Journalist Shane Bauer has earned the 2019 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism for the groundbreaking work in his book “American Prison.” Bauer is also the recipient of the National Magazine Award for Best Reporting, Atlantic Media's Michael Kelly Award, and other awards. From 2009 to 2011 Bauer was held hostage in Iran with Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal. Together they co-authored a memoir, “A Sliver of Light,” which detailed their time spent as prisoners in Iran.
In 2015, Bauer, as a senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, went undercover as a prison guard to discover the conditions for prisoners at a private prison. His article, "My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” informed America about the conditions and lack of human rights at one private prison in Louisiana.
In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Bauer talks about why it was necessary to go undercover at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, and the need for prison reform. Bauer will speak on Nov. 14, at Ithaca College’s Textor building, Room 103 at 5:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Park Center for Communication, and the event is open to the public and is free.
Ithaca Times: You were imprisoned in an Iranian prison on false charges and have spent many years covering the prison industry in North America. What was it that made you want to go undercover as a correction officer for one of the Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) private prisons?
Shane Bauer: I think part of it was just the experience of covering American prisons for a few years. It’s really difficult to get access to prisons and as journalists you’re always trying to figure out how to get inside – whether that is corresponding with prisoners, which takes a long time, and it’s really hard to verify, or doing public records requests, which a lot of states habitually ignore, unless you sue them, and when you do get records the numbers only say so much.
So there is general difficulty getting inside of prisons and then also knowing that private prison companies are particularly secretive.
IT: In your recent book, “American Prison,” you report that America’s population is nearly 5 percent of the world’s population, but it is nearly 25 percent of the prisoners on the planet. Why this is such an issue?
SB: Well we are talking more than two million people in prison, and the incarceration rate is only [exceeded] that I know of by the Soviet gulags. So it’s a human rights issue for one. It’s an issue that affects all of our communities – people who go into prisons for relatively minor crimes often come out worse off. Whether it’s for violent or non-violent crime – the punishment regime is very extreme and even if you don’t care about that stuff it still costs a lot of money.
Which is why private prisons came into existence because states are having a hard time affording locking all of these people up.
IT: What it was like for you to work at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana for four months. And what did you discover?
SB: It was a difficult job. It wore me in ways I didn’t expect. I took the job as a prison guard as a way to get inside the prison and the job itself really started to change me in the way I related to prisoners pretty quickly. I’m a former prisoner and I guess I went in there with a sympathy to some extent with the prisoners. But I was mostly interested in the conditions for prisoners. But I found myself in a nine dollar an hour job, that our morale was really low, that was very low staffed – I’m talking 24-25 guards for about 1,500 prisoners. And it’s literally impossible to do all the things you are required to do. I worked in a unit with 350 prisoners and just one other floor officer.
So you get drained really quickly and you inevitably have issues with prisoners. And the issues that I saw relate to the fact [that] this is a private prison and a company trying to cut corners to save money. The big one is guard’s wages, medical was really bad – I met a guy who lost his leg to gangrene because he couldn’t get the prison to send him to the hospital.
IT: Because it would have cost them.
SB: Exactly, they would have had to pay that bill. The security was really low – I mean there were stabbings all the time and somebody escaped while I was there in the middle of the day. The prison kind of melted down and the state actually had to come in for a period of time and took it over. And the state tried to show the company how to run it.
IT: There is an effort underway to shut down public prisons in America – such as in Texas which has closed eight of its prisons because of falling crime rates such as property crime. What are your thoughts on this new direction toward less incarceration and more effort for special programs to help troubled people get back on track?
SB: I think it’s absolutely necessary. The only way to solve the issue of prison and many of our criminal justice issues is to let more people out of prisons. And put people in prison for way lower amounts of time. I think many people agree, including Republicans, that the criminal justice system has gotten out of hand. And we need to have lower prison populations. And for some Republicans it’s purely a fiscal issue, but no matter how you look at it – it is so over inflated.
I will also say it’s not just an issue of non-violent crime, and even if we let all those people out of prison we are still going to be the most incarcerated country on the planet. And we still need to deal with how we punish violent crime.
And we need to think about: do we need to put people in prison for thirty or forty years for violent crime? Most developed western countries do not do this.