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion of Hu­man­i­ties Ten­nessee. 1.

By Shane Bauer. Pen­guin Press. 368 pages. $28.

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