- Shane Baueraward-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones. His most recent article is titled “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” which chronicles his time as an undercover correctional officer at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center, run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Shane also is co-author of the memoir A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran.
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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: “Umi Says” by Yasiin Bey, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk to Shane Bauer, the undercover investigative journalist who served four years as a prison—four months as a prison guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. During Bauer’s time as a guard at the Winn Correctional Facility, there was an escape of a prisoner. In this clip, Shane talks about the incident and speaks with former Winn prison guards David Bacle and Jennifer Calahan.
SHANE BAUER: Today was my 12th day of training, and I found out as soon as I got to the prison that yesterday there was an escape.
DAVE BACLE: He was out there on the small yard, on the basketball—what we call the basketball side, where you, you know, play basketball.
JENNIFER CALAHAN: He was able to climb over the fence.
DAVE BACLE: He went up the fence, got on the roof of the building, the double chain-link fence, 12-, 15-foot high, something like that, climbed up it, got over both razor wires.
SHANE BAUER: Ran through the forest, stole a hunter’s truck.
DAVE BACLE: Got on the road, got stopped at a roadblock. Because of his nervousness, he gave himself away, got busted.
SHANE BAUER: The prison staff didn’t actually know that he escaped for two, three hours.
DAVE BACLE: Not enough people for security.
SHANE BAUER: There are four or five guard towers around the prison. And around four years ago, the company decided to replace the guards in those towers with cameras. If there had been guards in those towers, they would have almost certainly seen somebody trying to jump the fence.
DAVE BACLE: No “if”s, “and”s, “but”s about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, talk more about this and what happens with escapes.
SHANE BAUER: Well, when I was working at Winn, I would come in every morning at 6:00 and go to a morning meeting, where all security staff that were showing up for the shift would, you know, show up at this meeting. And there were days that there were 24 guards. You know, some days there might have been 28. This is for 1,500 inmates. This is far below the number of guards that CCA is required to have by its contract.
So, you know, this person, in the middle of the day, was able to climb over a fence without anybody seeing him. It was hours before they even knew that he was gone. When the perimeter alarm went off in the control room, the person who is watching the cameras just turned the alarm off and went back to what she was doing. And, you know, this goes back to some of the issues with training. I went through four weeks of training there. Some days we literally sat there all day long doing nothing. Many days we would get two hours where somebody would be standing in front of us reading company policy. You know, I felt very ill-prepared to really go into this job when I started.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, while you were at Winn, tensions grew high at the facility. In this Mother Jones video, it goes inside during the turmoil.
SHANE BAUER: The prison has been on lockdown for about a week. CCA has sent in SORT teams from its prisons around the country to try to bring Winn under control.
“CORNER STORE”: SORT team is like a wrecking crew. You know, they dress them all in black. They normally whoop ass first and take names later.
SHANE BAUER: They’re basically going throughout the entire prison very thoroughly and methodically.
JENNIFER CALAHAN: Tear the mattresses up, tear the vents up—whatever they need to do to find any contraband.
SHANE BAUER: Strip-searching inmates, searching toilets, searching their lockers. People are getting angry. They’re lashing out. I thought that there was going to be a riot in the unit that I work in.
CCA EMPLOYEE: If we want to act like refugees and animals, then we can do—
PRISONER 1: We’re not acting like it. That’s how we’re being treated.
CCA EMPLOYEE: Listen to what I’m saying.
PRISONER 1: That’s how we’re being treated. We ain’t got nothing.
SHANE BAUER: They were supposed to get canteen today, which they haven’t had for three weeks. They just kind of start freaking out. They said, “No COs are going to come on the tier. We’re not doing count. We’re not cooperating. We’re going to riot.”
PRISONER 2: This is the incompetence that’s causing these problems, the inability to be able to run this place in a professional manner. The people here are so lazy, from word say go. And their solution to the problem is, lock everybody down. Come on, man. You need a brainiac, somebody that could think, somebody that could come in here with finesse and run the prison and deal with these problems.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Shane Bauer, talk about what ultimately happened.
SHANE BAUER: Well, there had been a lot—while I was there, there was more and more stabbings. There, you know, were weeks that there were multiple stabbings happening. And I saw people stab each other in front of me. And when I was in training, we were told that when we see two inmates stabbing each other, our job is just to tell them to stop, and radio for backup. We’re not meant to intervene. Our trainer told us that it’s not worth it, we don’t make enough money to put ourself in that situation, and that what’s important is that we go home at the end of the day. He actually said to us, “If these fools want to cut each other up, happy cutting.”
The prison was really dangerous. After these tactical teams, the SORT teams, came in, they swept through the prison and, you know, were searching for contraband and weapons. They found, in the first two months of the year, 200 weapons at Winn. That’s more than 20 times more than Angola, the maximum-security prison in Louisiana. This violence, the escape, a lot of the incidents that were happening at Winn drew the attention of the state Department of Corrections, so they also eventually took over. So, at one point, the prison was being run by corporate tactical teams and guards from around the state, as well as the local staff.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, Democracy Now! reached out to the Corrections Corporation of America for response to your article. CCA Director of Public Affairs Jonathan Burns issued a statement. It reads, in part, quote, “This story, how it was developed and what ultimately was published says more about the reporter’s activist agenda and the publication’s low journalistic standards than it does about our company or the very real challenges facing our criminal justice system in America. From the start, Mother Jones clearly intended to publish a deliberate hit piece to advance a predetermined premise at the expense of numerous laws, widely accepted journalistic standards, a fully informed readership and even the safety and security of a correctional facility. This point is underscored by the numerous examples in the piece in which the reporter clearly admits failing to perform the security duties of his job, which were intended to keep inmates and his colleagues safe.” Again, those the words of the director of public affairs for the Corrections Corporation of America, Jonathan Burns. Your response, Shane Bauer?
SHANE BAUER: When I started at Winn, my job was to work as a prison guard. I was called—I was pointed out for promotion within just a few months. Right before I left, I was offered a promotion. And the culture at Winn was one where guards did not do security checks. There were guards that were recording that security checks were happening every half hour, which is what was required. So that meant that guards were required to walk through the units, to walk through the dorms, and just check up on everybody. That didn’t happen. There wasn’t enough staff for that to happen. When I went to Winn, I noted and documented in detail what I saw. And while I was at Winn, one guard that I worked with actually said to me, “I wish that an investigative reporter would come and investigate this prison.” There was widespread frustration, not just with inmates, but also with staff, on how the company was running the prison. And the things that I saw were long-standing. I mean, these were not issues that started when I arrived there.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, the video you have from inside, explain how you got it.
SHANE BAUER: Well, my lawyer would not be happy with me if I talk in detail about where that video comes from. I, you know, have to protect Mother Jones and our sources from retaliation. But I will say that it was very important to me, given the stakes of this investigation, to document very accurately what was happening there and what I was seeing and hearing people say.
AMY GOODMAN: And you even write about a pen that you used, that you put in your shirt, that was an audio recorder.
SHANE BAUER: I did have recording devices while I was working there.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, your undercover investigation in Winn Correctional Facility ended suddenly, when your colleague, James West, was arrested filming outside the prison. This is footage of the arrest.
POLICE OFFICER 1: His name must be James West.
POLICE OFFICER 2: What kind of pictures you got there?
JAMES WEST: They’re my pictures, sir.
POLICE OFFICER 2: What you took here don’t belong to you. You got it on a SD card?
JAMES WEST: Uh-huh.
POLICE OFFICER 2: Let’s have it.
JAMES WEST: No, sir. I’m not going to show you that.
POLICE OFFICER 2: I will take everything you got. Whoa, come here. Hey, come here. Hey.
JAMES WEST: You can’t take my camera.
POLICE OFFICER 2: I’m allowed—I’m going to tell you one time to hand me the camera. You hand me that.
POLICE OFFICER 1: I think the best thing to do is just seize his camera.
POLICE OFFICER 2: I think so.
POLICE OFFICER 1: And we’ll get a search warrant, and we’ll look at them pictures.
POLICE OFFICER 2: If you don’t want to give it to me, I will take it.
JAMES WEST: What am I being arrested for?
POLICE OFFICER 2: Trespassing.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Trespassing. You want to go ahead and—turn and put your hands behind your back.
JAMES WEST: I’m cooperating and—
POLICE OFFICER 2: No, you’re not cooperating.
POLICE OFFICER 1: No, you ain’t. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Welcome to the free state of Winn.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, this brought your investigation to an end. Explain what happened.
SHANE BAUER: I, you know, went home that night to get some sleep, because I had to work the next morning at the prison, and found out in the middle of the night that James had been arrested. He spent 24 hours in jail. And when he was released, we basically packed up my apartment and headed straight to Texas. I called in and resigned. And the head of HR said—you know, she said that she was surprised to hear that I was quitting, because she thought that I was going to promote. And it shortly—
AMY GOODMAN: To be—you were going to be promoted?
SHANE BAUER: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, we only have a minute, and I just wanted to ask if you could talk about how you, yourself, were affected by being a guard, from being a prisoner in Iran to being a guard here, and your changing mentality?
SHANE BAUER: That, the psychological aspect of working there, ended up taking most of my energy. You know, I went in there as a reporter, and over time, more and more of my attention was focused on the job of being a guard, which was extremely difficult. I was working in a unit with 350 prisoners with just one other floor officer. And I saw myself, over time, harden and become more and more strict and really just numb to the needs of the prisoners. I was focused on how to get through and how to survive in this really dangerous environment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shane, I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll link to the whole issue of Mother Jones magazine and the amazing reports, video reports, from James West. Shane Bauer, award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones. His most recent article is titled “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” chronicling his time as an undercover correctional officer at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center, run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Shane is also co-author of the memoir A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran.
And that does it for our show. Happy birthday Jon Randolph. Democracy Now! has a news producer and a senior video news producer position open. Check it out at democracynow.org. I’ll be speaking in Chicago on Friday night. Go to our website at democracynow.org.