Review: Elliot Reed on Shane Bauer’s “American Prison”
A conspiracy can become so diabolical that the details of its execution cease to be interesting, but if we forget about the crime, the criminals win. The crime I mean here is the crime of incarceration. There are many books about the horrors and injustice of the American prison system—books by inmates, books by teachers, and books by guards. There’s something cowboy about prison. The demand for incarceration stories grows. No living dystopia has been documented so thoroughly.
Reading about something very bad can feel like taking action against that very bad thing. Same with writing. In the celebrated book American Prison, journalist Shane Bauer elected to take the worst job in America and then write about how miserable it was. In the epilogue, Bauer sneaks into a Corrections Corporation of America board meeting and stands up from the crowd to question the CEO about the abusive practices he saw when he worked undercover at one of CCA’s private prisons.
The CEO equivocates, then goes on to brag about CCA’s achievements in the field of human reform. The audience applauds, the meeting moves on. Nobody is arrested, kicked out, or threatened. The whistleblower is harmless. Bauer wonders: “How many times have such meetings been held throughout American prison history? How many times have men, be they private prison executives or convict lessees, gotten together to perform this ritual? They sit in company headquarters or legislative offices, far from their prisons or labor camps, and craft stories that soothe their consciences.”
The book ends there, but Bauer’s investigation had some effect: CCA lost its contract to operate Winn Correctional Facility, where Bauer worked, and the state of Louisiana was forced to find another private operator—do you prefer McDonald’s or Burger King? Bauer, and many former colleagues, found other work. For Bauer it was probably easier than it was for them.
Bauer works days and days in a row, including mandatory overtime, after brief and inadequate training. The prison is chaotic—everyone seems to be winging it. All his superiors seem to care about is how they look when the American Correctional Association's auditors show up. (When they do show up, “They do a single loop and leave,” and Winn correctional receives a perfect score). Again and again, Bauer finds himself alone in a sea of hostile inmates. His primary job is to count people and break up fights, search living areas for contraband, and watch inmates as they interact. Sometimes he is asked to sit for hours opposite naked men on "suicide watch" being kept in solitary confinement cells with see-through doors and backed-up toilets. His standing in the eyes of the inmates goes from neutral to negative when he confiscates a cell phone he finds beneath a water fountain. The inmates all have their own hustles, and often their own ceasefire arrangements with guards. Bauer has to catch as catch can. As he passes through “the tier” to make sure they are all accounted for, the inmates whisper homophobic slurs and threaten his life. Bauer sends people to solitary confinement and confiscates more contraband, but every time he acts like a cop it makes him feel like a traitor. He spent more than two years as a prisoner himself—he got picked up while hiking near the border of Iran—and so he knows first hand what it’s like to be at someone’s mercy. At the end of each day Bauer goes home and tries to sort through his notes, make some sense of his increasingly dubious mission.
The rural people who resort to working with him in corrections at Winn sound universally unfortunate. The guards and inmate counselors are high-school dropouts and war veterans suffering from mental illness; they are sick, down-on-their-luck, and working long hours in very unsafe places. Bauer relays their quotes verbatim, grammatical errors and all, and takes their pictures with a secret camera in his coffee cup. They weigh the pros and cons of stocking Walmart against being prison guards. These are sad portraits, but sometimes they are sympathetic.
The inmates, on the other hand, are not so sympathetic. They startle him with sudden violence: “One man breaks his hand free, swings it up, and jams his shank into the side of the other man’s neck. My breath stops for a moment, and I utter a gagging sound.” They stare at him menacingly: An inmate in A2 with a fleur-de-lis tattoo on his neck ogles him and sometimes hangs back with his buddy to track Bauer’s movements. Sometimes, inmates try to help him. One guy who comes into the medical ward needing to be shackled for transport patiently shows Bauer how to properly fasten the cuffs—but he remains an enigma. I wondered whether a conscious editorial decision had been made to ignore any brightness there might have been in that prison, or if Bauer’s uniformly bad news was an unconscious consequence of assuming the guard role, putting the inmates somewhere beyond the reach of fellow feeling. Bauer writes: “We [the guards] can chat and laugh through the bars, but inevitably I need to flex my authority. My job will always be to deny them the most basic of human impulses—to push for more freedom. Day by day, the number of inmates who are friendly with me grows smaller.”
Had Human Resources googled Bauer’s name, he’d have been busted. He wasn’t busted because they were hiring anybody who came in the door. CCA paid minimum wage and its prisons were understaffed. Its prisons were (and still are) nightmarishly brutal. The idea in a for-profit prison is to maximize returns; everybody in the prison loses—the guards, the inmates, the prison staff—and the shareholders win. The strategists behind the operation—some of whom who commit crimes, others not—change their job titles when they get busted and carry on. The corporate organism rebrands and finds new customers—now CCA is CoreCivic, and its main business is detaining undocumented immigrants—subjecting them, according to a recent lawsuit, to forced labor. Thanks to the current administration’s reversal of a 2016 constraint on the federal use of for-profit prisons (while only 1 percent of prisoners are in the federal system, private prisons housed 15 percent of them at the time) and the burgeoning business in immigrant detentions, these corporations are enjoying boom times now, less than three years after Bauer took his experience public. The recent prison reform bill may reduce the for-profit prison population over time, but it does not address the industry’s practices, and indeed the major players, who were significant donors to President Trump’s campaign, seem positioned to benefit.
Bauer’s book reminds us that the real criminals in the story are in corporate. The question is whether the reminder will have any effect.
Elliot Reed is the author of A Key to Treehouse Living, a novel. He currently teaches writing in a prison outside Spokane, Washington.
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