When undercover journalist Shane Bauer was hired as a prison guard in 2014 at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana he found morale among staff very low. There was very little motive for the guards to do their jobs. The guards were supposed to walk up and down the dorms where the prisoners lived and just check on people every half hour. But Shane almost never saw that happen. Because prisoners didn't like it when guards did rounds. In turn, they didn't.
“I make nine dollars an hour,” was the attitude, and knowing the company wouldn’t fire them, most guards shirked their responsibility. After four months Bauer quit and a scathing indictment of the private prison appeared in the pages of Mother Jones. In American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, out September 18th, Bauer goes in even deeper. VICE talked to the author by phone to find out what made him decide to go work as a prison guard, how some prisons have no accountability among staff, the link for-profit prisons have to slavery, and how Trump has impacted the industry. Here’s what he had to say.
What made you decide to go work in a private prison? What was your mindset? Your objective?
Shane Bauer: I’d been reporting on prisons for a few years and it sounded very difficult to get access. Typically, if you want to visit a prison as a journalist you’re either denied or you get a scripted tour of a prison that lasts about a half hour to an hour. Interviewing inmates is very difficult. If you want to interview an inmate the prison will provide you with the inmate of their choosing. You can't interview anyone in particular. [You] end up doing letter correspondences and there's usually no way to verify what the prisoners are saying. It's also very difficult to get this kind of data on prisons. A lot of prison systems that I've interacted with throughout the country don't respond to public records requests unless they’re being sued. All of these restrictions are even more extreme with private prisons because since they’re private companies they're not subject to public access. I’d been interested in looking into private prisons for a while but it was very difficult to know what was happening inside. We've seen very little of what prison life is like inside. I had the idea to apply for a job as a prison guard. I just went on their website, the corporate website, and filled out a job application. I filled it out truthfully and sent it off. Within a week or two I was getting calls with requests to do job interviews.
Were you surprised at how easy it was to get a job at the institution? What were your qualifications?
I was surprised. I didn't think that it was going to work. I kind of applied for the job on a whim. I didn't think it would go anywhere. It's the kind of interview you would imagine at a Walmart or McDonald’s. It's just questions about how you work with other people. In the interview with the prison in Louisiana, which is where I ultimately accepted a job, it was as if the interviewer was trying to convince me to take the job. She gave the impression that they were very desperate for employees. The job paid nine dollars an hour and I had zero qualifications. It was very common for people not to have any qualifications.
I went through a month of training. One day an instructor asked us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other. Of course, my thought was we break them up, and he said that we should never try to intervene in these fights, "If they want to cut each other up, happy cutting.” It's more about covering liability than protecting prisoners. The thing that surprised me was just learning the background of other guards. I didn't go in expecting that the guards would be much a part of my story. I was more interested in prison conditions, but the guards were typically people who were desperate for work, a lot of single moms. I came to learn that they were also being exploited by the system that the prisoners were being exploited by.
Talk about some of your coworkers or one that really stuck out to you in the writing of the book?
When I started the job I worked with [the guy] who was my main partner throughout the job. As a writer, I was a little bit disappointed, this guy didn't seem like he had anything that kind of stood out about him. There's one guard, a former cop who was just a total loose cannon, but I was stationed with whoever they wanted to station me with. What I realized is that [this guy] was actually much more valuable. He was a kind of older man. He was in his 60s, trying to retire, he's collecting some retirement from his time in the Coast Guard, just working the prison to supplement his income. He was poor.
I’d been to his house. He didn't have many other options. He’d been there a few years and you could see the way that the job wore on him. He would say things that were pretty brutal and almost sadistic at times, like he wished he could put shock collars on inmates or take them out back and beat them, but he also had relationships with certain prisoners. He would intervene on their behalf when the company brought in outside guards to take control of the prison. It was very chaotic and violent.
Did you find that working at the prison changed you?
That’s something about him that I found in a lot of people. None of them wanted to be a prison guard, they didn't take the job out of some kind of sadistic motive, but the job hardened them and I found the same thing happening to myself over those four months that I was there. It became very difficult to be open and treat the prisoners as regular human beings. There's something about that job where you have to turn part of your self off and on some level dehumanize the people that you're [guarding].
Why do you think private prisons—but also prisons in general—have little or no accountability when it comes to staff conduct and behavior and how the prisoners are treated?
Abuse in prisons is not limited to private prisons at all. The conditions in the entire prison system are quite bad. I think there's that idea that if somebody ends up in prison than they deserve what they get as their punishment.
With private prisons, there’s an added issue, the poor conditions are built into the system. the private prison company saves money by cutting corners. That plays out in poor health care, it plays out in cutting programs, educational programs, cutting rec time, cutting the amounts of guards in the prison, so the prison becomes more violent. To remedy that problem would involve hiring more staff, more teachers, more guards, more doctors, and these things cost money.
A bigger issue on the management level is that the company seems to be hiding a lot from the state. Whenever there was a stabbing I’d take notes of the days and what happened. When I left the prison, I did a public records request in Louisiana to find out how many stabbings had happened in that prison that year and the number was much lower than what I’d recorded. The number for the entire year was lower than what I’d recorded in the four months that I was there. The company has an interest in making the prison seem better than it is. There's just little motive for them to improve conditions, to spend more money, to really make much of a change at all.
Can you talk about the history of for-profit prisons and how they can be directly linked to slavery in the deep south after the Civil War?
These corporations—CoreCivic, the GEO group—started in the 1980s, [but] we’ve had for-profit prisons for almost all of American history. [At times] the profit is going to companies, [at times] it's going to the states, but for most of American history, especially in the south, prisons were intended to actually make a profit. Penitentiaries were invented in America [and were] meant to turn a profit for its factory. Instead of hanging somebody for theft, we're going to give him a sentence to some years in prison. Louisiana privatized its prisons in 1844. Then, when slavery ended, the penitentiary system in the south was used in a way that mimicked slavery. Where slaves were picking cotton, prisoners started to fill that role.
Every prison system in the south was privatized almost immediately after slavery ended. It was the most brutal labor that existed at the time. The death rates were staggering. States averages in the south for decades were somewhere between 16 and 25-percent depending on the state. One in four inmates died every year largely because of the conditions. An important point here is that this system of convict leasing was actually more deadly than slavery was. As we went forward through history, the states, seeing how much money these companies were making, decided to open their own plantations and run them at a profit for the state.
In the 1960s, Arkansas still allowed prisoners to be whipped. Men were picking cotton in cotton fields and Terrell Don Hutto, who came to be the co-founder of the Corrections Corporation of America learned the business of corrections by running a cotton plantation. He lived on the plantation himself, had a house boy, a prisoner who served him, and lived a life that, in many ways, resembled slavery. He was the last person to run these state-run plantations at a profit. Towards the end of that era, in the 1970s, we saw a prison boom that ended up being massive. We had a 500-percent increase in our prison population over 40 years. The prisons became a burden on the states and rather than bringing in money, [they were losing it].
Finally, how has the Trump presidency impacted the private prison industry?
When Trump became president his Justice Department kind of breathed life back into the private prison system. When he was elected, the stock prices rose more than any other companies. Trump has been very aggressive with immigration. Immigrant detention is the frontier of private prison companies. They run about half of the immigrant detention centers. The private prison companies seem very happy with the situation now. I actually went to a shareholder meeting. I bought one share and went to the company's annual shareholder meeting and their spirits were very high. They were very happy with where things stood and their business was growing. I think Trump played a major role in that.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.