“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard”: Shane Bauer Goes Undercover to Expose Conditions

Between 2009 and 2011, Shane Bauer spent nearly two years locked up in an Iranian prison as one of the jailed American hikers. Last year, he went back to jail — this time as an undercover journalist working as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana. In a stunning new exposé for Mother Jones, Bauer chronicles the four months he spent undercover last year as a guard at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Facility. Winn is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country and sits in the state that holds the distinction as having the world’s highest incarceration rate — more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents. During Bauer’s investigation, Winn was run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s second-largest private prison operator. Bauer’s story offers a never-before-seen look at the for-profit prison industry, exposing conditions that include violence among inmates, poor medical and mental healthcare for even the sickest prisoners, mismanagement and lack of training for staff.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a stunning new exposé for Mother Jones magazine looking at the world of privately run prisons.

JENNIFER CALAHAN: No structure. Unsafe. Just a bad place. Hell, in a can.

SHANE BAUER: This prison is crazy, beyond anything I ever imagined.

AMY GOODMAN: Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer spent four months working undercover last year as a guard at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Facility. It was not Bauer’s first time behind bars. Between 2009 and ’11, he spent nearly two years locked up in an Iranian prison as one of the jailed American hikers. Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Facility is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country and sits in the state that holds the distinction as having the world’s highest incarceration rate — more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 Louisiana residents. During Shane Bauer’s investigation, Winn was run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s second-largest private prison operator. In one of the videos in the Mother Jones series, Bauer explains how he landed the job using his own name and personal information, despite his years as an award-winning journalist.

SHANE BAUER: I put in an application with the Corrections Corporation of America for prison guard jobs. A week later, I start getting calls. I was surprised how quickly it happened. I don’t know how long I’m going to be doing this. I don’t know where it’s going to take me. I don’t know what my job will entail.

NARRATION: November 2014, Shane Bauer applied to be a guard at Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. He used his real name and personal information.

SHANE BAUER: This company and these big private prison companies, in general, are kind of notoriously secretive.

MARGARET REGAN: Corrections Corporation of America began around 1983.

AL JAZEERA REPORTER 1: CCA, The GEO Group and MTC operate more than 130 facilities nationwide.

AL JAZEERA REPORTER 2: The combined revenues of these two companies reached $3.3 billion in 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer’s story offers a never-before-seen look at the for-profit prison industry, exposing conditions that include violence among prisoners, poor medical and mental healthcare for even the sickest prisoners, mismanagement, lack of training for staff.

Well, for more, we go directly to Shane Bauer, joining us from San Francisco.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Shane.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this process that you went through — truly astounding, given that you yourself were imprisoned for almost two years, that you decided you’d go back into prison as a prison guard.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I had been reporting on prisons for several years and was constantly coming up against a wall. It’s very difficult to get information from prisons in the United States. You know, if you go inside, you’re on kind of carefully scripted tours. Records requests sometimes take months; sometimes they don’t come back at all. And there have been occasional reports about private prisons from the Department of Justice, some media reports showing higher levels of violence than other prisons, you know, a high degree of understaffing. So, I had the idea to put in an application, specifically at a private prison company. These private prisons are even more secretive than their public counterparts. A lot of public access laws don’t apply to these prisons because they are not public institutions.

So, I went online, filled out an application for the Corrections Corporation of America using, you know, my real name and personal information. And I was getting calls within a week and doing interviews on the phone. These interviews were, you know, the kind of interview you might expect from a Wal-Mart. They didn’t ask me about why I wanted to work in a prison. They didn’t ask me about my job history. They would just ask me questions like, you know, “If your supervisor tells you to do something you don’t want to do, how would you respond?” The only prison — the only question that I actually was asked that had to do with prison was “What is your idea of customer service, and how does it apply to inmates?”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from the video that accompanies your stories in Mother Jones. This offers a look at Winnfield, Louisiana, near the CCA-run Winn Correctional Facility.

SHANE BAUER: This part of America in particular is very poor. The main employers in the area are the lumber mill, Wal-Mart and CCA.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 1: There’s really not too many jobs. You actually have to go out of town to find a job.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 2: Logging woods or lumber mills.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 3: Either you have a job or you’re selling dope. And that’s it.

SHANE BAUER: So people are willing to take a very dangerous job for $9 or $10 an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Shane, talk about going into the jail, who the prison guards are, who the prisoners are.

SHANE BAUER: Well, Winn has about 1,500 inmates. It’s a medium-security prison. The average sentence there is 19 years. People are in for — you know, about 55 percent of the prisoners are there for violent crimes. I met prisoners that were there for having too many DUIs. So, it’s kind of a wide range of crimes.

The guards are mostly poor people from the town. It’s $9-an-hour job. And the town — you know, the average income, family income, in the town is $25,000 a year. And despite how poor the town was, the prison had a really hard time keeping up staff. People would start the job and leave pretty quickly. There was a really high rate of turnover. There were also a set of staff that were people who had kind of been in law enforcement or corrections and had been disciplined for prior infractions. I met one guard who had worked in a juvenile detention center and had been let go after he uppercutted a 16-year-old kid and shattered his jaw. So there’s this kind of set of people who can’t get work elsewhere, so they take this low-paying job. When I was in training, the head of training actually said to us — she said, you know, “People say that CCA is scraping of the bottom of the barrel, but that’s not really true. But if you are breathing and you have a driver’s license and you’re willing to work, then we’re willing to hire you.”

AMY GOODMAN: Tear gas — explain the exposure to tear gas in the prison.

SHANE BAUER: Well, while I was in training, I had to be exposed to tear gas to kind of prepare us in case — you know, in case we were exposed to it inside. And when I worked in the prison, I saw a lot of use of pepper spray. There was a kind of corporate tactical team that was sent in during the time that I was there. And when they came in, the assistant warden said to us in a morning meeting — he said, “I believe that pain increases the intelligence of the stupid. And if these inmates want to act stupid, then we’re going to give them some pain to increase their intelligence level.” And during the time that I was there, CCA used three times more chemical agents — pepper spray and tear gas — than the runner-up in Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: During your undercover investigation of Winn Correctional Facility, Shane, you came across a prisoner who had lost his fingers and legs due to lack of proper medical care.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: Mr. Scott complained about that for months to the medical staff at Winn. They gave him some — the equivalent of a couple of Motrin and told him to go away.

ROBERT SCOTT: Never saw a doctor. The whole time.

SHANE BAUER: He’s now suing the prison.

JENNIFER CALAHAN: The people that are working there as nurses and all that, they’re really not that qualified.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: There are doctors they can hire. There are doctors who are more or less affordable. I did some background checking on them, and one of them was a pediatrician who had lost his privileges to treat children.

AMY GOODMAN: CCA said it “is committed to ensuring that all individuals entrusted to our care have appropriate access to medical services as needed,” unquote. Shane Bauer?

SHANE BAUER: Well, Robert Scott, you know, he had lost his legs and fingers to gangrene. And I ended up getting access to his medical records through his legal case, and it showed that he had made multiple requests to see a doctor. He would go to the infirmary complaining of intense pain. You know, his foot was blackening. And he was just given Motrin. And he was trying to go to the hospital, but he kept getting sent back. He says that he was accused of faking it, which was something I heard a lot at Winn. And, you know, part of the issue is that CCA, when they send prisoners to the hospital, they have to foot the bill. The state does not cover this cost. So, you know, when you’re bringing in $34 per inmate per day, taking them to the hospital is a huge expense.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about prison breaks, escapes, riots, when we come back. We’re talking to Shane Bauer, who has this exclusive full issue of Mother Jones, investigation of CCA-run prison in Louisiana. It’s headlined “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” chronicling his time as an undercover correctional officer at the Louisiana Winn Correctional Center, run by CCA. Stay with us.