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New Book Peeks Inside American Prison System


By definition, prison is a closed world - hard to get in, even harder to get out, but Shane Bauer wanted to know what was going on inside America's prisons, especially in their growing for-profit prison industry. So, in 2014, he applied for and accepted a $9-an-hour job as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La. He detailed his experience in an award-winning article for Mother Jones magazine, and he has expanded that reporting into a new book. It's called "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey Into The Business Of Punishment." And Shane Bauer is with us now from Berkeley, Calif.

Shane, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I have to say that one of the reasons your story intrigued us is that - many people might remember this - you were actually imprisoned in Iran for a little over two years after you and a friend were hiking in 2009. The conditions were harrowing, and so it was a little surprising that you would voluntarily go back into a prison. So I wanted to ask you - after that experience, what made you want to do this?

BAUER: Well, when I got out in 2011, I came home. I had assumed that when I felt ready to go back to work, I would go back to the Middle East. The Arab Spring was underway. But when I got home, there was a large hunger strike happening in California prisons. There were reports of 30,000 people hunger striking to protest the use of long-term solitary confinement. And I had spent time in solitary confinement myself. I had been on hunger strike in prison. So I was drawn to this and was kind of following it from a distance.

And when I was ready to get back to my work, I started investigating the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. - found that in California, we have thousands of people who are in solitary confinement, some for 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years. And, after doing that story, I just kind of got pulled deeper and deeper into our prison system. And, in that reporting, I was kind of constantly getting frustrated by the difficulty of getting access to prisons.

MARTIN: I was going to say - there are so many things we could talk about. We can't possibly, you know, cover the gamut, which is why you wrote a book. But what were the qualifications of most of the people that you were working with?

BAUER: There were no qualifications. In fact, when I was in training, the head of training literally said to us, if you're breathing, and you have a driver's license, and you're willing to work, then we're willing to hire you. I was in training with people who were from the town. There were poor people who were desperate for jobs. And there were a lot of single moms that were working as guards because they needed health care for their kids.

And, in training, we were told that part of our job was to deliver value to our shareholders. This would kind of come up in terms of liability to the company and in our role in protecting the company's liability. One example is that when - on my second day of training, one of the instructors asked us what we should do if we see two inmates fighting. You know, some cadet said we should break it up. Another said we should call somebody. And he said that we should not get in the middle of it and that our job was simply to shout stop fighting. Our job is to go home at the end of the day, period. And he said, if those fools want to cut each other up, then happy cutting.

And the idea is that, you know, we - in shouting to them to stop fighting, we are covering the bare minimum that might help us in a lawsuit, but we're not getting injured, which could also cost the company more money. And, you know, we didn't have weapons aside from that.

MARTIN: You know, it's - I'm glad you raised that because that was one of the incidents I wanted to bring up. I mean, you - the way you describe it in the book, it's not just that they didn't really have a strategy for dealing with it but that they really didn't seem to care if people hurt themselves or even killed each other while they were incarcerated.

BAUER: I don't think that my job was really to protect prisoners. I mean, I - if something had happened, you know, I would call over the radio. Eventually, people would show up. Usually, the incident would be over. I saw people stab each other in front of me, and, by the time somebody shows up, you know, it's over.

MARTIN: You know, and throughout history, I have to say that some of the conditions you describe - people who are under - you know, guards who are underpaid, who have no training, who are either brutal or cruel or just clueless - I mean, that's - those are stories that we have heard for decades. And most of these are prisons that have been run by, you know, governments. I mean, like, so what is it that convinces you that the for-profit factor here is distinguishing, that really makes a difference?

BAUER: Yeah. I mean, and many of the things that I saw and experienced you would see in a public prison, and I in no way would suggest that public prisons are, you know, well run or providing a good service to society really other than isolating people from society. There's really nothing kind of close to rehabilitation, I think, that's happening in prisons throughout the country, whether they're for profit or not.

But, with for-profit prisons, the kind of unique issues derive from this need to cut corners. The pressures are higher than they are in public prisons for the company to keep costs low. So the main way that they keep costs low are through staffing. Staffing is about 60 percent of the costs of running a prison. So, you know, they pay guards less. They have low staffing rates. This also manifests through health care. I saw - I met a man who had lost his legs and fingers to gangrene in the prison who had been begging for months to go to a hospital and would just repeatedly be given MOTRIN and put back, you know, on his tier.

And the way that the kind of profit motive plays into this is that, unlike in a public prison, if a company sends a prisoner to a hospital, the company has to foot the bill. So for a prisoner who's bringing in $34 a day to the company, this is a huge expense. So there's a lot of reluctance to do that and to provide them with the care that they need.

MARTIN: You were eventually found out, right? And you were fired (laughter). So I'm curious how you felt. I mean, was there a part of you that was secretly relieved? Or what do you think? You think if you had stayed longer your impressions might have changed at all?

BAUER: Well, I was not actually fired. I had a colleague from Mother Jones who came to shoot some video for the project, and he was spotted taking photos outside of the prison at night. And he was arrested. And when he got out, there was - when he was in jail overnight, there - he was interrogated, and there was some indication that they knew who I was. And I later found out that they searched his camera and laptop without a warrant and saw an interview that he had done with me earlier that day. So when he got out, we left suddenly. I was seriously considering quitting anyway. The job was really getting to me, and I felt that it was starting to really kind of impact my sanity.

MARTIN: For someone who's listening to our conversation and says, why should I care? I mean, the people who are in these places are there because they've done something. I have a hard life. You know what? You know, sorry, but...

BAUER: Yeah.

MARTIN: What does this have to do with me? What do you say?

BAUER: I mean, I think even if you don't care about these people who are in prison, these people are going - most of them will be out at some point. They are going to be back in this society that you live in. And it's, you know, a question of, what kind of society do you want to live in? What kind of people do you want to live around? What purpose are prisons serving right now?

The notion that prisons were founded on - that they were meant to rehabilitate people - was a very short-lived experiment. And I think, once we really understand that, then we can ask ourselves, well, what do we want? You know, what are we getting out of warehousing people for years that eventually come back into society and have a very hard time functioning? You know, these are questions that do affect us directly in many ways.

MARTIN: That was Shane Bauer, author of the new book "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey Into The Business Of Punishment." It chronicles his time as a prison guard in Louisiana.

Shane Bauer, thanks so much for talking to us.

BAUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.