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What you see when you go undercover at a private prison for 4 months

Mother Jones

When Shane Bauer packed his bags, he didn’t know what to expect. He wasn’t headed to a far-off country. He wasn’t going to a cabin or a beach. Bauer was off to work for the next four months at a private prison in Louisiana: the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield.

Bauer’s experience, documented in a long piece for Mother Jones this month, exposes a prison in disarray. The inmates are violent, with stabbings a regular occurrence. The guards are demoralized — too outnumbered, understaffed, and underpaid to create a genuinely safe environment. The facility regularly experiences all kinds of other issues, from failing to provide adequate medical care to inappropriate sexual relationships between guards and inmates.

And the company that formerly owned the prison, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered little reassurance in answering the more than 150 questions Bauer sent them in a lengthy back and forth through email.

It was a system so chaotic and broken that it began to creep into Bauer’s mind. The longer he spent in the prison, he said, the more he began to act and feel like a guard and less like a journalist. He felt more aggressive, finding himself overbearingly asserting his authority while at the prison and even hoping for a fight while shooting pool at the local bar.

“It really made me realize that perhaps all of us are shaped much more by our situation than we realize,” Bauer recently told me in an interview. “When I’m a journalist and a husband and friend and whatever in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a very different context than when I’m a prison guard in Louisiana. It was impossible for me to be the same person in those two situations.”

Bauer’s piece is really worth reading in full. But to get more details about his life as a private prison guard in early 2015, I reached out to him by phone. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Private prisons do a lot to save money — to the detriment of everyone

German Lopez: If you had to pull out one story or one example to show how screwed up this facility was, what would you go to?

Shane Bauer: It’s hard to pick one, honestly. There are different ones that show different aspects of the result or the consequences of the pressure to cut costs.

One thing that comes to mind is when I saw these prisoners stabbing each other in front of me. This is something that happens in all kinds of prisons, of course, not just private prisons. But it was something that happened very frequently at Winn — more frequently than in other prisons. That had to do in part with the lack of security staff, their inability to do the security checks that they were supposed to do.

Another case comes to mind. A man jumps over two fences in the middle of the day in view of guard towers, but nobody saw his escape because they removed the guards from the guard towers years ago to cut costs.

I also think of a man, Robert Scott, who had no legs and fingers. He lost them to gangrene. He had gone to the doctor many times over a period of months, [which] I know from the medical records, complaining of intense pain in his legs, his feet leaking pus [and] turning black. And he would be basically sent back with some Motrin. Sometimes they suggested he was faking it. And he was trying to go to the hospital, but he couldn’t go to the hospital — they wouldn’t transfer him. So he had his legs amputated.

I saw this kind of thing over and over again with prisoners with medical conditions trying to get to the hospital. I learned later that the company has to bear the cost [of the hospital]. So it’s a major expense to take a prisoner who you’re making $34 a day from to a hospital and [get] some major operation.

Dollars. Alex Wong/Getty Images

GL: That seems to be the recurring theme in this story: the company trying to save as much money as possible to maximize its profits. While it’s true that governments have a similar incentive to hold down prison costs, the for-profit incentive makes that more explicit. Do you think that’s the big takeaway from this story?

SB: Yeah, I do. I saw the result of these cost-cutting measures everywhere. I mean, we were making $9 an hour as guards. [Starting pay for public prison guards in Louisiana was $12.50 an hour.]

One of the first red flags for me is before I got there: I was doing interviews, and the head of HR told me that there was high unemployment in this town — a town where the average income is $25,000 a year. Despite the high unemployment, they were having a hard time hiring out staff. People didn’t want to work there even though they were desperate for work.

The people who did work there were kind of the most desperate. There were single moms, kids right out of high school, guys [with] a history in the military or prisons in general and had no other option. When you have people meant to provide security being paid so poorly, it leads to really low morale. And I had guards say to me, “I am nothing but a body for this company.” They would basically show up for work, do the 12 hours, do as little as they had to do, stay out of prisoners’ way to avoid problems.

Prison guards suffer a lot from private prison conditions

GL: Although the story goes into problems with the prison itself, it also seems like the prison guards are a big part of this broken machine.

SB: Yeah.

When I went into this project, I didn’t expect that I would write about guards. The intention wasn’t to write a story about what it’s like to be a prison guard. I became a guard because that was the only way to get inside.

But something that really surprised me was how thin the line was between the guards and the prisoners in this situation. They’re mostly from [a] similar economic class. There was a guard I met who had seven years in prison himself. There were guards who knew prisoners from their childhood.

There’s inevitably a lot of tension and conflict between guards and prisoners, but there was also a sense of camaraderie. Guards and prisoners would bond over their disdain for the company; that was kind of universal. There was this sense that we’re all trapped in this system. Prisoners would say to us, “We know you can’t change this,” when they were frustrated they can’t get to their classes, because they were canceled. [Classes and work programs were cut and canceled regularly, largely due to staffing vacancies.]

But we would still be locked in conflict. As the floor officer, I was the first point of contact for the prisoners. So when they’re frustrated with our system, I’m the one they came to.

So we were aware we were trapped in this larger puzzle, but we would still enact our roles that were oftentimes at odds.

Prison bars. Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

GL: It was surprising how frank inmates were with the guards, who are supposed to have some sort of authority and power. But some of the inmates are just not afraid to tell off guards. The frankness of how the inmates treated the guards like a joke seems striking and telling of the conditions at the prison.

SB: I definitely did not have sense from the prisoners that they were intimidated by the guards. There were certain ways we had power over them, but we were always vastly outnumbered, and everybody knew that. It was clear that the guards had to be careful with how they interacted with the prisoners, not the other way around. It was a very complex web of power, which everyone is trying to navigate, and just trying to make it. But there’s not really anybody who’s clearly on top.

Inmates in California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

GL: Those moments in which you became more of a prison guard and forgot you were a journalist really stuck out to me. You hear those kinds of accounts from police and correction guards, in which they get absorbed into the culture. Some of the guards you talked to in the story mentioned the same thing — how they were worried about losing sight of these inmates as people. How much did that trouble you personally as you went into this?

SB: I was somewhat aware that might happen, but I had no idea the degree to which I would change.

As it started happening, it was a bizarre dynamic, because I was constantly trying to step back and write about what was happening — mostly about how I was seeing the prison but also what was happening with myself. So I knew it was happening, but I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want to get into this mode of being an overbearing guard.

It really made me realize that perhaps all of us are shaped much more by our situation than we realize. When I’m a journalist and a husband and friend and whatever in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a very different context than when I’m a prison guard in Louisiana. It was impossible for me to be the same person in those two situations.

Toward the end of those four months, I ended up leaving suddenly — not by my own choice. But I was really thinking about pulling out, mostly because of how the job was affecting me, how I saw I was changing. I had a question: At what point is this going to be irreversible, where some aspects of this stick with me? That was scary to me.

Public prisons are far from perfect, but private prisons seem to bring their own set of problems

GL: Reading your story reminded me of an investigation I did into an Ohio private prison, also owned by CCA, back when I lived in the state. I didn’t go undercover as a guard for four months, but I corresponded with inmates and verified details with public records requests after the state sold the Lake Erie Correctional Institution — the first time a state did that — to CCA. I found many of the same problems you did: high levels of violence and really unsanitary conditions.

But one thing that surprised me after I published that article is the messages I got from public prison officials and guards afterward in which they told me something along the lines of, “Yeah, this is bad, but trust us when we say public prisons are bad, too.” And there are notoriously bad public prisons like Rikers Island in New York City and Pelican Bay State Prison in California. So I’m curious if there’s anything you pulled from your investigation that demonstrated private prisons are worse.

SB: To me, the point of the story is not to say that private prisons are worse than public prisons. I think there’s a unique set of issues particular to private prisons, but like you said, Pelican Bay — I’ve written about Pelican Bay, I’ve been there. There are people in solitary confinement for decades there. That’s not something you find in private prisons as a whole.

But the unique issues in private prisons have to do with the for-profit incentive. There are medical issues across the prison system, but they seem to be extremely acute in private prisons. There are some states in which CCA actually writes into its contract that it won’t accept prisoners with serious medical or mental health issues, because of the cost. And the staffing — there are also staffing issues across the prison system, but it does seem particularly acute in private prisons. And that was definitely true at Winn.

Talking to dozens of prisoners about their experiences in other prisons while I was there, they would regularly tell me that Winn was more chaotic, had less structure, fewer programs, fewer work options — that it was just thinner than everywhere else.

There was also a time when the state took over because the prison had become so chaotic — there were multiple stabbings in a week. The state stepped in, and the prisoners reacted to these guards from Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary] and other state-run prisons completely differently. [Inmates] kind of treated us like we were a joke but listened to these guys without any issue.

I even talked to a warden from another prison who came in and was observing, and he said to me, “This place is a joke.” I asked him about training in his prison, which offers 90 days of training and had fitness incentives and things like that. At Winn, we went through four weeks [of training]. He was astonished by that.

At state-run prisons, like Pelican Bay, they have issues that are in some ways opposite to what you have at Winn: hyper-control, where people are potentially removed from all human interaction. And at Winn, you had people living on top of each other, and a really chaotic environment.

Private prisons are notoriously closed off, but some of the data we do have is damning

An inmate holds onto a fence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Mario Tama/Getty Images

GL: I know there is some 2001 data from the Department of Justice that shows that private prisons had far more reported incidents of violence. But it doesn’t seem like there is much research being done on this, perhaps because private prisons are notoriously more closed off to public access.

SB: It’s interesting that the Department of Justice hasn’t done a study in quite a long time, and I’m not sure why. Their data is really useful for this kind of thing. They used to study private prisons in particular and compare them to public prisons using data from tens or dozens of prisons.

But as far as reporting, we see private prisons come up in the news when there’s a riot. Like in Idaho, there was a [private] prison shut down some years ago.

We hear about them at these times, but it is really hard to report on these prisons. It’s hard to get data on them.

You’ve probably experienced this. It depends on the state, since some states are more cooperative [with public record requests]. But in my experience, there are some states where you can wait months or you just don’t get anything unless you sue.

Prison bars. Matias Nieto/Cover via Getty Images

GL: Yeah. Reporting the story I mentioned earlier in Ohio, the biggest waiting period was the public record requests. I had all these letters from inmates; then I just had to wait for months to get my public record requests filled out.

SB: I did get data from the Department of Corrections in Louisiana that was indicative about what was going on at Winn. For example, in the first four months of 2015, while I was there, there were nearly 200 weapons found at Winn. That is 23 times more than the numbers that were reported from Angola, a maximum-security prison in Louisiana. There were seven times more chemical agents, like pepper spray and tear gas, used at Winn than Angola.

One thing that was interesting was that during a two-month period, I was recording when there was a stabbing that I either witnessed or a warden or supervisor reported it to us. I recorded 12 stabbings in this two-month period. And I looked through the numbers for the Department of Corrections that CCA reported — they reported five stabbings in a 10-month period. That would suggest they were not reporting all of this. If I hadn’t been working within inside the prison, I could have never known how violent this place was.

Pelican Bay prison in California. Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

GL: Very often in the story, a prison guard, inmate, or you report something bad that happened at the prison, and then CCA flatly denies it. It happens consistently. It kind of chips away at CCA’s credibility the further you get into the story, because it’s hard to believe all the denials. Reporting this out, did you get that feeling?

SB: It was remarkable to me, the things that they denied.

But it was important for me to get their side of the story. I sent them more than 150 questions. But a lot of our back and forth during that time, they wouldn’t actually speak to me. I wanted to interview them in person. But this was all through email. They would word their answers to comment about my motives, and that I shouldn’t have been reporting this out while I worked there, and that I wasn’t doing my job the way I was supposed to — that kind of thing.

It was difficult to predict what would happen before going undercover

Reporters work on laptops. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

GL: Approaching this story as a journalist, how did you get this idea, how did you decide you wanted to do it, and how did you prepare it?

SB: The idea came kind of randomly in conversations with a colleague one day. I just thought, “I’ll put in applications for CCA and GEO [the other major private prison company],” on kind of a whim, honestly. I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it. But I thought, “Why not give this a shot?” So I just went on their websites and filled out applications with my real name and personal information.

When I started getting calls a couple weeks later, that’s when it really hit me. I started talking to people in interviews, and the interviews were so basic. It really had nothing to do with prisons. They were generic job interviews about how I deal with conflict and that kind of thing. It was really striking to me how easy it was to get a job — and I was in a position of choosing where I could go.

So we switched into this mode, with my editors, of preparing, having our lawyers really look at everything, making sure we were doing everything right, not getting ourselves in any trouble, and thinking about things like what would happen if I got injured. We tried to work through those questions in the short time frame we had.

But at some level, there was no way to really prepare for it. I just moved there, and I was jumping into a fairly unknown situation.

GL: So even the application process was telling. I think one person in the story said something along like, “They accept anyone with a heartbeat and a driver’s license.”

SB: Yeah. “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."

A prison in Colorado. Bob Daemmrich/AFP via Getty Images

GL: Yeah. So before you’re really getting into this story, some red flags pop up.

Did you have any idea how long this would last — that it would take four months?

SB: No. I had no idea. It was open-ended. The idea was that if I get inside, then I stay there for as long as I need to see through a full story.

After I had been in training for just a couple days, it was really a mixture of feelings. I was nervous still about being found out, I was really excited that I was actually inside, and I was shocked at how much material I was getting. Every day, I was getting stuff that would’ve been so difficult to get, and each little tidbit would have been a story that I would pursue for weeks. So I felt like if this all unravels after two or three days, I’ll be able to write a magazine article about this already.

In that way, it felt like this was all icing on the cake after the first week. But it just kept going and going and going.

GL: Besides your story, are there any other books or articles you would recommend to people to get deeper into the issue of prison privatization?

SB: There was one book: Punishment for Sale by Donna Salman and Paul Leighton. I read it going down there. That gave me a good sense of the history of the industry side of private prisons. That was really interesting. There was also a good story that the Nation recently published, getting into the federal contracts around private prisons. That was also more on the business side of things.