Shane Bauer’s American Prison is an impressive feat of investigative journalism. Bauer, a reporter at Mother Jones, works undercover for four months as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center, a privately run prison in rural Louisiana. Bauer’s book reveals the harsh realities of life for both prison guards and inmates within the walls of the Winn. In American Prison, Bauer illuminates the machinery of the modern private prison industry: the outsourcing of convict incarceration and “maintenance” to third parties whose bottom line is profit. This profit-mindedness becomes evident in Corrections Corporations of America (CCA)’s strategies to cut cost — constant understaffing, the dismantling and neglect of programs intended to support inmates, and the blatant disregard for the physical and mental well-being of inmates in need of medical attention. At a high level, Bauer also demonstrates with key anecdotes the recurrence of human subjugation for capital gain over the past two hundred years and its inherent racist ties, giving credence to his thesis:
“[I]t has become clear that there has never been a time in American history in which companies or governments weren’t trying to make money from other people’s captivity” (6).
Why I Chose This Book: Ophelia
I was also reminded of two deeply disturbing, illuminating books I read previously on the American criminal justice system: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. The authors helped me understand why the U.S. has “the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country,” and how the law can be used to help individuals trapped in the system. These books shed light on how truly appalling and heartbreaking America’s criminal justice system is. I felt there was so much more I needed to learn about it and American Prison seemed like the perfect fit.
Discussion Themes & Questions
- The dilemma between being a journalist versus being a prison guard — What is the right thing to do? Which role takes priority when?
- How has the modern prison system evolved from early convict leasing?
- What are your overall thoughts regarding for-profit private prisons and the CCA?
- Do prisons have a responsibility to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates or to prioritize the separation of prisoners from the rest of society?
- Does the current prison system incentivize people to stay in prison? Why might prisoners prefer incarceration or wind up as repeat offenders, especially after having served long sentences?
- Is the voluntary testing of pharmaceuticals on prisoners ethical?
Bauer is detailed, expressive, and unfiltered in the recounting of his four month tenure. With impressive objectivity, he recounts both the numerous ethical dilemmas he faces as an undercover journalist in perpetuating the status quo within the prison and the daily battle of suffering verbal and threatened physical abuse from the inmates. Shane also sheds light on the personalities of the inmates and their stories — revealing the odd equilibrium maintained between the prison guard and the inmates. I deeply appreciated his exposition on the struggle of balancing empathy for the prisoners with guarded apathy as a staff member, especially given his previous experience being incarcerated in Iran for twenty-six months. Overall, I would highly recommend American Prison on multiple counts: Bauer’s dedication towards proper investigative journalism, his unique, detailed recounting, and the wealth of both contemporary and historic detail towards the private prison industry in the U.S. This book sparked a very long and interesting discussion for us, and I hardly expect the conversation to stop there.
“How can anyone who has been locked up deliberately take from someone the little bit of freedom he has managed to carve out for himself… to slip away from the totalitarian control of prison” (116)?
“That ‘I-love-you!’ It ain’t gotta be a whole lot. That’s what I told my niece and my sister and them. I said for eighteen years, if they couldn’t send me no money, they could send me a piece of paper with ‘I love you’ on it, ain’t nothing else, and I will cherish that more” (192) — An excerpt from a conversation between two inmates.
“He tells me that he is suing CCA for neglect, claiming that inmates are denied medical care because the company operates the prison “on a skeleton crew for profitable gain” (49).
“”This is how it starts… [y]ou go to people for protection. But this is the number one thing you don’t do….”He tries to discourage vulnerable inmates from seeking help, and says he’s gotten into fights to stop new prisoners from being sexually assaulted” (141).
Coming into the book I had very little understanding of how the American prison system works or the history behind it. From a purely functional perspective, I viewed prisons as a necessary service to protect the general population from the few, truly dangerous individuals. However, this book presents the history of prisons in the United States to be rooted in a twisted pursuit of profit. Every corner is a cut to turn a higher profit and the effects of the resulting deficiencies are strongest felt by the prisoners. The book provides substantial (and oftentimes unpleasant) historical information that is interleaved with the author’s own experiences as a guard in a Louisiana prison. After finishing the book, I was impressed with how Shane Bauer was able to convey an objectively accurate experience inside the prison as a corrections officer.
Bauer undergoes a transformation over the course of the book as a function of the persistent stress and danger in his role at the prison; he writes, “”Striving to treat everyone as human takes too much energy. More and more I focus on proving I won’t back down” (208). It was also jarring to see how much this role took a toll on his relationship with his wife; Bauer feels “like [he] battles prisoners all day, and when [he] gets off, the battle continues with her over the phone” (268). I wonder if these experiences inside the prison had a permanent effect on him or if he was able to compartmentalize and move on from them completely.
His internal struggles with performing his job duties were particularly interesting to read about — as a undercover investigative reporter whose role is to observe the system, to what extent will he “play the part”? He writes, “ “I struggle constantly to understand what my role should be. How much should I engage…is it ethical for me to participate in the prison system?”” This situation reminded me of Kevin Carter’s “Struggling Girl” photo; what is the reporter’s role in the situation in which he can make an immediate impact? Choose the path of disengaged documentation, or take the immediate action to ameliorate the situation while simultaneously changing its “purity”? What is the emotional toll that the former takes on the reporter? Reading this book made me further recognize the emotional strength that investigative journalism takes; choosing to report on the situation in its purest and often darkest form is a powerful way to raise awareness and instigate larger-scale change.
“The idea of making money from prisoners was as old as the idea of forcing black men to pick cotton” (15).
“Suicide attempts were not punishable. Self-mutilation was, and it allowed for the company to recover damages from the inmate…In a hearing, DOC attorney Jonathan Vining said Benoit took all those pills ‘basically to go to the hospital and cost CCA money.” (67).
“‘Imminent danger must be present before using deadly force. True or false?’ ‘True,’ everyone says in unison. ‘What is imminent danger? Imminent danger is a level of danger that justifies the use of deadly force.’ The perfect circular definition” (88).
“Once you’ve been in prison, prison stays in you” (293).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Although American Prison was quite the startling, jarring read, I thought Shane’s perspective as a former prisoner in Iran gave way to an incredible comparison between his experience as a prisoner vs. his experience as a prison guard.
The events that Shane recounts in his book are hard to stomach, and his daily calibration of friendliness/sternness, kindness/weakness, and observing/participating is exhausting to read about. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to endure. I admire his dedication to telling this story, as well as his journalistic integrity. Shane was objective and transparent about how each day’s events were recorded — he writes, “I don’t want to rely on the fickleness of memory (23).” He uses a pen recorder, a camera watch, and a notepad when he forgets to delete the previous days’ recordings, and starts each chapter with how the following information was gathered. The care he put into his data collection gives the book a factual, reliable account of the events that transpired. He also included the CCA’s rebuttal statements as footnotes at the bottom of each page — which was sad (essentially, it was deny, deny, deny) but good journalistic practice.
I wish Shane elaborated more on how this experience touched him emotionally. I’m especially curious about the toll that it took on his relationship with his wife, and how it shaped him holistically as a person. I wonder how formative this experience was in comparison to his previous experiences in Iran. Though he says he tries to compartmentalize, how can the personality shift and unshakable exterior he puts on not leak out to other places? Compared to his time in Iran, working at Winn was a proactive action — he put himself through this and I want more self-reflection.
Overall, the theme of “power in proximity” resonated deeply with me. This was something Matthew Desmond (Evicted) mentioned in his City Arts Lecture. The perspective of the author (in both American Prison and Evicted) is one of such close proximity to the actual issue — and that in itself is quite profound. The closer you get to an issue, the more clarity you can bring to it. This applies to both ethnographic research/investigative journalism and volunteering at the local level. Finally, reading this book reinforced how all of these issues are interconnected. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and the impact that your early childhood years have on you. The Teacher Wars and your access to education. Dreamland and the opioid epidemic. Evicted and housing insecurity. You can’t isolate these socioeconomic issues or study them in silos — each is connected to the other, and reading this book makes that very clear.
“While I do this, I remember the times I came back to my cell in Iran after my daily allotment of fresh air, finding it ransacked. It was like coming home after a robbery. Even on the occasions when I didn’t find letters or books missing, I felt completely violated. As I go through these lockers, I try to show a basic level of respect, carefully putting each object back where I found it (43).”
“The community should never derive benefit from crimes, because that makes it directly interested in their continuance and increase (76).”
“People mistake kindness for weakness. How do I find the middle ground between appearing soft and being draconian? (179).”
“Sometimes prisoners call me racist, and it stings, but I try as hard as I can not to flinch, because to do so would be to show a pressure point, a button that can be pressed when they want to make me bend (208).”
Before diving into American Prison, I had no prior knowledge or understanding of what the prison system in America was like, so reading this book was really enlightening for me. I learned so much not only about what the day-to-day was like as a corrections officer, but also about the historical context in Louisiana — “the state with the highest incarceration rate in the world” (pg 9) — that connected pre-Civil-War slavery to Reconstruction-era convict leasing to modern-day privatized prisons.
The topic of rehabilitation and the moral purpose of prisons was also particularly interesting to unpack. In playing the role of devil’s advocate, I thought it was one thing to push for the creation of programs within prisons in order to try and rehabilitate inmates. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily safe to simply assume that those incarcerated do indeed want to be rehabilitated and reenter society. Similar to what happened with Corner Store, I’ve heard of stories about how some former inmates end up committing crimes again just to go back to prison. After being incarcerated for so long, those inmates may very well come to believe that prison life is the new norm and a place of comfort. With that in mind, there would seem to be little incentive for those inmates to truly repent for their crimes and rehabilitate in order to return to society — a world in which they don’t understand the social customs, a world in which they have to make decisions themselves, a world that is home by name but not by heart.
As an additional side note, I thought it was really interesting to think about the fine line that Shane Bauer walked in terms of upholding his role as an observer (i.e. investigative journalist) versus a participant (i.e. corrections officer) in the prison system. I thoroughly appreciated how he shared the moments of internal dilemma he experienced when he had to choose between fulfilling his duty as the guard and doing something humane for the prisoners (such as what happened when he found the cellphone in an inmate’s cell). Although his decision to continue playing the role of a prison guard might seem like he is perpetuating the problem, this still enabled him to continue gathering extensive evidence of the inhumane injustices that happened at Winn. Being an observer in order to gather the story and present it to the masses ultimately allows him as an individual to make the biggest impact he can make on society, which is to encourage a more educated populace on the topic of prison reform. The role of a reporter is to tell the story as it is and to drive social change through that story, and from this book, I found a newfound respect for investigative journalism as an honorable and self-sacrificial profession.
“We all want to believe in ur inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.” (Pg 85)
“Prison don’t rehabilitate you. You have to rehabilitate yourself.” (Pg 141)
“My job will always be to deny them the most basic of human impulses — to push for more freedom.” (Pg 208)