Back in 1887, New York World reporter Nellie Bly did something unprecedented for a story that would deal with inhumane conditions that were prevalent throughout the city’s insane asylums.
The young reporter feigned insanity, so that she could be committed to an asylum located outside of New York City. Before she was released 10 days later, Bly observed and noted down the horrific conditions at the asylum, as well as the cruel way the patients were being mistreated by the staff. Her articles that were based on her experiences led to increased spending and improved regulations by the City of New York to better the conditions of the city’s insane asylums, and create criteria regarding who should really be committed.
Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine, has taken a page from Nellie Bly’s book of how to be an undercover reporter to get the inside story dealing with a pressing social matter. This time, Bauer decided to investigate how privatization of a number of prisons across the U.S., especially how the prison system is being run more like a business than a penal institution. Only this time, Bauer would not see the conditions of a private prison from the point of view of a convict, but as a prison guard. His four months as a corrections officer at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana resulted in an expose that was published in Mother Jones, and won Bauer a National Magazine Award. And his expose into what is wrong with the private prison system in America has been expanded to book form, and the result is the riveting American Prison.
The chief culprit in this story is the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which was co-founded by veteran prison administrator T. Don Hutto and currently has over 80 types of correctional facilities across the U.S. that houses over 80,000 inmates. CCA operates its network of private prisons by getting lucrative contracts by different state governments on the promise that they can run these correctional facilities on a cost-saving basis ($34 per prisoner, as opposed to the $52 per prisoner its costs to house them in a state prison); somehow CCA’s modus operandi is quite effective, as they raked in about $1.8 in revenue in 2014, the year that Bauer went undercover at Winn.
As the reader discovers through Bauer’s account, CCA’s cost-cutting measures are felt by both guards and prisoners alike. Guards are virtually hired on the spot without any background check to speak of; the training sessions are cursory at best; and starting salaries for an entry level correctional officer is $9 an hour, as opposed to $12.50 an hour for guards who work at state prisons. And it gets worse for prisoners, with constant punishments for even the slightest infractions (which are rewarded with lengthy stays in segregation wings of the prison), food that hardly meets any type of health standards, refusal of sending inmates with health problems to a hospital because it means that CCA is obligated to pay the expensive costs for any medical treatment they receive, and if a prisoner ends up in a suicide watch cell, they are confined in a tiny cell, and stripped naked with nothing but a “suicide blanket” for clothing. And with barely any activities or work programs to keep these inmates busy or aid them towards rehabilitation, a sense of anger and violence is quite prevalent, which lead to increased stabbing incidents within the walls of Winn.
And every time Bauer recounts many of the ugly incidents of prisoner violence or abuse, he footnotes every CCA response to them, in which they categorically deny they ever happened, or that company policy was followed to the letter to ensure such incidents were brought to their logical conclusions.
As an added bonus, Bauer fortifies this expose by offering a vast historical perspective to how the private prison system in America evolved, which goes back to before the Civil War, where such practices as chain gangs, road gangs and prisoner leasing (in which private prisons or prison farms would pay a leasing fee to the state government in question to use their convicts for hard labor, which would lead to immense profits for both the state and the owners of these prisons; it also gave prison guards free rein to inflict some of the most brutal, violent types of punishments to these convicts who had the bad fortune to end up in these labour gangs, which ranged from whippings to time in confining “sweatboxes” for insubordination, escape attempts, or not meeting their daily work quotas) were the norm.
American Prison is a great piece of undercover investigative journalism, in which Shane Bauer was willing to risk his own life and well being to discover how crime and punishment has shamelessly gone corporate (which is boldly exemplified in the book’s final chapter, in which Bauer attends CCA’s annual stockholders’ meeting at its headquarters in Nashville and is endlessly stonewalled by CCA executives every time he tries to raise the issue of prisoner mistreatment). Thanks to Bauer’s absorbing book, we sadly discover that the world of the private prison is more like “time is money” rather than “if you do the crime, you do the time”.