Americans like to think of our country as the land of the free — but that’s not the case for everyone: More than 2 million Americans are in jails or prisons in the U.S.
It can be tough to know what goes on behind prison walls — and private corrections companies are especially reluctant to open up to outsiders. So journalist Shane Bauer, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine, decided the only way to find out what life inside a private prison was like was to get a job at one. American Prison is both the remarkable story of a journalist who spent four months working as a corrections officer, and a horrifying exposé of how prisoners were treated by a corporation that profited from them.
In 2014, Bauer applied for a job with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which has since rebranded itself as CoreCivic. The second-biggest private prison company in America, CCA operates nearly 100 correctional facilities across the country. A quick Google search of Bauer’s name would have revealed that he was an investigative reporter, but CCA either didn’t know or didn’t care; he was hired quickly to be a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in northern Louisiana.
Bauer writes that he first got hint of a problem almost immediately after he started the training program for his new job. One instructor he encounters tells the cadets not to bother trying to break up a fight between prisoners, because the guards aren’t getting paid enough for that: « So if them fools want to cut each other, well, happy cutting. » The instructor also reassures the guards in training that he’ll have their backs no matter what they do: « If you are an officer and you do something one hundred percent wrong, I’m going to take your side right on the spot. »
Although he finds his new job more difficult than he’d hoped, Bauer continues to show up for work — armed with a hidden camera and audio recorder. Initially reluctant to flaunt his authority, he begins to get used to being able to order people around: « I stand tall, broaden my shoulders, and stride up and down the floor, making enough eye contact with people to show I’m not intimidated but not holding it long enough to threaten them. I tell inmates to take their hats off as they enter. They listen to me, and a part of me likes that. »