Six shocking discoveries from a reporter who spent four months as a guard in a private prison
Yesterday, Mother Jones published reporter Shane Bauer’s harrowing, exhaustive 35,000-word account of his time working undercover as a corrections officer at a for-profit prison in Louisiana.
He spent four months in late 2014 and early 2015 working for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private operator of prisons in the US.
During his time as a guard at Winn Correctional Center, which holds about 1,500 prisoners in Winnfield, Louisiana, he saw stabbings, a prison break, and innumerable incidents of abuse and trauma.
Here are six of the most insane parts. If you have time, we recommend reading the full piece here.
1.COs Are Treated Badly by the Company—And They Pass It On to the Prisoners
Life is not rosy for Bauer’s fellow correctional officers, who do “half the prisoners’ time with them”:
“I understand it’s your home,” one guard tells a prisoner. “But I’m at work right now.”
“It’s your home for 12 hours a day!” the prisoner responds. “You trippin’. You ’bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?”
“It’s probably true,” the guard says.
“It ain’t no ‘probably true.’ If you go’ be at this bitch, you go’ do 12 hours a day.”
The pay, at $9 an hour, is not good:
“The shoulders of a young cadet are slumping. He says his check was for $577, after they took $121 in taxes.
‘Dang. That hurts,’ he says.”
The COs are open about their neglect and abuse of their charges:
“You just pit ’em against each other and that’s the easiest way to get your job done,”one CO tells Bauer. “He says one guard told him that inmates should tell troublemakers, ”I’m gonna rape you if you try that shit again.’ Or something; whatever it takes.”
“We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle. We’re just moving ’em from point A to point B, letting them graze in the dining hall and then go back to the barn. Okay?”
“If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.”
“We are not going to pay you that much,” [an instructor] says emphatically. “The next raise you get is not going to be much more than the one you got last time. The only thing that’s important to us is that we go home at the end of the day. Period. So if them fools [the inmates] want to cut each other, well, happy cutting.”
2. CCA Exploits Its Vested Interest in Keeping People Imprisoned for Longer
“For removing a broom from a closet at the wrong time,” one inmate is punished with “an extra 30 days, for which CCA will be paid more than $1,000.”
3. Bauer Was Forced to Throw Away Heartbreaking Personal Letters During Contraband Searches
“Miss Roberts opens a letter with several pages of colorful child’s drawings. ‘Now, see like this one, it’s not allowed because they’re not allowed to get anything that’s crayon,’ she says. I presume this is for the same reason we remove stamps; crayon could be a vehicle for drugs. There are so many letters from children—little hands outlined, little stockings glued to the inside of cards—that we rip out and throw in the trash.
I love you and miss you so much daddy, but we are doing good. Rick Jr. is bad now. He gets into everything. I have not forgot you daddy. I love you.
4. The Banned Books List Is Telling
“I find a list of books and periodicals that aren’t allowed inside Louisiana prisons. It includes Fifty Shades of Grey;Lady Gaga Extreme Style; Surrealism and the Occult; Tai Chi Fa Jin: Advanced Techniques for Discharging Chi Energy; The Complete Book of Zen; Socialism vs Anarchism: a Debate; and Native American Crafts & Skills. On Miss Roberts’ desk is a confiscated book: Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, a self-help book favored by 50 Cent and Donald Trump. Other than holy books, this is the most common text I see in inmates’ lockers, usually tattered and hidden under piles of clothes. She says this book is banned because it’s considered “mind-bending material,” though she did enjoy it herself.
There are also titles on the list about black history and culture, like Huey: Spirit of the Panther; Faces of Africa; Message to the Blackman in America, by Elijah Muhammad; and an anthology of news articles called 100 Years of Lynchings.”
In a Q&A with Gawker readers, Bauer writes:
“Books about the Black Panthers are commonly banned in prisons. In another story, I wrote about how prisoners in California could spend years and even decades in solitary confinement for having Black Panther books. Prisons are typically the most racially segregated—and racist—places in the country. I think prison administrators feel threatened by prisoners becoming politicized.
Interestingly, Louisiana prison wasn’t racially segregated though, yes, I did see white guards give preferential treatment to white prisoners.”
5. There Is a Chilling Disregard for Prisoners’ Physical and Mental Health
“In the entire prison of more than 1,500 inmates, there are no full-time psychiatrists and just one full-time social worker: Miss Carter.”
One inmate is severe pain, and the infirmary tells him he has fluid in his lungs. But they won’t sent him to the hospital.
“If he were sent to the hospital,” Bauer writes, “CCA would be contractually obligated to pay for his stay. For a for-profit company, this presents a dilemma. Even a short hospital stay is a major expense for an inmate who brings the company about $34 per day.”
“One day, I meet a man with no legs in a wheelchair. His name is Robert Scott. (He consented to having his real name used.) He’s been at Winn 12 years. ‘I was walking when I got here,’ he tells me. ‘I was walking, had all my fingers.’ I notice he is wearing fingerless gloves with nothing poking out of them. ‘They took my legs off in January and my fingers in June. Gangrene don’t play. I kept going to the infirmary, saying, ‘My feet hurt. My feet hurt.’ They said, ‘Ain’t nothin’ wrong wicha. I don’t see nothin’ wrong wicha.’ They didn’t believe me, or they talk bad to me—’I can’t believe you comin’ up here!’
His medical records show that in the space of four months he made at least nine requests to see a doctor. He complained of sore spots on his feet, swelling, oozing pus, and pain so severe he couldn’t sleep. When he visited the infirmary, medical staff offered him sole pads, corn removal strips, and Motrin. He says he once showed his swollen foot, dripping with pus, to the warden. On one of these occasions, Scott alleges in a federal lawsuit against CCA, a nurse told him, “Ain’t nothing wrong with you. If you make another medical emergency you will receive a disciplinary write-up for malingering.” He filed a written request to be taken to a hospital for a second opinion, but it was denied.
He is now suing CCA for neglect, claiming that inmates are denied medical care because the company operates the prison “on a ‘skeleton crew’ for profitable gain.”
“Where do you think is one of the No. 1 areas that we get hit on as a confinement business?” Assistant Warden Parker asks us at a staff meeting. “Medical! Inmates have this thing that if they have a sniffle they are supposed to be flown to a specialist somewhere and be treated immediately for that sniffle.” His tone becomes incredulous. “Believe it or not, we are required by law to take care of them.”
6. A Stanford Prison Experiment-Like Assimilation to the Role Occurs
“It is getting in my blood. The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take pleasure in saying ‘no’ to prisoners. I like to hear them complain about my write-ups. I like to ignore them when they ask me to cut them a break. When they hang their clothes to dry in the TV room, an unauthorized area, I confiscate the laundry and get a thrill when they shout from down the tier as I take it away. During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action.”
Again, you can read the full report here, as well as see the video recordings Shane Bauer took. And if you’re interested in reading about the history, ethics, and legal follow-up of Bauer’s undercover investigation, the editor who assigned the piece has an illuminating note about it here.