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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 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 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. 4 out of 5

    Yun

    American Prison details journalist Shane Bauer's four month stint posing undercover as a prison guard at a private, for-profit prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. I didn't know much about prisons before reading this book, and I confess that I haven't given a lot of thought to what life is like when you're locked up. But this book opened my eyes, and also completely shocked me out of my hazy stupor on this topic. My biggest takeaway is that this country is in desperate need of prison reform. How are American Prison details journalist Shane Bauer's four month stint posing undercover as a prison guard at a private, for-profit prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. I didn't know much about prisons before reading this book, and I confess that I haven't given a lot of thought to what life is like when you're locked up. But this book opened my eyes, and also completely shocked me out of my hazy stupor on this topic. My biggest takeaway is that this country is in desperate need of prison reform. How are private, for-profit prisons even legal? Prisons are a public service, like building roads or operating a soup kitchen or running a library, none of which are suitable for a for-profit corporation beholden to shareholders. And to do so is a complete conflict of interest. It would be in the prison's best interest to spend as little as possible on its prisoners (who are locked up and have no voice to protest), so if our laws allow it, greed and abuse of power will result. The other thing this book highlights is how difficult working in a prison can be, both physically and mentally. This seems especially true at this private prison, where there weren't enough staff or support or adequate training and pay. Often, chaos reigns and prisoners have run of the place. It seems the employees, by simply working there, open themselves up to severe mental issues, depression, and PTSD. Yet, because this is a for-profit corporation with little oversight, it is in the company's best interest to deny these issues and to provide as little medical care as possible. This book, in alternative chapters, also discusses the history of incarceration in this country. It details how it evolved from slavery into profit, while along the way, stepping on plenty of the poor and minorities, the ones who are often most down-trodden to begin with. Bauer adapted this from his original article in Mother Jones magazine, and at times the book did feel a little too filled out. I wish the author spent more time interpreting and analyzing what he saw rather than give us mostly a straight up narrative of his experience. I found myself wanting to know more of why and how it can change for the better, but the book doesn't provide those answers. Still, it's a compelling and interesting read, and it opened my eyes to a topic I previously knew woefully little about, so I'm glad I picked it up.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Darlene

    Shane Bauer, the author of this book, 'American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment', writes articles about criminal justice for 'Mother Jones' magazine. His name may also be familiar because Bauer, his partner Sarah Shourd and friend Josh Fattal spent two years in Iran's Evin prison.. an experience they documented in the book, 'A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran' . Unsurprisingly, Shane Bauer maintained an interest in prisons and he Shane Bauer, the author of this book, 'American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment', writes articles about criminal justice for 'Mother Jones' magazine. His name may also be familiar because Bauer, his partner Sarah Shourd and friend Josh Fattal spent two years in Iran's Evin prison.. an experience they documented in the book, 'A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran' . Unsurprisingly, Shane Bauer maintained an interest in prisons and he developed a curiosity about the private prison system in the United States. The private prison system is responsible for the incarceration of 131,000 of the United States' 1.6 million prison population. Unlike the prisons which are publicly operated, the private prison system is not subject to the same public access laws. With that in mind, Bauer decided that the best way for him to determine what was happening inside the for-profit prison system was to go undercover. Within just two weeks of submitting an online application, he was contacted by several Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prisons. The speed of this contact was just the first surprise he was to receive over the course of his 4 month investigation. Bauer's surprise was due to the fact that he had not used an alternate identity when applying for corrections officers positions. (COs) He had used his real name and personal information and also the name of his employer and resume details. CCA seemed uninterested in the details of his resume and job history and he was curious as to why they weren't;t the last bit curious about why a criminal justice reporter living in California would be interested in moving across the country to take a low paying prison job. What he soon discovered in a conversation with a recruiter for the company would provide a disturbing answer to his question. He was told... "... if you come here and you breathing and you got a valid driver's license and you willing to work, then we're willing to hire you." Shane Bauer chose to accept a corrections officer position at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. He chose this particular facility because he was aware that Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate in the world., more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents. *Note: Since the time this book was written, Louisiana has actually fallen to 2nd place. Oklahoma now has the dubious distinction of the highest incarceration rate in the world. Upon accepting the position in Louisiana, Bauer showed up for the required 30-day orientation. The recruits learned that they would be paid $9 an hour and if they referred a friend for work at the facility, they could receive a $500 bonus. Also on the first day of the orientation, recruits were given a refrigerator magnet with the number of a crisis center and were encouraged to call if they , at some point, began to feel suicidal. They also were informed that they would receive 3 fee counseling sessions. The recruits were also taught about the prison's policy regarding the 'use of force' or, more accurately, it was suggested that force not be used at all. In fact, they were instructed to NOT get involved in fights between inmates. They were told...."We're not going tp pay you that much. The next raise you get is not going to be much more than the one you got the last time. What's important to us is that we go home at the end of the day. Period. So if them fools want to cut each other, well, happy cutting." What Shane Bauer discovered as he began working this job was that this prison was severely understaffed.. only 2 guards (mainly unarmed) in a general population unit of around 176 inmates. The corrections officers were poorly trained and many worked in a constant state of fear of the inmates. The prison itself was characterized by constant chaos. The prison management couldn't decide what rules they wanted to enforce so the rules were either lax or non-existent or were rigidly and brutally enforced, which meant that the prison might suddenly be put into lockdown over minor rule infractions. This sense of chaos led to feelings of anger and hostility among the inmates.The inmates' lives were characterized by a total lack of structure and a denial of even basic health care services. As Bauer explained, the prison received $34 per person per day so educational and recreational programs could not be offered if the company was to maintain profitability. Bauer also documented a couple of instances where where healthcare was denied to prisoners with tragic consequences. One inmate lost both legs when prison officials failed to hospitalize him for a persistent infection. Another's suicide threats were ignored and consequently, the inmate hanged himself in his cell. As shocking and outrageous as Shane Bauer's experiences were, the aspects of the book that I found most interesting were the chapters he included about the history of for-profit prisons in the United States. These chapters of historical interest were interspersed with Bauer's own investigative findings and I felt they provided the context I needed to understand the changing attitudes about crime and punishment.. and even redemption in American life and how we reached the place we now find ourselves. He started with prison practices during the pre-Revolutionary War period and described how Great Britain would 'transport' its criminals who were convicted of crimes such as burglary, robbery, forgery and theft to America where the convicts would be 'auctioned off' into involuntary servitude, mostly on tobacco plantations. Bauer then traces the history of prisons to the post-Revolutionary War period when people, such as Thomas Jefferson, believed in 'rehabilitation' through the development of a work ethic and discipline. Attitudes again changed after the Civil War , mainly because wealthy plantain owners needed a way to reach the levels of cotton production they had enjoyed prior to the war, when they were still permitted to own slaves. States were struggling to keep up with the costs of operating their penitentiaries so a public/private partnership seemed like the ideal solution. Manufacturers needed labor and the states needed a solution to their budget problems. And of course it so happened that by 1890, 7 out of 10 prisoners were black. What ultimately occurred was that these prisoners (mostly black) were forced to do the most dangerous and back-breaking jobs.. on plantations in the South and in factories in the North. The current prison system in the United States is a direct result of policies enacted in the 1980s. Because of the 'war on drugs', begun in the 80s, the prison population was growing out of control. At the same time, the length of prison sentences were increasing and states began mandating that prisoners serve at least 85% of their sentences before they could be released. State spending on prisons quadrupled but the usual budget issues were arising. Prisons were becoming overpopulated and in 1985, when a federal court ruled that Tennessee's overcrowded prions violated the 8th Amendment which banned 'cruel and unusual punishment', this was the perfect opportunity for enterprising capitalists such as Corrections Corporation of America to get into the prison 'business'. Ultimately, Shane Bauer spent 4 months working as corrections officer at the Winn Correctional facility. He believed that he would bring a different perspective to the public's understanding of the for-profit prison system, given his won experiences as a prisoner in an Iranian prison just several years before. And perhaps that is true to some extent. But what he discovered while working as a prison guard in an environment full of chaos and cruelty was that he began to change personally in ways that concerned him. He began drinking heavily, arguing with his wife during their nightly phone calls and he found that instead ion feeling empathy and treating prisoners with compassion, he began treating them with impatience and cruelty. That was when he knew it was time to get out... "Who am I becoming? How could I, someone who spent twenty-six months in segregation, cause someone to be put in isolation for drugs?... I think of the clamor, the constant, desperate shouting. I think of lying on the floor in my own cell... talking to myself, without realizing it.... When I get home, I draw a bath. I pour a glass of wine, then another and another. I try to empty my mind. Inside me, there is a prison guard and a former prisoner and they are fighting with each other and I want them to stop. I decide I need to end this. Four months is enough. I'm going to quit." In my opinion, 'American Prison' is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism of the for-profit prison system. This book illustrates perfectly how racism, classism and out-of-control capitalist greed has created INJUSTICE where justice should be. Highly recommended.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jenna

    If you know that 22% of the world's prisoners are in American prisons, even though Americans comprise just 4.4% of the population, you might have wondered why that is. Is it because Americans are more likely to be criminals? Is the American justice system harsher than that in other countries? If so, why? If you've wondered these things and thought that perhaps money has something to do with it -- this is the capitalist capitol of the world after all -- you would be on the right track. Shane I​f you know that 22% of the world's prisoners are in American prisons, even though Americans comprise just 4.4% of the population, you might have wondered why that is. Is it because Americans are more likely to be criminals? Is the American justice system harsher than that in other countries? If so, why? If you've wondered these things and thought that perhaps money has something to do with it -- this is the capitalist capitol of the world after all -- you would be on the right track. Shane Bauer, after being imprisoned in Iran for accidentally crossing their border whilst hiking with friends, became curious what it's like for American prisoners in American prisons. He decided to go undercover as a prison security guard at a private, for-profit prison in Louisiana. What he discovered is just sickening. How people are treated inhumanely, how they often go without medical care so the company can continue making large profits, how they are injured and killed by guards and then their deaths are ruled a suicide... the things Mr. Bauer relates from his time spent at a CCA prison will make your blood boil. Mr. Bauer weaves in the history of American prisons with his narrative of time spent at CCA. The American penitentiary was started as a way to get free labor (slaves). When slavery was abolished, police began arresting Black people and some poor whites for the most minor of infractions or even on false charges. These people were then forced to work in even harsher conditions than they had as slaves (which I would have previously thought impossible). The plantation owners at least had a financial interest in keeping the slaves alive. However, when prisons began leasing out prisoners, these plantation owners had no incentive to keep them alive. They were not penalized for the deaths of these men (and sometimes women) and so they would treat them so harshly and work them so furiously that the average prisoner only survived 6 years. No matter though -- there was an endless supply of free Blacks to round up on absurd charges to keep this system of slavery alive. Once convcted, they were leased to plantation owners, railway companies, and coal mining companies. There were times I became so nauseated that I had to stop reading this book for awhile, so horrendous were the conditions and abuses these people suffered. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, left open a loophole in which to continue it: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, ​​except as a punishment for crime​​ whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States​."​ Though conditions are not as bad today, prisoners are still routinely subjected to inhumane treatment and are all but forced to become slaves. Prisoners work for between .02-.20 cents an hour and the prison companies, which are also paid by the states to house the inmates, are making billions of dollars in profits by hiring out the inmates services. They still have their slaves, since these prisoners are working for next to nothing and CCA pockets the rest. Mr. Bauer relates how an elderly man in the prison he worked at had lost both legs and the fingers on one hand because of gangrene. Though he begged to see a doctor and though he had pus seeping from wounds, he was refused treatment until there was nothing to do but amputate his legs and fingers. At the time of writing, the poor elderly man was still in prison, wheelchair bound. Another thing that is absolutely horrifying to me is how many people are serving their sentences in solitary confinement, often being punished for the most minor of infractions or because they are suicidal. "We have about eighty thousand people in solitary confinement in this country, more than anywhere in the world. In California's Pelican Bay state prison alone, more than five hundred prisoners had spent at least a decade in the hole. Eighty-nine had been there for at least twenty years. One had been in solitary for forty-two years." . That is the stuff of nightmares. In order to ensure prisons make a profit, the majority of CCA contracts include an "occupancy guarantee", meaning the state will have to pay a fee to the corporation if they do not keep the prisons 96% full at all times. Thus, the judicial system has a financial incentive to lock people up. The year Mr. Bauer worked at Winn, CCA reported more than 221 million dollars in profit, more than $3,300 per each prisoner in its care. Blacks and Latinx make up the majority of the prison population, as do those convicted of non-violent crimes. Mr. Bauer delves into the racial discrimination in the American penal system as well. People of color make up 67% of incarcerated individuals in America, even though they account for 37% of the population. Blacks are often imprisoned for crimes white people get away with, or they serve longer sentences for the same crime. Blacks are also subject to racism from the guards and even reading material of Black history is censored. For instance, in Texas, Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is allowed but books by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Langston Hughes are banned. One thing is absolutely clear: This needs to stop. It is disgusting, immoral, and unethical for companies to make a profit from locking people up. There should be absolutely no profit made from the suffering of individuals (this includes the American "healthcare" system as well, but that's for another book). When states or companies have a financial incentive to lock people up, they obviously will do so. This is an outrage. In my opinion, no one should be imprisoned unless they are a clear danger to others. People should never go to prison for smoking a joint. People shouldn't be locked up for years for having a bag of weed, even if they plan to sell it. Not only is there an incentive to lock up many people, there is also an incentive to ensure recidivism. Why rehabilitate an individual and help them become upright citizens if there is money to be made by them ending up right back in prison? Why help them get a career or permanent housing, if it will turn a profit to all but set them up for failure when they are released? This system will never change until the majority of people become outraged and demand that prisons stop making a profit, demand that the incarcerated are treated well, and demand that people stop being locked up for the slightest of crimes. Unfortunately, too many people don't care; there is this attitude that if someone is locked up they must deserve to be locked up and thus deserve any treatment that is given to them, no matter how harsh or inhumane. Until this attitude changes, until we see the incarcerated as the human beings they are, nothing will change. No one, no matter who they are or what they have done, deserves to be abused. No one should have to go without medical care, adequate nutrition, be subjected to torture and solitary confinement. We need to stop thinking about punishing individuals and instead think about rehabilitating them. We need to look at the systemic racism that underlies our judicial system, we need to demand this change. We need a total overhaul of the entire system in this country. In order to begin, we must first be educated. I highly recommend this book; it is well written, and with deep insight and compassion. Mr. Bauer explains what it was like to work as a prison guard and he shows the humanity of the inmates he worked with. He explains the history and the current prison systems. If you would like to learn more about the issues of racism within our "justice" system, I also highly recommend The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness​. Prepare to be outraged.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kelli

    I have to stop reading books like this. I was unaware that some prisons are privately operated for profit. Seriously?! How could anyone fail to see the glaring conflict there? If every prisoner is putting money in someone’s pocket, where is the incentive to rehabilitate? In 2018, CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, which ran the facility featured in this book, made 4 MILLION dollars (cited as being 20x the salary of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons)! Correction officers at I have to stop reading books like this. I was unaware that some prisons are privately operated for profit. Seriously?! How could anyone fail to see the glaring conflict there? If every prisoner is putting money in someone’s pocket, where is the incentive to rehabilitate? In 2018, CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, which ran the facility featured in this book, made 4 MILLION dollars (cited as being 20x the salary of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons)! Correction officers at the gravely understaffed facility made $9/hr. Everything inside the prison ranged from barely passable to well below the minimum acceptable standard. There was an astounding overuse of solitary confinement, minimal medical and mental health personnel and an egregious lack of humanity. Every other chapter (not my favorite format) provides a painful history of how prisons became profitable sources of labor once slavery was abolished. Not surprisingly, abhorrent conditions abounded for prisoners while a handful of people at the top of the scheme got rich. These portions of the book were well-researched and informative, but less compelling (after a while) than the present day narrative. The author took risks beyond measure in agreeing to this undercover reporting assignment, especially considering that he himself was taken prisoner in Iran. He noted many negative changes in his personality and mood as a result of working in the prison, as well as uncharacteristic bad behavior directed at prisoners. His reporting shines a much needed light on how racism and greed are central to this backward system that is in desperate need of reform. Honestly, I cannot believe this is permitted in our country. Prisons for profit. I have to keep reading books like this. 3.75 stars

  5. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Bauer exposes how private prisons make profits through systematic mismanagement and mistreatment of inmates. An investigative reporter working for Mother Jones, Bauer applied and was hired as a corrections officer at Winn Correctional Center in December 2014. Winn, state licensed in Louisiana, was run by a large national private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Bauer went through training and worked as a corrections officer for four months, all the time taking extensive Bauer exposes how private prisons make profits through systematic mismanagement and mistreatment of inmates. An investigative reporter working for Mother Jones, Bauer applied and was hired as a corrections officer at Winn Correctional Center in December 2014. Winn, state licensed in Louisiana, was run by a large national private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Bauer went through training and worked as a corrections officer for four months, all the time taking extensive notes and making recordings. He did his guard work properly although he was subject to the same mistakes and misgivings of any new guard. Even without the undercover work this was a dangerous and difficult job requiring judgement in how and when to apply the rules fairly while maintaining order. Bauer took both his jobs seriously, that of journalist and that of corrections officer. One of the interesting themes is how the work changed Bauer. Bauer had been in prison himself for two years in Iran on a bogus charge. So he began his work with a sympathetic view of the prisoners but before long he became suspicious of their motives in their interactions with him and became quite strict which seemed to work best for all involved. By the time Bauer resigned in March 2015, he had been recommended for a promotion. Most of Bauer’s co-workers were far less nuanced than Bauer. The job paid nine dollars an hour, the same as the Walmart in town. State prison correction officers made twelve fifty an hour. Thus Winn was always understaffed and those hired were often less than qualified. Walking and breathing seem to have been the primary requirements. Turnover was high. The training was perfunctory. Yet this was a medium security prison that held inmates convicted of violent crimes. Low wages and minimal staff were how CCA made money off of the per prisoner reimbursement it received from the state. The state paid CCA far less per prisoner than the cost it incurred for state run prisons. Still CCA spent far less per prisoner than it was paid. Prisoners with expensive conditions were transferred to state run prisons. Substandard health care, educational and recreational programs and food service combined with cutting corners on state requirements added to CCA’s profits. A particularly disgusting way CCA built its bottom line was using the internal justice system administered by its staff to take “good time” away from an inmate for a minor infraction, lengthening his time to serve. Equally disgusting was keeping a prisoner after his time was up which was done when a prisoner could not supply an address to go to. Bauer’s experience at Winn comprises half the book. The other half is a history of for-profit prisons and prisoner leasing in America. He focuses on the South following the Civil War where penitentiaries were established primarily for blacks. These unfortunate people were often given long sentences for minor or made up offenses. Then they might be leased to work on plantations, in mines, on railroad construction and other harsh jobs. These private companies would make fortunes from their labor. The conditions could be horrific with long hours of hard work followed by beatings and torture for not meeting quotas or complaining. Many times people were literally worked to death. This was worse than slavery since the leasees, unlike slave owners had no investment in the laborer who could easily be replaced. Some of Bauer’s descriptions read just like those of a Soviet gulag. Change didn’t begin until the 1920s when a couple of white men were caught up in the system and their cases received national attention. Still practices such as whippings were allowed as late as the 1940s in Texas and 1967 in Arkansas prisons. Bauer makes his case. Private prisons should be abolished. The Obama administration did order the phase-out of federal private prisons, but the Trump administration reversed that order. CCA, now called CoreCivic, and its competitors continue to thrive also administering migrant detention centers. Criminal justice reform could help, but I will be surprised if meaningful change gets implemented any time soon. Mother Jones (Sep 20, 2019) reported that 200,000 people were incarcerated in the US in 1970. Today there are 2.3 million. The article notes that while a criminal justice bill was signed into law earlier in 2019, many don’t believe the Trump administration will follow through and actually implement it. The use of private prisons is driven by government cost cutting, but it is heavily influenced by powerful corporate interests that use their profits to manipulate politicians. Some states such as California, where the legislature on September 13, 2019 passed a bill to prohibit use of private prisons and detention centers, may prove exceptions. Still the California bill if signed into law gives the state until 2028 to entirely eliminate its use of private facilities. The talk is strong, the action is weak. It’s a sad state of affairs that is headed in the wrong direction.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    This is an impressive piece of undercover reporting by Shane Bauer on the brutality of private prisons in America. Bauer worked for several months as a guard at a Louisiana prison, and during his time there he saw first-hand how the private prison system is incentivized to not care for the inmates. For example, those with health care needs are ignored, because paying for doctor or hospital visits eats into the company's profits. Some of Bauer's stories are truly appalling, and this was a deeply This is an impressive piece of undercover reporting by Shane Bauer on the brutality of private prisons in America. Bauer worked for several months as a guard at a Louisiana prison, and during his time there he saw first-hand how the private prison system is incentivized to not care for the inmates. For example, those with health care needs are ignored, because paying for doctor or hospital visits eats into the company's profits. Some of Bauer's stories are truly appalling, and this was a deeply upsetting book to read. Besides his personal experiences, Bauer also discusses the history of penitentiaries, and the social issues feeding into our mass incarceration problem. Highly recommended for those interested in criminal justice reform.

  7. 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kimber

    It begs the question, why work as a prison guard under such dangerous conditions for $9 an hour, when you could just as soon work at McDonalds? Journalist Shane Bauer goes undercover as a prison guard in a privatized prison in Louisiana where they pay $9 an hour to just about anybody "breathing." Bauer only worked here 4 months and simply recounts this very limited experience, alternating with a boring history of the penitentiaries in this country. Bauer's main argument is on the vested It begs the question, why work as a prison guard under such dangerous conditions for $9 an hour, when you could just as soon work at McDonalds? Journalist Shane Bauer goes undercover as a prison guard in a privatized prison in Louisiana where they pay $9 an hour to just about anybody "breathing." Bauer only worked here 4 months and simply recounts this very limited experience, alternating with a boring history of the penitentiaries in this country. Bauer's main argument is on the vested interests of corporate control and the correlation with terribly insufficient care of the inmates. They are treated worse then farm animals, but most Americans seem pretty unconcerned about this. This is also an extension of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed how quickly the guards became dehumanized in their role, and the inmates became traumatized. Prison reform is a pet cause of mine, but this was something that may have been better in its originally intended form as an article for "Mother Jones." It just felt very drawn out as a book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    3.5 Another one of the NY Times Top 10 of 2018, Bauer's account of working in a private prison is quite insightful, especially when delving into the post-slavery use of prison labour in the American South. That said, I found the details provided were at times too much, unessential, taking away from the larger point Bauer was trying to make. It's an important story, but not necessarily that novel in its conclusions and insights. The private incarceration system is a great moral scar that the 3.5 Another one of the NY Times Top 10 of 2018, Bauer's account of working in a private prison is quite insightful, especially when delving into the post-slavery use of prison labour in the American South. That said, I found the details provided were at times too much, unessential, taking away from the larger point Bauer was trying to make. It's an important story, but not necessarily that novel in its conclusions and insights. The private incarceration system is a great moral scar that the United States must wear and I hope this book convinces wider audiences of this, even if I was not as blown away as I had hoped.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alex Givant

    Excellent book about USA private prisons run by CCA (original article can be found here). The book contains updated version plus history of private prisons in USA. Highly recommended!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Madeline

    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. 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.

  12. 4 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, 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David Quijano

    I first saw ‘American Prison’ by Shane Bauer on the NY Times Top 10 of 2018 list. I put all ten books on my to-read list, assuming the New York Times would only recommend exceptional books. My assumption was bolstered by the fact that its Goodreads rating was 4.25, which I would consider exceptionally high. It’s the type of rating you would expect from a flawless book. Unfortunately, ‘American Prison,’ much like the American prison system, suffers from some serious flaws. In 2014, Shane Bauer, I first saw ‘American Prison’ by Shane Bauer on the NY Times Top 10 of 2018 list. I put all ten books on my to-read list, assuming the New York Times would only recommend exceptional books. My assumption was bolstered by the fact that its Goodreads rating was 4.25, which I would consider exceptionally high. It’s the type of rating you would expect from a flawless book. Unfortunately, ‘American Prison,’ much like the American prison system, suffers from some serious flaws. In 2014, Shane Bauer, applied for a job at a privately run prison in Louisiana. He did this with the intent of writing a story for Mother Jones magazine. I’m sure he chose the prison specifically because of its known dysfunction and because he has a strange vendetta against private prisons. I am generally skeptical of the claims made against private prisons and as soon as I realized that was the focus of this book, I was a bit disappointed. Bauer was hired rather quickly by the private prison and the ease in which he got the job was probably the most surprising fact that I read in this book. In every prison or jail that I am aware of, applying for a detention officer position is the equivalent of being a law enforcement officer. This means a full background check that would include checking an applicant's social media, criminal, and credit background. It is very extensive. I assumed, very incorrectly, that private prisons would have a similar process. Wrong. Instead, Bauer’s description of the hiring process seemed more like what one would expect when applying to work for McDonald's. That sounds absurd, but his starting pay was $9 an hour, which is much closer to a fast food wage than a traditional detention officer wage. That was a significant tidbit. Many of his other observations, not so much. Most of his descriptions of his experiences as a prison guard were not surprising, informative, or compelling in any way. My feelings on this are definitely shaped by the fact that he clearly had an agenda when he started this project. Anyone could get a job, quote a couple of assholes who work there, and paint a disturbing narrative of the work environment. In fact, much of what he wrote didn’t prove anything other than prisons are a terrible place (surprise) and a few people who work there are unprofessional assholes (which is true for every workplace). The problem is, Bauer wants you to believe these conditions exist because he was working in a private prison, and it is a point I never really bought while reading this book. Do police (who are public rather than private workers) ever behave badly or unprofessionally? I feel like a sarcastic jerk for even asking the question. The heart of my problem with this book is that I do not trust Bauer’s judgment on this issue. I do not think he is purposefully lying, but it is easy to leave out important information when you are taking a passionate stance against something. Multiple times, while discussing the history of for-profit prisons use of slave labor, he claimed slavery was more productive than paid labor, which goes against most of what I have read on the issue. He doesn’t back it up with any statistics. He also made several claims while comparing and contrasting public and private prison systems with little data to back it up. To his credit, he said there isn’t a lot of data is available to compare. But when he found stats, he ran with them. One of the claims that stuck with me was that private prisons had higher rates of violence among inmates. Again, convincing evidence was not provided. If you are presented with information that says one prison is more violent than the other, and you were trying to figure out the cause, you would probably ask one hundred different questions before you asked whether or not the prisons are private or public. For instance, who paid for the study? What was their methodology? Which inmates were they comparing? What numbers were they comparing? What different policies are in place at the prisons that might create a more violent culture? Are there other factors that could cause the disparity other than the private/public factor? Thankfully, Bauer didn’t just write about his experiences as a prison guard. He intertwined his own narrative with a history of prisons in the United States. This was really where the book became exceptional in my mind. Bauer does a good job focusing on for-profit prisons in the South that sprang up after the end of slavery. He describes terrible conditions where prisoners, usually black, were sentenced to hard labor for frivolous crimes. Conditions were so bad in some of these prisons, that the annual death rate could reach nearly 20%. The prisoners were forced to work in mines, lay railroad track, and pick cotton, among other labor intense jobs. They did this with meager rations and the threat of brutal physical violence if they couldn’t meet their work quotas. But even when the book gets good, it is still missing a lot of information. A book on American prisons should cover all types of prisons, all over the country, and in different periods of time. Is there a good, or at least, a less bad prison somewhere in the history of America? If not America, perhaps another country has a good prison system. Maybe there are well-run prisons somewhere, but you won’t read about it in this book. Instead, the focus is purely on the bad. I say this not because it seemed unfair or anti-American, but because if you are making an argument against a specific policy, you should be able to point to a better option. The historical part of the book, regardless of how interesting and informative it was, seemed almost misplaced. It is true that a few savvy guys used the prison system to circumvent the 13th amendment to the constitution and essentially own large numbers of slaves throughout the late 19th and into the early 20th century. It is an interesting story that is also morally reprehensible. I am not sure what that has to do with modern private prisons, though. One really has nothing to do with the other. To be fair, at times Bauer seems to make a distinction. In the late 19th century, private prisons made so much money they could afford to bribe local police to arrest people which caused higher rates of incarceration. Bauer says very clearly in the book that today, most incarcerated people are not in private prisons (I believe he said the number is about 5%), they are not forced to work, and private prisons are not the reason for mass incarceration. Yet, he still tries to connect for-profit prisons of the past that used slave labor with modern for-profit prisons, which do not. At one point, Bauer describes his attempt to speak with the CEO of a prison company. The man at first agrees to the meeting, but cancels, presumably after he finds out who Bauer is. Bauer then ponders if the CEO knew about the racist history of private prisons. Upon reading this, I just shook my head. Does the current CEO of the Red Cross know about every racist and sexist policy that their organization had 120 years ago? If they don’t, does that make them a bad person or bad at their job? Does their racist past mean they are currently a bad organization? Is any bad policy that remains today proof of its inherent racist underpinnings? The American legal, judicial, and prison systems are dysfunctional. They all work together to create a bloated system that isn’t particularly effective and too often unjust. There are a lot of policy proposals that could help improve the system. The focus on eliminating private prisons, at best, would be a marginal improvement. To me, that makes the modern part of this book kind of a head-scratcher. Mandatory sentencing, the drug war, and the current bail system are far more important issues if you are worried about mass incarceration. Additionally, prison safety (which he did cover), therapy, and education would go a long way at keeping recidivism rates down. He doesn’t really talk about most of this and instead really focuses in on his time as a prison guard and sprinkling in a little history. The historical part of the book was four stars. It was so good, I am going to read the book ‘Slavery by Another Name’ which he referred to multiple times. The modern part was two stars and very dull. I am giving this book three stars. I honestly would not recommend this book to anyone. I haven’t read ‘Slavery by Another Name’ yet, but I already know it is better than this. Read that instead.

  14. 5 out of 5

    The Nerdwriter

    This one made me angry. Before reading Shane Bauer's American Prison, I had only a limited understanding of the private prison industry. I knew of its unsavory reputation, as many do, but the sickening details from this undercover report shocked and angered me. Bauer -- not a year after being released from an Iranian jail! -- decides to investigate private prisons in America from the inside, applying for a job as a guard at Winn Correctional in Louisiana, a facility owned by Corrections This one made me angry. Before reading Shane Bauer's American Prison, I had only a limited understanding of the private prison industry. I knew of its unsavory reputation, as many do, but the sickening details from this undercover report shocked and angered me. Bauer -- not a year after being released from an Iranian jail! -- decides to investigate private prisons in America from the inside, applying for a job as a guard at Winn Correctional in Louisiana, a facility owned by Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic). He wrestles with the ethics of going undercover throughout the book, but considering how CCA chokes information the subterfuge is more than justified. Bauer's perspective is invaluable, his actions brave. He immediately discovers that Winn is understaffed, and it's employees are underpaid. He and his fellow guards make a measly $9/hr to do a very dangerous job. Just how dangerous? Their training requires them to learn what to do if they're taken hostage, as they'll often be outnumbered by inmates (a concern made worse by understaffing). It also requires them to endure a dose of pepper spray so they're prepared for the sensation if when they're in the vicinity of inmates getting sprayed. They undergo taunts, threats, mind-games and sexual assaults from prisoners on a daily basis, and have to be alert and ready for anything twelve hours a day. CCA cost-cuts in every possible way, resulting in poor compensation for its employees and poorer treatment for its inmates. They don't have the staff to give prisoners the proper amount of outdoor time, or educational classes, or commissary access, or medical care, or mental health treatment. It's no wonder inmates turn to a thriving underground market of drugs, weapons and food, and it's no wonder that some guards, underpaid as they are, help to facilitate it. Bauer's daily hardships at Winn make for eye-opening reading, and his gradual transformation into a more draconian guard (reminiscent of the Stanford Prison experiment) is disturbing to watch. But what makes this book more than just an exposé are the alternating chapters that chart the ongoing, for-profit exploitation of prisoners from slavery to the present day. The line that you can draw from slavery to CCA is frighteningly straight. And when Bauer sketches it out for you, it's clear how much the stain of our past still shines red on the American landscape. The torture that Bauer details is almost unbearable to read. The pain and indignity African Americans suffered after slavery...what can you say? That human beings could ever be so cruel, so callous, so evil -- you want to apologize for belonging to the same species. American Prison will make you mad, and for that reason is necessary reading.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Angie Reisetter

    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.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laurene

    I am usually not a nonfiction reader. But was intrigued when American Prison was one of the top books of 2018. Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter, took a job as a prison guard in Winn, Louisiana for 4 months and wrote his novel based on his personal experiences. Kudos to Mr. Bauer for lasting 4 months.

  17. 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 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.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Durrant

    I confess to be growing tired of the every-other-chapter style of nonfiction, which one finds employed these days in some fiction as well. Here, one chapter presents Shane Bauer's story of going undercover as a prison guard to get the inside dope, so to speak, on a privatized prison in Louisiana, and the next chapter traces the history of for-profit prisons in the American south from the Civil War up into the middle of the twentieth century, which were really just a continuation of slavery. Then I confess to be growing tired of the every-other-chapter style of nonfiction, which one finds employed these days in some fiction as well. Here, one chapter presents Shane Bauer's story of going undercover as a prison guard to get the inside dope, so to speak, on a privatized prison in Louisiana, and the next chapter traces the history of for-profit prisons in the American south from the Civil War up into the middle of the twentieth century, which were really just a continuation of slavery. Then the next chapter returns to the autobiographical experience and the one after that goes back to history, and so forth. "American Prison" is redeemed from its mechanical presentation, however, by the compelling nature of both Bauer's direct experience and his presentation of the history of prisons in the South. Neither provides much cheer and should make even the most ardent advocate of harsh justice wonder why we allow prisons to become money-making enterprises, which inevitably subject the incarcerated to levels of neglect and violence that can only regard as "cruel and unusual." American prisons should not be ignored: we Americans incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other country. And Bauer's book deserves a place on the shelf of all who feel inclined to struggle with this serious issue.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    I was worried that I wouldn't be able to sustain much interest in anything related to the American criminal justice system, having recently finished the rather lackluster and frustrating third season of Serial. Plus, though I am not completely devoid of the milk of human kindness, the prison population is not one for whom I have a natural sympathy. And that's why I am so glad I read American Prison. This is such a gripping, enlightening, and sad book. It's full of human misery, and therefore not I was worried that I wouldn't be able to sustain much interest in anything related to the American criminal justice system, having recently finished the rather lackluster and frustrating third season of Serial. Plus, though I am not completely devoid of the milk of human kindness, the prison population is not one for whom I have a natural sympathy. And that's why I am so glad I read American Prison. This is such a gripping, enlightening, and sad book. It's full of human misery, and therefore not easy to read. I appreciated Bauer's honesty: he doesn't divide the world up into victims and devils, squeezing people into pre-conceived categories (that's you, Serial) but instead gives readers a complicated and nuanced look into the lives of guards and inmates in a private prison. He even documents how working as a prison guard changed him, and doesn't stop when the truth gets unflattering. I felt sorrow for everyone involved—the prisoners, the guards, and the loved ones of both. Though Bauer doesn't offer any solutions to the problems that plague American prisons, especially private ones, I have a feeling this will be an important book for America. Put simply, American Prison is a novelist's dream. There are so many unmined stories here that only fiction could do justice to. Chain gangs and Georgia convict road camps. Female slaves, convicted of trying to kill their masters, then imprisoned alongside men in 19th century penitentiaries. The fate of the babies birthed there, only to be torn from their mothers and sold back into slavery at age ten. Prison guards suffering from PTSD. So much misery and evil, but the kind that is important to think about. Lastly, I listened to this book on Audible, and I feel the need to comment on the amazing performance of James Fouhey, the reader. How this man managed to capture the diversity of voices represented in American Prison is remarkable. At the risk of sounding cliche, he made the book (and its characters) come alive for me. I don't think I would have had as enriching of an experience, had I read it in print. Very highly recommended. Thanks to the NY Times Book Review podcast for insisting that listeners pick this one up.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kati Garness

    A glimpse into the grim reality of prisons today and in particular the conditions caused by for-profit, private prisons caring more about the bottom line than the people in their care. Shane Bauer gives both the historical context of making money off of prisoners and the current practices. This book should be a call to action against companies such as CCA.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Emmkay

    Essential reading. I first heard Shane Bauer on a podcast, talking about the time he spent, as an undercover investigative reporter for Mother Jones magazine, working in a privatized prison in Louisiana. It was compelling listening, and his book on the same topic is both sobering and eye-opening. He alternates chapters between providing a historical overview of penitentiaries in the South (from plantation to prison farm to for-profit private prisons), and what he experienced as a Essential reading. I first heard Shane Bauer on a podcast, talking about the time he spent, as an undercover investigative reporter for Mother Jones magazine, working in a privatized prison in Louisiana. It was compelling listening, and his book on the same topic is both sobering and eye-opening. He alternates chapters between providing a historical overview of penitentiaries in the South (from plantation to prison farm to for-profit private prisons), and what he experienced as a 9-dollar-an-hour correctional officer in a prison run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. An important complement to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and fantastic reportage.

  22. 5 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, 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.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Antonia

    This here is the type of journalism I most admire -- brave, risky, bold. Shane Bauer is an undercover reporter who got a job as a guard in private prison in Louisiana. A job starting at $9 per hour! 9 freaking dollars an hour in a facility with over 1000 prisoners! I bet some states have a better minimum wage than that. If this doesn't sound ridiculous enough just keep reading the book. Besides providing his personal account with prisoners and staff, which at times is quite brutal, Bauer does This here is the type of journalism I most admire -- brave, risky, bold. Shane Bauer is an undercover reporter who got a job as a guard in private prison in Louisiana. A job starting at $9 per hour! 9 freaking dollars an hour in a facility with over 1000 prisoners! I bet some states have a better minimum wage than that. If this doesn't sound ridiculous enough just keep reading the book. Besides providing his personal account with prisoners and staff, which at times is quite brutal, Bauer does extensive overview on how private prison came to be, how much a prisoner costs per day and what profits are gained using their labor. There were times I truly regretted picking up the book, because I could not take the cruelty and injustice, however I am very glad I learnt how corrupt and in need of reform the prison system in the USA is.

  24. 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.

  25. 4 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.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

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

  27. 5 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.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    An eye-opening report on the history of for-profit prisons in the U.S., half history an half first-person investigative reporting. It's all fairly disturbing. And absorbing. Bauer's adventure as an undercover reporter working for four months as a prison corrections officer would make a great movie.

  29. 5 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 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.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    The central indictment against America's penal system is the premise of this book: that it is so unaccountably insular that the only way to know its true nature is for someone to go deep undercover. Shane Bauer didn’t hide his identity and endeavored to deal honestly with his colleagues, charges, and superiors—a courtesy that was, ultimately, a one-way street. America’s private prison industry is as it has always been—a travesty of rapacious deceit. Bauer does a great job laying out the history The central indictment against America's penal system is the premise of this book: that it is so unaccountably insular that the only way to know its true nature is for someone to go deep undercover. Shane Bauer didn’t hide his identity and endeavored to deal honestly with his colleagues, charges, and superiors—a courtesy that was, ultimately, a one-way street. America’s private prison industry is as it has always been—a travesty of rapacious deceit. Bauer does a great job laying out the history of penal servitude in America, including the naked racism and brutality that has marked it from the beginning. His epilogue is as dispiriting as it is inevitable. That fully two-thirds of ICE detention centers are for-profit enterprises is a fact that falls squarely in line with American history dating back to the antebellum era. Racial minorities of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, when they are not being worked to death for profit, are being warehoused for profit. This is an ongoing human-rights disaster that shows no signs of abating. It’s been almost 20 years since Ted Conover wrote his exceptional undercover prison exposé, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, which stayed with me for a long time; I expect Bauer’s book to do the same.

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