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Mother Jones Reporter Goes Undercover at CCA Prison in Louisiana

Mother Jones magazine, known for its in-depth investigative reporting, was not content to merely skim the surface of the controversial private prison industry by viewing it from the outside. Prisons both public and private are notorious for their lack of transparency, typically justified in the name of “security” – which is another way of saying “move along, nothing to see here.” Prison walls don’t just prevent prisoners from getting out; they also prevent the public – and news media – from looking in.

That is the environment Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer sought to infiltrate when, using his own name and identifying information, he applied for a job with and was hired by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) at the company’s 1,576-bed Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. CCA, Bauer said, needed guards so desperately that it “wasn’t interested in the details of my resume.” After spending four months employed as a prison guard at Winn, Bauer’s experiences were recounted in an epic 35,000-word feature story in Mother Jones’ July-August 2016 issue.

CCA operates detention facilities in 20 states for local, state and federal authorities, and has been dogged by scandals, abuses and prisoners’ right organizations for decades. Prison Legal News has reported extensively on the company, and Bauer contacted PLN for background information while drafting his article.

Armed with a recording pen, wrist-watch camera, pencil and notepad, Bauer went through CCA’s training program and worked as an entry-level guard, experiencing first-hand the crushing inhumanity of the U.S. penal system, magnified exponentially by CCA’s focus not on rehabilitation, education, healthcare or safety, but rather on cutting corners to generate profit.

Correctional experts agree that understaffing creates a dangerous situation for guards, who are always outnumbered and must rely on respect and persuasion, as well as force and intimidation, to get through their shift unharmed. Bauer described how he received insufficient training and was unprepared for the harsh routine of prison life at Winn. He witnessed prisoner-on-prisoner violence, watched suicidal prisoners who did not receive timely mental health care, noted a lack of medical treatment and observed severe understaffing at the facility.

The experience, he said, eventually began to turn him into a person he didn’t much care for – one who looked forward to exerting his power and control over prisoners, evoking shades of Philip Zimbaro’s infamous 1971 prison experiment. Bauer’s moment of self-realization was powerful and persuasive, and drove home the dehumanization of both prisoners and prison staff as an inherent result of the private prison industry. Companies like CCA view prisoners as little more than money-making commodities, while their poorly-paid employees have to deal with the real-world consequences of corporate cost-cutting.

Although he had no particular background in prisoners’ rights, Bauer had been behind bars before – and not as a guard. He was imprisoned in Iran for three years, from 2009 to 2011, after being taken into custody by border guards while hiking with two friends, and accused by Iranian officials of being a spy.

Bauer’s courageous immersion in prison culture as a CCA guard was an especially effective investigative reporting technique not seen since the muckraking days of the early 20th century. Although his methods were a throwback to another era, there was no denying the power of his revelations. His writing described interactions with prisoners as well as co-workers, and related details ranging from the mundane to more systemic issues that served as an indictment of CCA’s business model and, indeed, its competence. Contacted to comment about Bauer’s article, CCA repeatedly denied his firsthand accounts, which served only to further damage the company’s scant remaining credibility.

Bauer effectively ripped the scab off the private prison industry, allowing the public to see what really goes on behind prison walls – and clearly it’s not a pretty sight. Bauer and other entry-level guards were paid $9 an hour. Understaffing was so extreme that employees had to work 12-hour shifts and overtime. Guard towers at the facility went unmanned. Bauer met one prisoner who was denied medical care and had all his fingers and both legs amputated as a result. During his short time at Winn, state DOC guards had to be brought in to restore order and one prisoner escaped. This abbreviated summary of Bauer’s reporting doesn’t do it justice, and readers are encouraged to review his feature story.

There is no shortage of first-person accounts from former prisoners who have faced horrific conditions similar to those at the CCA-operated Winn Correctional Center, but other than Bauer’s account, few meticulously examine the private prison business model and expose it for what it is – man’s inhumanity to man in the name of profit. We learn the personal circumstances of not only the prisoners but also the guards, who are also victims of CCA’s cost-cutting. It is clear that the only winners in this scenario are CCA executives and the company’s shareholders.

Bauer’s stint as a prison guard lasted only four months because a Mother Jones photographer, James West, was apprehended outside the facility while attempting to take pictures. Although intimidated and arrested by the local sheriff, West was eventually released; he later pleaded guilty to trespassing and paid a $500 fine.

Following that incident and Bauer’s resignation the day after West’s arrest, CCA tried to bully Mother Jones – sending the magazine a four-page letter claiming Bauer had “knowingly and deliberately breached his duty to CCA by violating its policies,” and threatening litigation. Undeterred, Mother Jones published the feature story anyway, along with several related articles, and posted videos taken by Bauer.

There is some evidence that the public, which has historically ignored the human cost of mass incarceration, finally may be getting the message that a company with a business model based on imprisoning people to generate corporate profit might not be such a great idea. Bauer’s personal account helps to bring that message home. In an unrelated development, CCA did not renew its contract to operate the Winn Correctional Center and another company, LaSalle Corrections, took over management of the facility in mid-2015.

Whether CCA decides to file suit against Mother Jones over Bauer’s reporting remains to be seen; but if it does, the discovery obtained from the company, including depositions of CCA officials, should be both enlightening and entertaining.


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