“The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring,” wrote Shane Bauer for Mother Jones in July 2016. “To shout makes me feel alive… During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action…”
In 2014 Bauer, an investigative journalist who has previously written about the likes of police militarization and solitary confinement, spent a full four months undercover in the role of a private prison guard. With a hidden camera concealed in a wrist-watch, he infiltrated the oldest medium-security private prison in the United States and documented a litany of disturbing failings. And over time, his personality began to change…
By recording daily life in a private prison, Bauer sought to provide a rare inside look at a closed and controversial industry. In 2015 U.S. private prisons contained 126,272 inmates, or 8 percent of the nation’s total prison population. And unlike publicly owned correctional facilities, they are profit-driven enterprises accountable to shareholders. They are also highly secretive, writes Bauer, and are rarely scrutinized by journalists, partly owing to laws protecting their corporate records.
But getting a job with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – rebranded CoreCivic in 2016 – was easy for Bauer. The decision-makers did not ask him about his résumé, his background in journalism or his arrest for shoplifting when he was 19. “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,” a CCA training manager told him.
Founded in 1983 by Thomas Beasley and T. Don Hutto, CoreCivic currently operates 65 state and federal detention and correctional centers, with a combined capacity for 90,000 inmates. Its revenue in 2016 was $1.85 billion; its gross profit – $574 million. Historically, CCA’s success can be traced to the expansion of the criminal justice system during the 1980s and 1990s. During that period overcrowding in public correctional facilities, the war on drugs and stricter sentencing regimes were all a boon to the private prison industry.
Bauer was for his part assigned to Winn Correctional Center in the heart of Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest. The facility comprises several X-shaped prison units, with four dormitories, or “tiers,” branching out from a central control room known as “the key.” The units were named after trees, and each had its own traits. Ash and Elm had a reputation for troublemakers while Bauer was there, whereas Dogwood was for well-behaved “trusties.” The high-security Cypress, meanwhile, was a segregation unit with private cells.
Upon him starting at Winn, Bauer’s training to become a Correctional Officer (CO) lasted just 30 days. It included rough-and-tumble instruction from the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) – the Winn equivalent of a SWAT unit – and this culminated with five cadets, including Bauer, being tear gassed without masks or protection. “The object is to avoid panicking,” wrote Bauer, “staying in the same place until the gas dissipates…”
Meanwhile, a major hint that the prison was suffering difficulties came only two weeks into Bauer’s training. An inmate called Chase Cortez, who was just months from the end of a three-year stretch, managed to escape the compound and steal a hunter’s pickup truck. However, staff at the prison did not notice his escape until several hours later, possibly because the guard towers have been unnamed since 2010. Cortez was eventually apprehended by the local sheriff.
After finishing his training, Bauer was assigned to Cypress on suicide watch – and the picture he paints is disturbing. In order to deter prisoners from malingering, the cells are rendered sparse and uncomfortable. There are no mattresses – only steel bunks. There is no reading material, either, nor indeed any other objects save for toilet paper. Meanwhile, the inmates there are stripped naked and made to wear tear-proof suicide blankets.
Talking to Miss Carter – the prison’s sole full-time social worker – Bauer discovered that mental health provision in Winn also appeared woefully inadequate. According to Carter, 10 percent of the prison’s 1,500 inmates were suffering from serious psychological health issues, and approximately 25 percent had IQs below 70. Yet despite this, there was no full-time psychiatrist at Winn. Most other prison health departments in the state, on the other hand, were employing three times as many full-time social workers.
Similarly, many other facilities at the prison appeared to be underfunded and under-resourced. The work program had been axed, the hobby shops closed and access to the law library restricted. The recreation yard, meanwhile, was largely empty of prisoners, as there were insufficient guards to supervise it. Indeed, there were few outlets at all for the inmates’ pent-up energy.
But the prison’s most shameful deficiencies concerned the provision of medical care. One day Bauer encountered an inmate complaining of “throbbing pain” in his chest. He was subsequently diagnosed as having “fluid in his lungs” – a condition that requires a minor surgical procedure. Despite collapsing in pain, however, he was refused hospital treatment and sent back to the unit, presumably to save on costs.
On a different occasion, Bauer met an inmate called Robert Scott, a prisoner at Winn for 12 years. Scott had complained of pain in his feet and fingers on nine separate occasions. However, the infirmary failed to properly diagnose his illness. Eventually, his toes and fingers went black. Scott had gangrene. And when he was finally sent to hospital, the disease was so far advanced that his legs and fingers had to be amputated.
Scott is currently suing CoreCivic, but he is not the first. In fact, at least 15 percent of the 1,200 known lawsuits against CoreCivic have related to medical care. One of the most shocking concerns the death of a newborn baby at a jail in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Apparently, the mother had been put in a cell without a mattress and left to go into labor. She subsequently suffered severe blood loss – but prison staff waited five hours after she had requested help before they called an ambulance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bauer also reported a culture of violence and aggression at Winn. “By my seventh week as a guard the violence is getting out of control,” he wrote. “The stabbings start to happen so frequently that, on February 16, the prison goes on indefinite lockdown. No inmates leave their tiers. The walk is empty. Crows gather and puddles of water form on the rec yards.”
By this time, however, Bauer had become paranoid. “Things I used to view as harmless transgressions I now view as personal attacks,” he wrote. “When a physically disabled man doesn’t leave the shower in time for count, I am certain he is testing me, trying to break me down, to dominate me.” Bauer also started fantasizing about physical conflict and took sadistic pleasure in exercising his authority.
That the role of prison guard can bring out the worst in anyone was famously demonstrated by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. In a role-playing experiment at Stanford University, he divided participants into “prisoners” and “guards” and had them act out their roles in a makeshift “prison” in a basement. After six days, the guards had become so cruel and abusive that the experiment had to be stopped.
Meanwhile, Bauer’s own role-playing experiment was brought to a premature close in March 2015 when a colleague from Mother Jones was arrested outside Winn and charged with trespassing. He had been trying to shoot some footage for a companion video. Bauer subsequently called in sick the next day. Then after bailing out his colleague, he slung his possessions into plastic bags and made a run for the state line.
Bauer’s experiences demonstrate some of the potential pitfalls of privatized correctional services. Arguably, the pursuit of profit – at the expense of security, health provision and basic vocational amenities – encourages a culture of violence and deprivation. However, CoreCivic has denied that it “prioritizes its own economic gain over the needs of its customers.”
Meanwhile, around a fortnight after Bauer resigned, CoreCivic declared that it intended to void its contract for Winn. Apparently, the Department of Corrections had identified a number of issues at the prison, including security flaws, inadequate recreation, substandard training, under-staffing and a “total lack of maintenance.” LaSalle Corrections subsequently assumed management of the prison in September 2015.