Shane Bauer Releases American Prison

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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 for Mother Jones, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Bauer applied for the job because he wanted an unconstrained look at the inner workings of an industry that holds some 130,000 of our nation’s 1.5 million prisoners and is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in the summer of 2016, Mother Jones published Bauer’s blockbuster cover feature about his experiences at Winn Correctional Center. It won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine. Still, there was much more that Bauer needed to say. In AMERICAN PRISON: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, now available in paperback (Penguin Books; on sale June 11, 2019), Bauer interweaves a deeper reckoning with his time as a prison guard with the shameful history of for-profit prisons in the U.S. 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. He begins with private prisons’ origins in the decades before the Civil War; how they 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 by leasing prisoners to plantations and private companies; examines their modern-day rise in the 1980s with the creation of the Corrections Corporation of America, the world’s first private prison company; and brings us to today, when the Trump administration has expanded their use, specifically with private immigration jails. In reporting his story, Bauer brought firsthand experience of the nightmares of imprisonment: in 2009, he and two other young Americans went hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and unknowingly crossed into Iran. They were captured, and Bauer was held for over two grueling years in Iran’s Evin prison. At Winn, Bauer grapples with sympathy for the inmates—for whom private prisons are not incentivized to provide adequate health care or feed well—and the plight of the prison guards, who are severely understaffed, rarely receive raises, and deal with constant turnover. “Cost-effectiveness” reigns over everything. The chronic dysfunction of the guards’ lives only adds to the prison’s sense of

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