Picture a messy, frightening, real-life Pieter Bruegel painting in 21st century Louisiana, and you get a sense of what Shane Bauer’s life was like for four months in 2015.
Seemingly interminable fights and stabbings. Prison guards with rap sheets. Rapes, suicidal inmates, and lockdowns. Cost-conscious bosses who endangered guards and prisoners with deep cuts to staffs and services. Bauer saw virtually all of it. And he recorded much of what he saw.
In a far-ranging multimedia investigation published Thursday morning, Bauer — a prisons-and-police reporter for Mother Jones magazine, who himself spent more than two years in detention in Iran — recounts how he worked for four months as a guard at a privately run prison in Louisiana, for the sole purpose of learning what conditions were like on the inside.
Instead, he learned how easy it is to carry out the sort of unfeeling cruelty he spent his lifetime challenging. The result is a 35,000-word story, along with stunning audio and video, on the innermost secrets of Winn Correctional Center, a prison facility run by the notorious jail contractor CCA.
“I am vigilant,” Bauer writes of his brief but intense transformation from liberal human-rights reporter to hardened, perhaps-homophobic prison-row screw. “I come to work ready for people to catcall me or run up on me and threaten to punch me in the face.”
There’s a long tradition of undercover muckraking to expose America’s seamy corporate underbelly, from Nellie Bly’s 19th-century exposés to today. But Bauer and his bosses at Mother Jones — where I once worked — took a slightly different approach: He told the truth about who he was from day one. “He used his own name and Social Security number” to get the prison job, writes editor in chief Clara Jeffery, “and he noted his employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones. He did not lie. He spent four months as a guard at a CCA-run Louisiana prison, and then we spent 14 more months reporting and fact-checking.”
CCA’s desperation to hire Bauer, despite his background — as well as a number of ex-cons and troubled locals — speaks volumes about the problems he found at the prison. CCA receives about $34 a day per inmate from the state of Louisiana; to realize a profit, the company has to scrimp on prisoners’ food, medical care, and education. It also has to run with as little staffing as possible — sometimes as few as two corrections officers for hundreds of inmates — leaving $9-an-hour guards like Bauer undertrained, ill-equipped, vulnerable, lonely, and inclined to unchecked cruelty to stay atop of the situation. (“In the entire prison of more than 1,500 inmates, there are no full-time psychiatrists and just one full-time social worker,” he writes.)
“We take whatever we can get!” a company recruiter tells him. “When you get down like this, you’ll take whatever. But then we come across a few good people like yourself. That’s not the norm.”
In such an extreme situation, CCA tended to rely on excess force to keep its cash cow running. But on the ground, Bauer found, very few prisoners and guards could be easily categorized as bad guys: They were often well-intended individuals twisted by the circumstances of their incarceration or employment. Even a war-veteran guard who claims to solve problems with a baton and a can of gas tells Bauer the inmates are victims of an arbitrary system. “You know what is stupid?” the guard asks. “I see murderers. I see rapists. I see robbers. And then I see, the vast majority is in here for bein’ stupid enough to smoke a joint too close to a school.”
Will Mother Jones’ exposé effect reforms in the American prison-industrial complex? It’s hard to say. Problems with companies like CCA — and with the U.S.’s broader approach to jail as catch-all punishment — are well-known, particularly to readers at Fusion.
Still, there’s something dramatically compelling and different about this new investigation. “We took these extraordinary steps,” Mother Jones‘ Jeffery writes, “because press access to prisons and jails has been vastly curtailed in recent decades, even as inmates have seen their ability to sue prisons—often the only way potential abuses would pop up on the radar of news organizations or advocates—dramatically reduced. There is no other way to know what truly happens inside but to go there.”
Check out the full, engrossing story on Mother Jones’ web page, and stay tuned to Fusion’s investigative reporting for more highlights — and more digs into the future of prison privatization in America.