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American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

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A groundbreaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history. In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meani A groundbreaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history. In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can't understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still. The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison's sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone. A blistering indictment of the private prison system and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.


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A groundbreaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history. In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meani A groundbreaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history. In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can't understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still. The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison's sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone. A blistering indictment of the private prison system and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.

30 review for American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jillian Doherty

    American Prison is an eye-opening exploration of a deeply broken system. Revealing not only a look at the inside workings of our prison systems, but also facility issues; Mr. Bauer went undercover as a corrections officer within a Louisiana prison. This perspective is complicated by his experiences serving time himself. The book is also a fascinating look back at the history and development of our penal system – reflecting on how slavery transition aided national funding through a corrupt program, American Prison is an eye-opening exploration of a deeply broken system. Revealing not only a look at the inside workings of our prison systems, but also facility issues; Mr. Bauer went undercover as a corrections officer within a Louisiana prison. This perspective is complicated by his experiences serving time himself. The book is also a fascinating look back at the history and development of our penal system – reflecting on how slavery transition aided national funding through a corrupt program, with some aspects still seen today. This compelling undertaking is for anyone who enjoys topics we think we know about, but are incredibly underrated- especially once a focus light is shined upon them. Galley borrowed from publisher.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Madeline Partner

    Bauer took a brave step by becoming a prison guard to experience first-hand what it is like inside of America's privately run prisons. He chose to become a prison guard at a CCA-run private prison in the small town of Winn, Louisiana. He works there for a few months, and witnesses daily instances of violence, abuse, and general unruliness that amount to complete chaos. As the prison unravels, Bauer does as well, and begins to become paranoid, constantly overthinking and questioning his actions. I Bauer took a brave step by becoming a prison guard to experience first-hand what it is like inside of America's privately run prisons. He chose to become a prison guard at a CCA-run private prison in the small town of Winn, Louisiana. He works there for a few months, and witnesses daily instances of violence, abuse, and general unruliness that amount to complete chaos. As the prison unravels, Bauer does as well, and begins to become paranoid, constantly overthinking and questioning his actions. It seems as if the days of undercover reporting have passed, but Bauer gives us good reason to find the resources to continue the practice. By going undercover, Bauer was able to witness the daily violence, racism and injustice perpetrated against inmates, and at times, prison guards. His personal experience illuminates private prisons in a way that is hard to capture from statistics and press releases, which aim to conceal the chaos within many of these prisons. I thought Bauer's observations about prison conditions and his conversations with inmates were especially enlightening, and it was amazing to 'witness' the change in his personality as he continued to work at the prison. Bauer also injects chapters that explain the history of the American prison system, and how privatization came about. I think this was very important to include, since many of the issues that private prisons have today are issues that they have always had, in one form or another. It was also important to read about how the United State's history of racism has continued to influence how prisoners are treated in American prisons, especially through the practice of penal labor. While I found Bauer's research, and experience as a prison guard enlightening, I felt that more time could have been spent analyzing how he changed as a prison guard. There are some brief mentions of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and of his own changing mentality, but I wish these had been addressed and analyzed in more detail. Since one's personality and morality play so much into one's actions, especially when you are in a position of power, like Bauer, I felt that an analysis of his own changing psyche would be a critical part of this narrative. Overall, I think this is a great piece of undercover investigative journalism, and I admire Bauer's bravery and commitment to the subject. I went into this not knowing a lot about the American penal system, and I also found this book to be a good introduction to the topic.

  3. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Sandi ❣

    4 stars A prison in Louisiana, a journalist undercover. This combination makes for a compelling read. This book takes you on a 4 month journey into a privately run for-profit prison, not state or federally run, but one ran by a private corporation. Wages are low, staff is almost non-existent, rules and polices are either not followed or are taken to extreme. Walmart pays more than the starting wage for a guard that works 12 hr days, under the most dubious of circumstances. But unlike Walmart, dan 4 stars A prison in Louisiana, a journalist undercover. This combination makes for a compelling read. This book takes you on a 4 month journey into a privately run for-profit prison, not state or federally run, but one ran by a private corporation. Wages are low, staff is almost non-existent, rules and polices are either not followed or are taken to extreme. Walmart pays more than the starting wage for a guard that works 12 hr days, under the most dubious of circumstances. But unlike Walmart, danger exists in the prison, for both the guards and the incarcerated - and that danger is caused by both - guards and prisoners. As you read you can see the changes taking place in the undercover journalist. That in itself is a study in the human condition and the changes that one can go through when exposed to danger, uncertainty and when given authority. The chapters of the book bounce back and forth between the undercover journalist and the history of, the mostly southern states, contracting out prisoners for labor. The binding thread between the two stories is money. The bottom line and savings for today's privately ran prisons and the growth of and intake of millions of dollars for the past for-profit prisons of the 19th century. The treatment of and the troubles associated with the incarcerated have changed but still remain an ongoing problem, especially in the privately owned for-profit prisons of today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    Bauer's book has convinced me that private prisons have an awful legacy and are operated poorly because they are operated with en eye to saving every possible cent for profit rather than to make the prison better. He alternates between history of private prisons in general and his experience working for a CCA prison in Louisiana, painting a picture of greed, continuation of slavery, abuse, and neglect over nearly two centuries. In the context of the current prison strike, this story is glaringly Bauer's book has convinced me that private prisons have an awful legacy and are operated poorly because they are operated with en eye to saving every possible cent for profit rather than to make the prison better. He alternates between history of private prisons in general and his experience working for a CCA prison in Louisiana, painting a picture of greed, continuation of slavery, abuse, and neglect over nearly two centuries. In the context of the current prison strike, this story is glaringly relevant. It is informative. It is also extremely difficult to read. There are times when Bauer can't decide whether he likes himself, which makes it difficult for me to decide whether I like him as a narrator. He's not entirely consistent, because he's undercover, doing something he doesn't believe in. That makes every page a violent struggle, whether with literal aggression in the prison or metaphorical inner struggle in his conscience. It's exhausting to read. And yet I feel like recommending it to everyone. Some pieces of the relevant issues are super well-researched, and some less so. His uncritical explanation of the Stanford prison experiment was especially problematic. But overall this is a gripping read that should have us all questioning how we as a nation, as states, as counties treat those in the corrections system. I got a copy to review from the publisher through Eidelweiss.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Loring Wirbel

    Despite the heavy accolades for this book and my interest in the subject matter, I was tempted in the first 50 pages to give the book a mere three stars for two reasons. First, the concept of a journalist going undercover to work a story has always struck me as problematic in some senses. Second, Bauer's diary-like recounting of daily life as a corrections officer in a private prison is a tough read. Yes, of course it's supposed to be tough, but the grimness of the subject matter made it difficu Despite the heavy accolades for this book and my interest in the subject matter, I was tempted in the first 50 pages to give the book a mere three stars for two reasons. First, the concept of a journalist going undercover to work a story has always struck me as problematic in some senses. Second, Bauer's diary-like recounting of daily life as a corrections officer in a private prison is a tough read. Yes, of course it's supposed to be tough, but the grimness of the subject matter made it difficult to say the book was fun to read. By 100 pages in, however, I had fallen under Bauer's spell. His style of interspersing journal entries with histories of privatized prisons in America was effective, and he provided a lot of information on contracted convict labor, work farms, chain gangs, and similar elements that were critical to the Jim Crow South, but common in northern states as well. Bauer tries to make the story human by showing motivations of both inmates and fellow guards. But the biggest surprise in the book runs counter to what we may know about facilities like Pelican Bay in California, or CCA private prisons in many states. The natural tendency is to think of private prisons as more brutal than their public equivalent. Bauer shows us that the primary motivation in private facilities, particularly CCA/CoreCivic, is to maintain a profit margin. That means paying corrections officers minimum wage, reducing necessary facilities to the barest minimum, and operating such lax oversight that stabbings and riots become commonplace. And here's the rub: It's not so much the privatization of penitentiaries that's wrong, it's the entire cradle-to-prison pipeline that is perverse by its nature. In Bauer's book, the Louisiana Department of Corrections has to step in many times, and circumstances get more brutal when government is involved. We know the same to be true with the federal Department of Corrections. There is no way to make a prison remedial or acceptable, whether it is privatized or not. Bauer should be given credit for criticizing his own behavior while a prison guard. The changes in his demeanor recall a little bit Stockholm Syndrome, a little bit Stanford Prison Experiment. By the time he quits, Bauer wants to be as brutal and unbending with the prison population as possible. And this comes from a man who spent months inside Tehran's Evin Prison, merely because he was hiking near the Kurdish/Iran border, and charged with being a spy. We can easily become exactly like our oppressors, Bauer said. The book's epilogue goes only slightly into the Trump Administration era, where CCA morphs itself into CoreCivic, and focuses on building immigrant detention facilities for Homeland Security/ICE. No surprise, since it's much more lucrative than private prisons performing punitive acts on U.S. citizens. And far too many of those citizens don't care what is done to undocumented immigrants inside the new CoreCivic detention facilities. As recently as late November 2018, CoreCivic tried to claim that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had no right to investigate the suicide of an immigrant inside the Stewart Detention Facility in Georgia. What is more disturbing, the Santa Fe New Mexican, a paper usually considered somewhat liberal, had the audacity in late November to run an op-ed piece from the PR director of CoreCivic, Amanda Gilchrist, trying to justify the way the company treated U.S. prisoners and immigrants. I call bullshit, and Bauer would call bullshit too. Anyone who works for the prison-industrial complex, or for enforcement agencies like ICE, is making unacceptable compromises with evil. If we don't name this evil and recognize it in ourselves, we can quickly find ourselves becoming active participants with the evil, a fact Bauer learned before he finally quit his job to blow the lid off CCA/CoreCivic. There are many more lids in law enforcement and the penal industry that remain to be blown.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    Simply fantastic. If you liked Bauer's reporting in Mother Jones, you'll love this greatly expanded story about his time undercover at the privately-owned Winn Correctional Unit in Louisiana. Winn is owned by the then-named CCA, now rebranded as CoreCivic. It's one of the two biggies in the private prison industry, along with GeoGroup, the former Wackenhut, aka Whack Your Nuts. Bauer gives a history of private prisons, along with that of public prisons renting out inmates to the private sector, cu Simply fantastic. If you liked Bauer's reporting in Mother Jones, you'll love this greatly expanded story about his time undercover at the privately-owned Winn Correctional Unit in Louisiana. Winn is owned by the then-named CCA, now rebranded as CoreCivic. It's one of the two biggies in the private prison industry, along with GeoGroup, the former Wackenhut, aka Whack Your Nuts. Bauer gives a history of private prisons, along with that of public prisons renting out inmates to the private sector, culminating in the 1960s, when one of CCA's founders, T. Don Hutto, earned his privatizing stripes as a Texas prison warden, and then in the 70s went on to run the Arkansas state pen system before co-founding CCA. (Sadly, and outside the purview of this book, Bauer believes the White Helmets myth in Syria lock, stock and barrel. Of course, that's likely related to his working for Mother Jones, and their spouting the bipartisan duopoly's standard line on foreign policy and intervention when not spouting the Trump-Putin collusion line.) I'm pretty familiar with most of this, having interviewed one Texas inmate who was a block captain back in those old TDC days. If you're not familiar with the big picture, even having read the MoJo piece, you may be shocked. I hope you are. And angered. And disgusted. The absolute cheapness of the private prison system is here from the start. CCA, in what passes for a background check, was too lazy to Google "Shane Bauer" and find out about his investigative reporting past, which included time in an Iranian prison from accidentally entering Iran-Iraq disputed territory. When I went to work at a seven-day daily paper, I had my name Googled. Anyway, that cheapness goes all the way down the line. The sad part is, that, like other businesses, it would probably save money in the long run, on employee retention, by not being so cheap. Not to mention on lawsuits, no matter how hard it fights the ones it regularly faces right now. That said, this is mainly about private prisons. Don't forget that public prisons (and even more, city and county jails, which aren't part of Bauer's remit) still today find ways to "rent out" inmates to the private sector. Or they use inmate labor, especially in the South, to suppress wages still today — something that Bauer notes goes back to the end of the Civil War. A great read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This book really made me angry - so disgusting how privatizing prison is all about profit and not the people.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    Really interesting project, but ultimately not substantive. The most interesting bits are the parts that he goes back in history, but it's all already written in Slavery By Another Name and the New Jim Crow. The personal account is very interesting--and so is the fact that Bauer himself was incarcerated. I wish he had spoken more about that. I was very interested in the comparison, but he doesn't really go into it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Esther Espeland

    Super good, learned so much! Liked how the chapters bat Winn correctional facility were interspersed with historical analysis

  10. 4 out of 5

    Whitney

    Really exciting reporting. This book is full of both historical and contemporary realities that we conveniently and literally shut away and try not to think about.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Diane Payne

    American Prison is not an easy read but it is an essential read. Earlier, I had read Shane Bauer's essay about his undercover reporting of prisons in Mother Jones and knew I had to read this book. Too often, we don't pay attention to the fact that as voters and citizens we do have a voice in prison reform. We watch shows like Orange is the New Black, laugh uncomfortably, then don't do anything after watching the episode where the inmates believe they are finally being released from prison, which American Prison is not an easy read but it is an essential read. Earlier, I had read Shane Bauer's essay about his undercover reporting of prisons in Mother Jones and knew I had to read this book. Too often, we don't pay attention to the fact that as voters and citizens we do have a voice in prison reform. We watch shows like Orange is the New Black, laugh uncomfortably, then don't do anything after watching the episode where the inmates believe they are finally being released from prison, which they technically are, but instead they are driven to an immigration center prison. Much to think about while reading this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Wall

    Listened to this on audio, nothing new or engaging if you’ve read other items on the issues with prison, reform, etc.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Norman

    First thoughts after reading this book: Shane Bauer is more courageous than I will ever be. After being imprisoned in Iran and spending time in solitary confinement, he takes on a $9/hour job to work at a private prison in Louisiana. This book goes into detail about his four months as a correctional office and weaves his story with the history of the privatization of prisons in America. Some of the chapters detailing the history of private prisons included new information for me; if you've read First thoughts after reading this book: Shane Bauer is more courageous than I will ever be. After being imprisoned in Iran and spending time in solitary confinement, he takes on a $9/hour job to work at a private prison in Louisiana. This book goes into detail about his four months as a correctional office and weaves his story with the history of the privatization of prisons in America. Some of the chapters detailing the history of private prisons included new information for me; if you've read Slavery by Another Name, The New Jim Crow, or seen 13th, a lot of it will be familiar (but, importantly familiar). Prior to quitting his job at Winn, Bauer writes, "Inside me there is a prison guard and a former prisoner and they are fighting with each other, and I want them to stop." While he provides some insight into how his own mindset and personality changes, I wanted more details from him both on his own personal development, but also on what he thinks should change in these prisons and how that might happen (I realize I'm asking a lot). Mostly, I'm left with a lot of questions about the role of punishment and prisons: How can both justice and mercy prevail? What is the role of mercy in the prison system? How do we preserve the dignity of those who have done the worst to others? Why don't we do more to support (former) prisoners as they transition out of prison? Please read this book so we can talk about these questions.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    Essential reading about a topic requiring our urgent attention and commitment to solve. For-profit prisons are a scourge and blight that must end if our democracy is to survive. We must commit ourselves to reforming how our society thinks about prison, punishment, and rehabilitation. This book does a good job of highlighting one for-profit prison’s failings and what needs to change.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Larry Bassett

    I sincerely wish that I thought this book was better. It is about the privatization of prisons and prisons for profit. The most recent focus of prisons for profit has been its expansion in the immigration detention facility market. After the Obama administration withdrew the federal government from using private prisons, The Trump administration reinstated the practice. This book is probably about 40% about the authors four month experience as a corrections officer in a private Louisiana prison f I sincerely wish that I thought this book was better. It is about the privatization of prisons and prisons for profit. The most recent focus of prisons for profit has been its expansion in the immigration detention facility market. After the Obama administration withdrew the federal government from using private prisons, The Trump administration reinstated the practice. This book is probably about 40% about the authors four month experience as a corrections officer in a private Louisiana prison for men where about 1400 men are incarcerated. An additional 40% of the book is about the history Of leasing convicts in the United States, A practice that has been present since the beginning of the republic. After the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves leasing convicts became the replacement of the slave system. The practice bounces between private control and government control But the profit motivation is the goal in both cases. The writing here is very accessible and readable. As the end of the undercover period approaches and events are spiraling out of the control of the other somewhat, he writes about his internal conflict as he found himself somewhat emotionally adrift having been significantly impacted by the content of his daily experience as a prison guard. His personal goal and need to do the best job he could came in serious conflict with what he thought needed to be done to do that job. In the introduction to the book the author talks about his personal experience of being presumably a political prisoner for over two years in Iran. He also talks about the journalistic ethics of being in an undercover situation such as this. I think this is a fascinating aspect of the book although certainly secondary to the subject being covered. I recall the planned parenthood incident of several years ago where staff members were recorded unknowingly supposedly talking about selling fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood abortions. There was a good deal of debate about the ethics and believability of the information that was allegedly uncovered. In this book the author talks about miniaturized recording and filming devices reminiscent of the early James Bond movies. When he was departing the scene under some pressure of discovery and possible seizure, he had a considerable amount of physical material on hand including regular evening recordings on his laptop talking about the events of the day. He spent the first month of his time in training and the last three months on the job. He apparently did a good enough job being a corrections officer that he claims they were actively considering promoting him. One strange aspect Of his job was apparently writing up convicts for masturbating. He mentioned this early in his experience and while he obviously could have just ignored it, he went on for several paragraphs about it and wrote the person up. The same issue came up again later and there Was a small journalistic to do about convicts harassing him in a variety of ways for being gay. Since he had a wife he indirectly denied being gay although he never said it directly but he did seem overly bothered by this harassment. The incidence of homosexuality or at least male/male sex is clearly a legitimate topic and an all male institution but it did seem like he handled it awkwardly.

  16. 5 out of 5

    John

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. In many regards reminds me of an all time favorite, Black Like Me.

  17. 4 out of 5

    kelly

    I could not put this book down. Five stars. In 2015, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, goes undercover for four months at a privately owned (”for profit") prison in rural Louisiana, Winn Correctional, managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). He is hired for $9 an hour. He carries a pen that doubles as an audio recorder, a small notebook, a coffee thermos with a small camera in it, and documents his daily dealings with staff and inmates at his job. What he finds at Winn is pre I could not put this book down. Five stars. In 2015, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, goes undercover for four months at a privately owned (”for profit") prison in rural Louisiana, Winn Correctional, managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). He is hired for $9 an hour. He carries a pen that doubles as an audio recorder, a small notebook, a coffee thermos with a small camera in it, and documents his daily dealings with staff and inmates at his job. What he finds at Winn is pretty much a nightmare: a dangerously understaffed facility, guards that openly brag about beating inmates, daily stabbings, reports of rapes. There are no education classes, no regular rec time, or any kind of 'set' schedule, each day's activities are determined by how many staff decide to show up for work. There is one psychiatrist and one social worker for the entire prison. There is only one doctor and medical treatment is substandard. At Winn, Bauer finds that every attempt is made to save CCA money. Because there is a profit motive in keeping inmates at the facility, losing a prisoner is a loss of revenue. During his time at Winn, Bauer observes an inmate repeatedly complaining of chest pain but is refused hospital treatment and ibuprofen. He later dies. Another inmate kills himself after consistent threats to do so. Corners are cut and log books are falsified. Another prisoner manages to escape and no one misses him for hours, due the fact that it costs CCA too much to staff the guard tower. In between the chapters of undercover reporting is powerful research Bauer writes on the history of America's for-profit prison system. Locking people up for revenue, convict leasing, and state-enforced prison labor is nothing new and has always resulted in the abuse and torture of inmates, particularly men, women, and children of color. By creating laws across the American South that criminalized minor misdeeds (drinking, vagrancy, truancy), mostly Black men were forced to work in prison labor camps. When one died from routine overwork, beating, or disease, the system simply gets another. Its a system that cheapens human lives, it is no surprise that CCA has profited most under the current president and his hateful policies towards immigrants. Corporations like CCA are beginning to turn away from contracts with jails and prisons and turn its attention to building detention centers, most of which now house Mexican and Central American immigrants. I could say so much more about this book but it would be too much to type here. I do, however, wholeheartedly encourage you to read this, even if you read nothing else this fall.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kathy (Bermudaonion)

    4.5 stars

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Selbst

    Shane Bauer became a correctional officer at a prison run by Correctional Corporation of America in Louisiana to investigate conditions inside a for-profit prison. American Prison tells the story of his experience and also provides a brief history of the use of convict labor by state prison systems. Bauer's story is horrifying; as he demonstrates, CCA will do anything to keep its costs down. Those efforts at cost containment mean that, among other things, it pays guards little more than minimum Shane Bauer became a correctional officer at a prison run by Correctional Corporation of America in Louisiana to investigate conditions inside a for-profit prison. American Prison tells the story of his experience and also provides a brief history of the use of convict labor by state prison systems. Bauer's story is horrifying; as he demonstrates, CCA will do anything to keep its costs down. Those efforts at cost containment mean that, among other things, it pays guards little more than minimum wage, it provides minimal or non-existent health and mental health care; it short-changes inmates on food rations; and it fails to provide exercise time or access to the law library. Most importantly, the during the time Bauer was there, the facility was constantly short-staffed, which increases the danger for inmates and staff. But Bauer's report is not that surprising. We've demonized the incarcerated for decades; there is no meaningful public effort to improve prison conditions, and because America's prisons contain disproportionately high numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics, much of white America has little sympathy for inmates or their possible mistreatment. In the historical review of American prisons, he makes it clear that today's prison conditions are simply an extension of the barbaric practices that were employed in the 19th and 20th centuries. For years, particularly after the Civil War, inmates were used as forced labor gangs under conditions so inhuman they almost defy belief. The most telling anecdote is that for some state prison systems in the south, the mortality rates for prisoners exceeded the death rates experienced by the USSR in its gulag system. One of the last actions of the Obama Justice Department was to rescind the use of private prisons for federal prisoners. Predictably, one of the first steps taken by Jeff Sessions was to reinstate their use under President Trump, which set off a rally in the price of CCA stock. Prisons are terrible places. (I know because when I was a newspaper reporter in the 1970s, I covered some infamous institutions and I was inside many times.) Nobody wants to make them attractive or homey. But American Prison makes an eloquent argument that the for-profit prison system is a terrible public policy experiment that should be ended. No matter how heinous their crimes, the treatment of prisoners in those institutions fails the cruel and unusual test of the 8th Amendment. A civilized society can and must do better.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    Coming from Canada, I'm familiar with words and phrases such as "restorative justice," "rehabilitation" and "lax" being applied to the Canadian prison system, so I wasn't prepared to hear the word "business" in context of incarceration, but that's the history of the American prison system, in addition to more disturbing socio-political origins in slavery. Chapters alternate between the past -- a look into the history of prisons in the United States -- and the present, the author's four-month exp Coming from Canada, I'm familiar with words and phrases such as "restorative justice," "rehabilitation" and "lax" being applied to the Canadian prison system, so I wasn't prepared to hear the word "business" in context of incarceration, but that's the history of the American prison system, in addition to more disturbing socio-political origins in slavery. Chapters alternate between the past -- a look into the history of prisons in the United States -- and the present, the author's four-month experience as a corrections officers (CO) for CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), a privatized prison. The history portion details the use of prison leasing for cotton-picking, mining, and chain-gang labor for the building of railroads and levees under brutal working conditions that resulted in high percentages of deaths comparable to the Stalinist gulags of Russia. A recurring theme is the connection to racism -- how private prisons became another system of enslaving African Americans. The chapters about Bauer's experiences focus upon the dysfunction, greed, corruption, low morale and apathy that taint the prisoners and the guards. Taped excerpts of conversations between the author, his co-workers, and the inmates lend a raw, realistic, and balanced portrait of both the prisoners and the COs themselves. One of the most interesting parts is when the author discusses how his job began to change his character and affect his closest relationships. I never felt as if the author wanted to draw sympathy for the prisoners -- nor cast condemnation towards the COs and Winn, the prison setting of his undercover journey. It seemed to be a broader historical examination of how a broken prison system -- one designed for punishment in the name of profit -- was allowed to originate, flourish, and become legitimized in the American socio-political system, something so deeply entrenched that small reforms in individual prisons such as Winn really don't make a noticeable positive impact. The Russian writer Dostoevsky once said, "the degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons." This book should challenge readers to consider not only the American prison system, but those of their own countries.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

    I recently watched all three seasons of Hard Time on Netflix, the National Geographic documentary series about the men and women behind bars, as well as those tasked with keeping them in line. There were some prisoners who walked into the penitentiary determined to break every rule they're given and screw anyone who tries to stop them. I asked my husband how prisons are supposed to rehabilitate someone who doesn't want to change. Then I listened to the audio book of American Prison and I'm wonde I recently watched all three seasons of Hard Time on Netflix, the National Geographic documentary series about the men and women behind bars, as well as those tasked with keeping them in line. There were some prisoners who walked into the penitentiary determined to break every rule they're given and screw anyone who tries to stop them. I asked my husband how prisons are supposed to rehabilitate someone who doesn't want to change. Then I listened to the audio book of American Prison and I'm wondering how anyone can keep their sense of humanity after experiencing what life is like in privately-owned prisons. The current system is messed up in so many ways. Yes, there are some prisoners who are dangerous, but there are also some whose crimes aren't nearly as severe. Both are forced to endure inhumane treatment at the whim of those being paid to look over them. At the same time, their pay isn't much. Perhaps if it was, they'd do their job better; try harder. But in privately-owned prisons, all corporate cares about it a profit and everyone suffers for the bottom line. Budget cuts leave no funds for a living wage, let alone rehabilitation classes, education programs, vocational training or anything else to keep the inmates busy. With nothing to distract them, planning to mess with other inmates or the staff is the only thing prisoners have to distract them. Frustrated with the lack of support from the corporate office, guards break the rules they set to make the workday bearable. Shane Bauer wrote this book after going undercover as a corrections officer within a Louisiana prison. Included with his experience is the history and development of the country's penal system. It was clearly wrong from the beginning and it hasn't improved with time; capitalism at its best means the worst for humanity. This isn't an easy book to read (or listen to), but it is a subject that shouldn't be ignored. Breaking the law has consequences, but we rarely know how extreme those consequences are behind bars.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    Some real-deal investigative about the corrupt, morally bankrupt world of for-profit prisons. Bauer, who was actually imprisoned in Iran for about 2 years, became a guard at a prison in Louisiana run by Corrections Corporation of America. He only worked there about 5 months, but it was enough to witness the abuse of prisoners, totally lacking medical care, indifferent guards, massive prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual assault, and a total lack of structure or services for the prisoners. On Some real-deal investigative about the corrupt, morally bankrupt world of for-profit prisons. Bauer, who was actually imprisoned in Iran for about 2 years, became a guard at a prison in Louisiana run by Corrections Corporation of America. He only worked there about 5 months, but it was enough to witness the abuse of prisoners, totally lacking medical care, indifferent guards, massive prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual assault, and a total lack of structure or services for the prisoners. One prisoner whom he witnessed commit suicide weighed about 75 pounds when he died, and he received no psychological counseling despite his requests and only cursory medical care. CCA's attempts to explain away or deny these abuses is the height of corporate Orwellianism. Really, this book just reinforces the point that for-profit prisons should not exist at all. In order to turn a profit, CCA understaffs their prisons, provides less education or job training, skimps on food and medical care, and pays their small staffs pitiful pages (9 bucks an hour, when Bauer worked there a few years ago-the CEO of CCA makes about 4 million a year). Little wonder that the guards sneak in contraband and ignore intra-prisoner abuses and welfare. Bauer reveals the utter cynicism of this entire enterprise through his consistent documentation. He also shows how this version of for profit prisons is just the latest version of the private use of public prisoners for profit going well back to the early 1800s. Obviously, this practice has been and remains highly racist. It is something we simply should not tolerate. Kudos to Bauer for revealing its rotten core. Recommend for people who are into the history of prisons, race, and capitalism, as well as people who like good muckraking journalism.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chad

    I think fans of Just Mercy would find this book worthwhile, but honestly, I'd recommend American Prison to anyone who has an interest in the American prison system, particularly the private prison industry. Shane Bauer's reporting as an undercover corrections officer at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisana was as tense and gripping as anything I've read or watched this year. The conditions of the prison described in the book were somehow even worse than I was expecting. Bauer does a great job I think fans of Just Mercy would find this book worthwhile, but honestly, I'd recommend American Prison to anyone who has an interest in the American prison system, particularly the private prison industry. Shane Bauer's reporting as an undercover corrections officer at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisana was as tense and gripping as anything I've read or watched this year. The conditions of the prison described in the book were somehow even worse than I was expecting. Bauer does a great job in contextualizing the birth and history of prisons in this country, and leads the reader along to see how we got to where we are today--a country that represents approximately 5% of the worlds' population but has nearly 25% of the worlds prison population. Bauer's narrative is expertly executed, with a powerful ending that I will be thinking about for some time. A tough and hard read at times, but an incredibly important reminder of the massive flaws in our criminal justice system and how it disproportionately affects people of color in this country by design. 4/5

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mathieu Coquelet Ruiz

    When Shane Bauer, an investigative journalist, is denied access to elements he needs for an investigation into private prisons in the US (access to files denied, script of interviews controlled, etc.), he decides to apply for a job as a Correctional Officer at Winn, LA, the oldest private prison in the US. The structure of his book is amazing: with chapters alternating between his experience as a CO, and he history of private prisons in the US (tracing back, unsurprisingly, to slavery). A courag When Shane Bauer, an investigative journalist, is denied access to elements he needs for an investigation into private prisons in the US (access to files denied, script of interviews controlled, etc.), he decides to apply for a job as a Correctional Officer at Winn, LA, the oldest private prison in the US. The structure of his book is amazing: with chapters alternating between his experience as a CO, and he history of private prisons in the US (tracing back, unsurprisingly, to slavery). A courageous account of the most humiliating treatments given by humans to humans, of corporate greed, and of disrespect of the law in past and present day US.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Diana

    This is a good book. Our prison system is broken. The author does a good job of both giving the history of prisons in the South and describing his work at a private prison in Louisiana. As a correctional officer he was paid about what he would earn working at Wal Mart. The prison could only make a profit by cutting back on food, psychological services and medical care. Records were routinely falsified and everyone turned a blind eye. Of course none of this comes as any surprise but this book doe This is a good book. Our prison system is broken. The author does a good job of both giving the history of prisons in the South and describing his work at a private prison in Louisiana. As a correctional officer he was paid about what he would earn working at Wal Mart. The prison could only make a profit by cutting back on food, psychological services and medical care. Records were routinely falsified and everyone turned a blind eye. Of course none of this comes as any surprise but this book does a very good job of putting it into perspective.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Beth Lorow

    The author was once imprisoned in Iran and then voluntarily went undercover at a prison in Louisiana to expose the many shortcomings of for-profit incarceration in America. He balances his lived experience as a corrections officer with an historical timeline of imprisonment in the south. We humans sure can be terrible to each other.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    Everyone should read this book! Interleaves the little-known history of the American prison system with a gripping account of Bauer's time as an undercover guard in an unbelievably corrupt and mismanaged for-profit prison system. This book has made me question the use of long-term imprisonment as a punishment for crime.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Stella Fouts

    Excellent research and excellent writing - still, it's a story that's difficult to hear.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Josephine Burks

    This was a really well written and first hand account of life in an American prison. Excellent book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Neil Farrell

    This book will scare you straight!

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