Book of the week
American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment
Just two years ago, the private prison industry was in serious trouble, in part because of the work of Shane Bauer, said Gabriel Thompson in the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2014, the young journalist had gone undercover as a guard in a Louisiana prison, and after his 35,000-word exposé was published in Mother Jones and he shared his findings with federal officials, the Justice Department announced it would begin phasing out privately run federal prisons. “Change seemed to be on the horizon.” But then the White House changed hands, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the decision, and with the surge in the detention of undocumented immigrants, “the private prison industry is booming once again.” If you care to learn what that means for the prisoners, detainees, and underpaid guards most affected, “American Prison is the place to begin.”
“Bauer brings a unique perspective to incarceration,” said Aram Goudsouzian in Nashville Scene. Before applying for work as a prison guard in Louisiana, he had spent two years in an Iranian prison after he and two other American hikers wandered off course into Iran and were arrested and charged as spies. He arrived home wanting to investigate how U.S. prisons treated inmates. When he landed a job at a medium-security facility run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), “Bauer saw scenes that came straight out of hell.” In his four months on the job, he witnessed a dozen stabbings. Inmates set protest fires and made constant threats. One mentally ill prisoner starved himself down to 71 pounds before committing suicide. And the $9-an-hour, poorly trained guards responded—when they responded at all—with pepper spray and anger of their own.
American Prison shares many of the conversations Bauer secretly recorded while inside, and “the sheer number of forehead-slapping quotes from Bauer’s superiors and fellow guards is alone worth the price of admission,” said Nate Blakeslee in The New York Times. Still, Bauer places most of the blame for the deplorable conditions in corporate-run prisons on the pressure to generate profit, a feat usually accomplished by slashing costs on niceties like inmate counseling and dependable cell locks. Not much is likely to get better in private federal lockups now that the industry has been given a pass on past failures. But at Bauer’s old place of employment, some things have changed. LaSalle Corrections, the company that replaced CCA, no longer accepts payment from the state of just $34 a day per prisoner. “LaSalle agreed to do the job for $24.” ■