Shane Bauer, a senior reporter at Mother Jones, discusses his four month undercover journalistic assignment as a private prison guard for the Corrections Corporation of America at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana.
Transcript — June 28, 2016 — Shane Bauer
Scott Horton: Introducing Shane Bauer — the heroic Shane Bauer — senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine. You remember it made the news when his cameraman got busted out in front of a prison in Louisiana back a few months ago, almost a year ago I guess, or maybe more. And then it came out that, well, Mother Jones had an undercover reporter inside that prison and that’s what was going on. And then we were not surprised to find out that it was the great Shane Bauer, and what he’s written about it here is basically a book. Although I’m not trying to scare you off of it, you can read it in one sitting, no problem. It’s called ‘My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard — A Mother Jones Investigation.’ It’s at motherJones.com and it’s basically five chapters. It’s a pretty good 200-page book, something like that.
Welcome back to the show Shane, how are you? First just tell us overall what is CCA? How did you decide you wanted to do this report?
Shane Bauer: CCA is the Corrections Corporation of America. It’s a company that’s traded on Wall Street that brings in $1.9 billion in revenue every year. It has been running prisons since the 80s. It has just over 60 prisons that it operates. There’s another company that’s a close competitor called the Geo Group doing the same kind of thing. I’ve been reporting on prisons for a few years now and the prisons in general in the United States are very hard to get information from.
The walls kind of function in both directions, keeping people in but also keeping outsiders out and when you do get inside it’s usually for scripted tours and information you get is through spokespeople. This is especially true with private prisons, they’re especially secretive. A lot of public access laws don’t apply because they are not public institutions, they are private companies, so we haven’t seen much about life inside of these prisons.
We hear about them in the news once in a while. There was a riot some years back. There was a CCA prison in Idaho that was closed down after an FBI investigation that found that it was severely understaffed and that there was higher levels of violence as a result. So I thought that this was the only way to really look up close and see what’s going on, so I put in an application.
SH: Right on. And by the way people who just can’t stand to read for whatever reason, there is a six-part video series that goes along with this report so if you’re not going to read it”¦
SB: There’s also a radio documentary that we produced with Reveal that’s an hour-long that’s on iTunes.
SH: OK great, yeah even if it’s just a matter of time you can listen on your way to work to the full hour thing, you can check the video series on YouTube etc.
So now I guess I am trying to figure out what you think is the real bottom line difference between a government run prison and a government contracted prison?
SB: Well first of all I don’t want to give the impression that government run prisons are somehow running smoothly. That’s not the case. We have a lot of issues inside the prison system in the US right now but these private prisons have a particular set of issues that kind of spring from this tension between having a job of providing care and keeping prisoners safe, and turning a profit. So, what I saw happen at Winn was there were a lot of corners cut in order to save money. 60% of the costs of running a prison is in staffing so when you have less staff, less programs, you save money, and at Winn these guards were making nine dollars an hour, barely above what people were making at the Walmart in the
town, so there’s a lot of turnover. People start the job and realize that it’s really stressful and dangerous and is not worth it and they quit.
You have guards bringing in a lot of contraband to make some extra money. And there’s just this general sense of frustration amongst guards and prisoners, and because the morale is so low, and there’s just not enough staff, and when I say that, when I’m talking about staff, I’m talking about there were days when there were 24, 25 guards for 1,500 prisoners. So it leads to violence because there are not guards doing security checks, just getting the homemade weapons out and stuff like that, the kind of normal work of prison, so I saw stabbings. There were many stabbings when I was there and I also found later after leaving the prison and doing a public records request with the Department of Corrections, it appeared that CCA was not reporting all of these stabbings as they are supposed to. There was a two-month period that I noted 12 stabbings, and the 10-month period that overlapped that CCA reported five stabbings to the Department of Corrections. So that was just an example of how if I hadn’t taken this approach and I had tried to find out what are the levels of how violent this prison is compared to other ones, it would be impossible to know. If it’s not being reported the numbers don’t mean anything.
SH: Right, and that level of dishonesty is evident throughout the article too, where it’s clear as you explain at the end that you gave them every opportunity to respond and their denials are, well, pretty pathetic and pretty paper thin when it comes down to it. And all throughout the article over and over again you are reporting facts that you saw with your own eyes or you have multiple credible sources say, for example, on the staff there, and then in parentheses, ‘Oh, CCA says this never happened’ all throughout. They seem like maybe they could invest a little bit more in their public relations and try to come up with some plausible deniability instead of just blanket denials.
SB: Yeah I reached out to them. I wanted to interview someone from the corporate headquarters in person but they declined so there’s a long process of just emailing them questions etc. I’m over 150 questions. It was important to me to have their side in the story. But this was happening at the same time, around the same time, that our lawyers were also sending each other letters back and forth. CCA found out that I had been working there and they warned Mother Jones that if it published an article by me then there could be legal consequences.
SH: Well I’m sure that Mother Jones was just terrified and hadn’t even considered that when they sent you in there in the first place, right?
SB: Yeah we were very careful, that’s part of why we spent so much time on the story after I left, just making sure that everything was rock solid. We fact checked this thing to an inch of its life and lawyers looked at it very closely just to make sure that we were doing everything right.
SH: Yeah, and as it should be. Why not, right? Their pressure that you better not screw up in this piece or else they’ll sue you is a great way to make sure that your piece comes out just perfect, which seems to have worked really well here, so good.
Now I saw the headline here that said”¦oh and by the way audience if you’re not familiar, Shane was famously one of the hikers imprisoned in Iran in solitary for quite some time a few years there, right? 9:52
SB: Yeah I was in Iran for two years in prison and four months of that was total solitary confinement and the rest of the time I was in a cell with one other person, but isolated from the rest of the world essentially.
SH: And then the headline I saw was you were comparing your experience in Louisiana with the prison in Iran. Can you tell us about it?
SB: I think it’s hard to compare these two situations. They’re very different. One I was a prisoner and one I was a guard, and the prisons themselves are very different. But the prison I was in in Iran was kind of an example of a very tightly and maybe over controlled prison. I was in a cell, I wasn’t allowed to interact with anybody else, and the prison at Winn was kind of the exact opposite of that. It was prisoners living in open dorms of 45 people, it was very chaotic. There was no real sense of control. Prisoners would always say to me ‘inmates run this prison,’ but it wasn’t as if they were kind of collectively organizing the prison — that meant people who were predators ended up running the prison. They ended up having a lot more power.
SH: Well, and you talk a lot about the black market and their own separate money system and all that, all that corner store, running around making sure everyone has smokes and Twizzlers, that doesn’t sound so bad. But then you describe pretty much officially sanctioned sexual slavery as well.
SB: Yeah this is pervasive throughout the prison system. There were people at Winn that were called punks and that essentially was somebody who was sexually subservient to usually one other man. It’s a very complicated situation and hard to generalize because the nature of these relationships are diverse, but usually that person is sexually controlled. I did see the effects of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. There was a fear among staff and guards of violating that act, which is a good thing because they’re afraid of getting sued basically. So overt rape was not tolerated at the prison, but this more systemic dynamic of these kind of people that are in a sense in sexual bondage was basically accepted among staff and prisoners.
SH: I don’t want to delve too far off the subject into why we must legalize prostitution immediately or anything, but you tell the story of this woman China that I just thought if anybody read just this part of the story”¦and the context was ‘does that seem fair, that that’s what should happen to someone for being a prostitute?’ That they should have to go to prison for years and have to suffer through this kind of”¦I mean, what is this? It’s insane.
SB: Yeah, that was really a sad story. The way that I found out about that story was in training when a guard was teaching us a class about — I think it was inmate manipulation — and he was giving us examples of how inmates manipulate guards, how they get them to do things, how sometimes prisoners will get guards to do things that will get them in trouble. He was saying that there was a guard at Winn who an inmate had pressured into giving him (the guard) a blow job and the guard ended up going to prison. So I looked into the case and it was a very different story. It was a transgender inmate who was a sex worker in New Orleans who was arrested for it and had a multiple year sentence and ended up at Winn. And this guard started pressuring her to giving him sexual favors a couple of times under the threat of solitary confinement if she didn’t, and there was one time that he made her give him a blow job and she essentially saved the semen in her mouth, spit it out onto her shirt, and got it into the hands of the FBI. They did a DNA test and found out who it was, so he was arrested but she was immediately shipped off to another prison and kept in total solitary confinement until she got out of prison. 1518
SH: Yeah and then you have the quote to”¦well I don’t want to ruin it, but the real point was that”¦ was it in this prison previously back when they had some rehabilitation program and she was working, learning how to be a mechanic, and this was the end of all that, and she said I wish that I had just gone ahead and let him get away with it instead of standing up for myself because the consequences were even worse?
SB: Yeah she thought at least when I got out of prison I would’ve had some kind of certificate I could use to get a job. It’s not easy for poor trans people who’ve been in prison to get by when they get out. It’s really an uphill struggle and she felt that if she at least had this one piece of paper maybe she would’ve been okay, but instead she wound up in solitary confinement and got out and went back to sex work.
SH: Well and I guess I’m amazed actually at my own ignorance here. If you’d asked me I don’t know if I’d even thought about it. If you’d asked me, I would’ve said for prostitution, maybe you’d go to the county lockup for 30 days or something. But people get years in prison just for getting caught on one act prostitution? That’s unbelievable.
SB: Yeah, Louisiana is especially harsh. Across the board it has the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. And in Louisiana the crime she was actually convicted of was crime against nature. That’s still a law that’s on the books in Louisiana.
SH: Alright now talk to me about medical care here. Everybody get prepared to freak out.
SB: So right when I started, actually the first time I entered the prison, we were taken to the gym for inmate graduation. People were graduating from different programs and I met a guy who was in a wheelchair and he told me that it was just that year that he lost his legs and fingers to gangrene and he told me that he was going to the infirmary saying ‘my feet hurt’ and they were just saying to him that he was faking it, and were giving him some motrin and sending him back, and he is suing the prison. So I dug up his case and found a good amount of records. I looked at his medical records and saw that at least nine times he had requested to see a doctor and was denied. He was essentially ignored and he eventually had to have his legs amputated after they were oozing with pus.
I also met, one time when I was working, a man was just writhing in his bed in intense pain and I found out that he had just been to the infirmary where prisoners said that he had fluid in his lungs and he was just sent back to his unit. So he goes to the infirmary again and he’s back within a couple hours. He kept asking to go to the hospital and he couldn’t get to the hospital.
There were many examples of this kind of thing. CCA, if they send a prisoner out to a hospital, they have to bear the expense. They’re bringing in $34 per inmate per day so taking him to the hospital is gonna be a huge expense when you compare to what they’re actually making per prisoner. This is something that afterwards I saw countless lawsuits in different CCA prisons that lack appropriate medical care.
SH: Now back to the whole thing about just the incentive structure of having a corporation run a system like this. Is it as though they didn’t even think of this, that this could be a huge disincentive for this corporation to provide medical treatment for its inmates, which is absolutely necessary and that maybe they could have the state pick up those costs, or they could come up with a way that it’s not so obviously designed to deprive people of care?
SB: It does seem like common sense.
SH: But, yeah, so the answer is no, the answer’s no, that’s just how it is, tough.
SB: There were also, I found out later, a bunch of doctors who had worked at Winn who had histories of medical malpractice. I looked into their backgrounds and a lot of them had been hired after being disciplined by the state medical board for anything from selling drugs to”¦there was one who had some kind of malpractice issue with working with children.
SH: Yeah and apparently they refuse to even show up and do their job at all, right? You talk about people just asking for a doctor and just not ever getting one. It sounds like most of that is because they’re not even at work.
SB: Yeah there weren’t many doctors. Right before we shipped this story off to be printed in the magazine the Department of Corrections turned over to me some correspondence that it had with CCA that basically showed how the state was coming after CCA and the issues that it had with how CCA is running the prison, and it essentially corroborated the issues I brought up in the story. One of the points was that there’s not enough medical staff. They’re not meeting their contract requirements with medical staff or security staff or mental health staff. Also, the state said CCA had been charging prisoners for state issued toilet paper and toothpaste. They were charging them to clip their nails. Some of this stuff you try to imagine what it would be like if a company ran a prison and I would never think ‘oh these guys are charging people to clip their toenails.’ 2138
SH: And I think, you know, in the average day people are glad that the worst criminals are locked up behind bars, but they also probably don’t imagine that the prisons are so understaffed that they just keep the guys on lockdown for 24 hours a day, indefinitely, at least from time to time, just because they don’t have the staff. If you gotta be in prison you gotta be allowed to walk around somewhere, do something other sit.
SB: Yeah, have some sort of rehabilitative programs, some way to come out better than you went in. Those programs have been cut over the years from CCA from cost-cutting. There were a handful of programs like Cage Your Rage and AA and stuff like that, but there’s also the question of security for the people that live around these prisons.
There was a man who escaped while I was there who just hopped over the fence in the middle of the day, and he was in view of guard towers but there were no guards in the towers, so nobody saw him escape. They didn’t find out for hours that this guy had escaped. The perimeter alarm went off in the control room and the person working there just turned it off and went back to whatever she was doing. There is this kind of sense of, just kind of this slipshod approach, and you have a man running through the woods out of this prison.
SH: Now I wonder, among the prisoners, and you say in the article that you never did find out I guess what a lot of the different guys were in for — did it seem like there were pretty much distinctions between people who really were career criminals or just really violent, dangerous men, versus people who had really screwed up and done something bad one time, versus people who were just convicted of being a drug businessman or that kind of thing?
SB: Yeah it was hard for me to know. I usually didn’t know the crimes of individuals but I do know that I think 55% of the prisoners at Winn were in for violent crimes and the rest are a mix of drug crimes and other crimes. There were people who were in there for murder, people who were in there for having
too many DUIs, and that was one of the psychological challenges as a guard — you don’t know every person you’re interacting with — you don’t really know what they’re there for, what their motives are. You start to kind of get a sense of if somebody is just trying to play you, trying to get something from you, versus somebody who’s just trying to have conversation with you as a human being. But, when you’re in that position that’s a power position but it’s also really, I found, a pretty powerless position. Your mind really starts to play tricks on you and towards the end of my experience there I ended up having to leave because my colleague got arrested, but I was really thinking just literally that week about whether I should leave because it was really getting to me.
SH: Yeah you talk about an article about the Stanford prison experiment and how here you are in the position of a guard, and after all you gotta keep yourself safe which means you have to be willing to kill one of these guys if you have to stay alive, but also you have to let them know basically at all times that you are willing to, that you’re that tough, that’s a hell of a position to put yourself in there Shane.
SB: Yeah really everyone in prison is in that position. When I went there I was stationed in the unit with 350 prisoners. There was me and just one other officer working the floor in that unit and I really was making a point of having a really good relationship with everybody, with all the prisoners in there, but that didn’t last very long. It didn’t take long for somebody to try to take advantage of me or push me over and that’s the worst thing that can happen in prison no matter who you are, so I had to decide what my line was and stand behind it and once you do that then you start to have conflicts with people and it becomes a very, very complex web of power that”¦really after I had been there for a while I spent most of my energy trying to navigate, to learn just how to make it through that. I had all of these people, more and more people as time went on, that I was having conflicts with. It’s a really hard thing to navigate.
SH: Well and like they say from all their psych tests and everything, you are a pretty unique character to be in a place like that. Most of these guards, not the ones you made best friends with, but the other ones are a bunch of meathead idiots anyway who could just as easily be on the other side of the bars and they’re the ones who gotta figure out how to navigate this, and I assume they’re not quite as subtle as you in figuring out what to do.
SB: Yeah I was obviously different. I’m a journalist who is going in there to try to see what the conditions were like, but I do think that among the cadets that I was with in training, I think most, if not all of them, had an idea that they were going to be good guards. They were good people, they weren’t sadists or anything like that, but everybody goes through a transformation once you’re in there.
The reality is you can’t lock up hundreds of people day in and day out and see them as equals because it’s too difficult to do that psychologically, so either you end up quitting and realizing this job sucks and that I can’t do this, or you turn that part of yourself off. The guards that stay end up having to turn that part off. And some of them become cruel, some don’t, but they’re not the same people they were when they went in.
We actually took a personality test in training called ‘troop colors’ and it essentially tells you what your dominant traits are and mine was, I was green, which was the color for people who are analytical and curious. The head of training said that most people were gold which is rule oriented, by the book types, and she said that she found that over time peoples’ dominant color shifted when they were in that prison, and people would tend to become golds over time. 28:59
SH: As a matter of necessity, right? So now reading this thing, some of the time I think, you know, if you gotta be a prisoner, it’s gotta be okay to have a bunch of lazy stoner guards who don’t do their job, sit around, and let you more or less get away with murder, but then what happens is they start getting away with murder, and you talk about the violence just spiraling completely out of control. And you weren’t on the worst block out of the four or five, right?
SB: Yeah, right, I don’t think that a lot of prisoners are really mad that drugs can get in the prison or that they can get away with smoking. I mean, if I had to be in a prison, those might not be the worst things, but the problem is that the prison is really dangerous. There was a kind of downward spiral that happens where once you have some prisoners making shanks, these kind of homemade knives to attack people, then some prisoners feel like they need them to protect themselves, and the prison becomes armed, the prison becomes violent, and it’s this kind of just chaotic violence.
People who are violent end up ruling and there were lots of stabbings while I was there. The company eventually sent in its kind of tactical team from around the country to sweep through the prison and I later found from records requests from the Department of Corrections that in the first two months of 2015 there were around 200 weapons found in the prison. That is 23 times more than the number of weapons found at Angola prison which is a maximum security prison in Louisiana. That is a huge, huge number of knives to be in a prison.
SH: And then you talk about how when things get that far out of control then they bring in the SORT team.
SB: Yeah that’s who I’m talking about, this kind of SWAT team. And then the state took over because the state started keeping an eye on the prison because there was an escape and there were so many stabbings, so one day they just show up with guards from around the state and wardens. They essentially just take over the prison for a while and try to show CCA how to run it. I talked to some wardens at that time and one of them just said to me ‘this place is a joke.’ He just couldn’t believe what he was seeing. And this is Louisiana, this is not some paragon of prison reform. All of Louisiana is notorious for having very problematic prisons.
SH: As you said the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. Unbelievable. Okay, and now we’re actually a little over time but I am just gonna ask you one more. If you could tell the story about the guy, I think you say you had met right at the very beginning, who ended up committing suicide at the end. That seemed like a good way to wrap this up.
SB: I actually wrote a separate story about this prisoner that’s going to be up soon on motherjones.com, so look out for that. My first day on the job I was stationed on suicide watch which is in the segregation unit. Suicide watch essentially is solitary confinement. If somebody says they’re suicidal they get put in a cell alone without clothes, they’re given a tear proof blanket, and they’re not allowed to have anything in their cell — no mattress, they sleep on a metal bunk, no reading material, and they’re also given worse food than the rest of the prison. They get a brown bag lunch with a bologna sandwich, a peanut butter sandwich, and some carrot or celery sticks, and actually the nutritional value of these meals is below USDA standards.
I was stationed there. There is no medical health staff stationed there whatsoever, so my job is to just sit in front of the cell and watch the person on suicide watch and note every 15 minutes what they’re
doing. One of the people I was watching was Damien Costly. He said he really didn’t want me there, sitting there, and he said ‘if you don’t get out of here I’m going to jump off this bed break my neck.’ He said he was having a mental health emergency which I was required to report, and I did, and it was about six hours until a psychiatrist showed up to talk to him.
After I left Winn I learned that Damien committed suicide. He had been on suicide watch and was taken off suicide watch by the SORT team which is against policy. The only people that can actually take a prisoner off suicide watch is mental health staff but the SORT team who was running the unit took him off, put him in a cell with another man who was severely mentally ill. Inmates I contacted later told me that they had heard Damien tell a SORT officer that he was suicidal and that he needed to go back on suicide watch. They did not put them back on suicide watch and he hung himself in the afternoon.
I spoke to staff who had investigated the suicide later and they said that the guards are required to go up and down the tiers every half hour to check on people. They weren’t doing that. He was sent to a hospital where he was alive but brain-dead for 20 days. The thing about Damien is that he was filing a lot of complaints, which I later looked at, about mental health services. He was complaining about the mental health services at Winn. He was also complaining about diet. He was going on hunger strikes regularly to try to change these things, and he went on suicide watch a lot, and when he died the autopsy said that he weighed 71 pounds.
SH: 71 pounds? Wow. Well, audience just remember, try to think back, how old were you the last time you weighed 71 pounds? Elementary school, right? Elementary school. And this is the thing about this whole damn article, right — ‘I know my rights, I want some redress, yeah we’re in prison but you can’t treat us like this, and yet, yeah, they can.’ The complaints, as you say, just go on a pile. There’s no accountability here.
SB: Yeah, like the story of Damien is one example of something that”¦nobody would ever hear anything about this person. How often does this kind of thing happen? We don’t know.
SH: Shane Bauer, man, you’re an American hero, you’re a hell of a journalist. This is great work and I really appreciate what you do, and especially for giving us some time on this show to talk about it too.
SB: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SH: Alright y’all that is the great Shane Bauer. He is senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine. You can find this at motherjones.com — ‘My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard — A Mother Jones Investigation.’ Again, there is an hour-long podcast interview with the producers and others over there at Mother Jones, and there is a six part YouTube series. He had a secret camera in his watch and a secret microphone in his pen, and he was consulting with his producers and cohorts all through. There’s a great six-part documentary to watch, and this article itself is a monograph, it’s a book in its own right — 5 chapters long at motherjones.com — ‘My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.’