I picked up Shane Bauer's American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment at Book Expo last year, because, while it's not my primary research and advocacy focus, the prison system is a deep and important area of interest for me. It's intricately connected to education, and I can't help but care about the business of prison.
Bauer is a journalist for Mother Jones magazine, and several years ago he decided to go undercover at a Louisiana prison to repent his experiences as a corrections officer there at a for-profit prison. His year-long experiment was quickly shortened — he lasted only a few months. However, it was enough to shape him and leaving him questioning everything he thought he knew about himself.
He’s first hired over the phone, sight unseen. The for-profit prison system pays CO’s less than minimum wage, and they are hurting for employees. In fact, before finishing training, Bauer’s cohort is whittled down quite a bit. His whole training experience is enough to turn your stomach; beginning from the moment he walks in the door, not a single inmate at the Winn Correctional Center is seen as human. They are animals, and the COs’ jobs are to treat them as such.
There is so much packed in this book, including a concise history of the for-profit prison industry, and it’s hard to know where to begin. The overall trajectory Bauer presents of himself — of a man seeking justice through journalism to a man who begins to see the inmates of Winn as the animals he is trained to view them as — was the most startling albeit the most predictable to anyone who has taken Psych 101. It’s the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large. It also feeds into a long-term research plan of mine related to education, but that’s neither here nor for this particular post. I wasn’t surprised at all at Bauer’s transformation, but wow, was it fast. Only a matter of months. It’s shocking how quickly the human brain will transform into full-scale survival mode.
Winn, as many for-profit prisons, was facing a CO shortage. Who wants to do that job for less than most cities pay in minimum wage? And then, for those who do, who feels as though they are respected enough by their managers that they then respect the men they are tasked with supervising? It’s a recipe for disaster. My favorite parts of this book quickly became the footnotes, which usually invoked the mentioning of Winn’s denial that any events Bauer discusses aren’t true or that they have no record of them. It’s laughable, really. Anyone who has simply read an article online from anyone who has ever walked into a prison knows that Bauer’s experiences are the norm.
I highly recommend this book for several reasons: Bauer’s persons journey, his interactions with the incarcerated men on his watch, the history of the for-profit prison system, and the final chapters in which Bauer shows the aftermath of his experiences and his reporting. It is well worth the time to ingest this book and sit with it for a time.