57 pages 1 hour read

Shane Bauer

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment is a nonfiction book published in 2018 by the American journalist Shane Bauer. The book was the culmination of Bauer’s investigative reporting into the business of incarceration, which was published in a shorter form in Mother Jones magazine. American Prison falls into a specific category of journalistic nonfiction that includes Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, an investigation into segregation in the Deep South. This genre of journalism is proactive rather than reactive, in that the journalist assumes an identity in order to get a first-person perspective into their subject matter. For his efforts, Bauer won the Helen Burnstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Robert F. Kennedy book award for outstanding journalism in human rights and social justice.

Plot Summary

Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter for Mother Jones magazine, decides to dig into America’s prison-for-profit system. As a journalist with firsthand knowledge of incarceration—Bauer was imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison for over two years—Bauer’s interest leads him to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison contractor in the country. After some initial trepidation, Bauer applies for a job as a corrections officer (CO) and is hired by Louisiana’s Winn prison at $9 an hour.

Bauer’s training process lasts four weeks, during which time he learns about CCA policy, situations to avoid—sexual relations with inmates, for example—the importance of maintaining profitability, and how to handle life-threatening situations by saving oneself and letting the incarcerated fight it out. Rather than housing inmates in individual cells, they are kept in dormitory-style tiers with an observation and control hub known as the “key” at the center. Bauer finds much of the staff to be cynical, uncaring, and of low morale.

Alongside his experiences as a CO, Bauer interweaves a thoroughly researched history of the prison-for-profit system in America, starting with the post-Civil War South. A provision of the Thirteenth Amendment stipulates that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall be allowed “except as a punishment for crime.” This loophole allowed Southern states, whose economies were devastated by the war, to reestablish their plantation systems albeit under a different name. Instead of slave labor, they employed convict labor, although the conditions for the inmates were often just as bad and sometimes worse. Ironically, the penitentiary system—as opposed to short-term jail and public punishment—was seen as reformatory, but cash-strapped states and industrious entrepreneurs quickly found ways to capitalize on the labor of incarcerated people. Convict labor generated large profits for state coffers, but maximizing profits meant inhumane conditions for the inmates: squalid housing, beatings, and frequently death.

Bauer, meanwhile, finishes his training and begins his regular duties as a Winn corrections officer. He soon discovers his progressive leanings may be more detrimental than helpful. While he tries to empathize with some of the inmates, he begins to fear they are taking advantage of his kindness. Personal taunts begin to rile him, and paranoia creeps into his psyche until he notices changes in himself—he becomes harsher with inmates and more rigid with the rules. The changes are reciprocal. Inmates who once trusted him now hold grudges. As violence inside Winn surges and outside assistance arrives, the chaos and lack of control—largely due to understaffing—is exposed.

The dissolution of convict leasing monopolies created competition among smaller companies for rights to convict labor. This drove down profits and ultimately spelled the end of the practice. The profit model of punishment, however, did not die. As incarceration rates soared in the 1980s and on, businessmen like T. Don Hutto took advantage of overcrowded state prisons and created a new model: the private prison. With privatization the new rage, Hutto built an empire out of warehousing inmates in the most cost-effective ways. Profitability, however, meant rationing health care, understaffing its facilities, and neglecting infrastructure, all of which pose a real danger to staff and inmates alike.

Meanwhile, the arrest of his colleague, James West, threatens to expose Bauer’s identity. Furthermore, as his personality grows more aggressive and less accommodating, and as he craves the adrenaline rush of confrontation, he realizes it’s time to quit. This is not as easy as he imagines, however. As he drives away from Winn and his prison guard identity, Bauer feels an unexpected though short-lived sadness. Later, after the publication of his reporting in Mother Jones, he attends a CCA shareholder’s meeting and finds a mostly unchanged—albeit rebranded—company. Questions about low morale and prisoner mistreatment are met with sanctimonious platitudes about “public welfare” and “reducing recidivism. The meeting ends, and the activists’ questions generate little but a stony, uncomfortable silence.