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American Prison: Shane Bauer Traces History of U.S. For-Profit Prisons from Slavery to Today

StorySeptember 20, 2018
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“American Prison.” That’s the name of the new book by award-winning journalist Shane Bauer, who dives deep into the profit-earning motives of U.S. prisons, from convict labor in colonial-era settlements all the way to present-day mass incarceration, including Bauer’s own stint as an undercover prison guard at the privately owned Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. We speak with Shane Bauer in New York City.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A 3-week nationwide prison strike from coast to coast just ended this month, after prisoners participated in hunger strikes and called for the abolition of what they call “modern-day slavery.”

For more, we’re joined by a journalist who went undercover as a prison guard to document conditions at the Winn correctional facility in Louisiana, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, now called CoreCivic.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer is an award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones. He first described what he saw in a National Magazine Award-winning article for Mother Jones. This week he published his new book, that draws upon that experience and dives much deeper into the history of making profit from prisons in the United States, starting with convict labor in colonial-era settlements. The book is titled American Prison. And Shane knows well about prison, both working as a prison guard in one and also being imprisoned himself in Iran for over two years.

Shane, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you wrote American Prison.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I had gone undercover in a private prison and wanted to get a really close look at what life is like inside of these corporate-run prisons. And after that, I realized that to really understand the role of profit in the American prison system, we had to go really back.

And I learned that throughout American history, prisons have been run at a profit. Our earliest prisons in the 19th century were for-profit prisons where labor was being contracted out to private companies. After slavery, the entire Southern system was privatized. Prisoners were essentially fulfilling the role that slaves had filled, working in cotton fields, in coal mines for companies like the U.S. Steel company, the world’s first billion-dollar company. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain these. People may not be familiar with this, not to mention plantation prisons.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. There were people—prisoners were essentially contracted to planters and forced to pick cotton. They were whipped, tortured, had to meet, quote, “labor quotas.” And this system was called convict leasing. This system was actually more deadly than slavery. Every year, between 16 and 25 percent of prisoners would die. It was on par with the death rate of the Soviet Gulags. And eventually, the states actually bought plantations themselves, so instead of sending the prisoners to private businessmen to put them to work in their fields, they would put them to work in their own plantations.

And in doing the research for this book, I discovered that the co-founder of CoreCivic, Terrell Don Hutto, started his career actually running a cotton plantation prison in Texas that was the size of Manhattan, where inmates were forced to pick cotton, meet cotton quotas. He lived on the plantation with his family. He had what was called a houseboy, an African-American prisoner who had to serve his family. He ran the Arkansas prison system, which was entirely made of plantations.

A federal judge had condemned what he called torture under Hutto. Inmates who refused to labor in the fields were put naked in solitary confinement. And he would run these plantations at a profit to the state. And it was his work and his ability to run prisons at a profit that attracted a couple of businessmen who proposed to him that they start a new company, that became the Corrections Corporation of America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you say, Shane, what substantively were the differences between public state prisons and these private prisons?

SHANE BAUER: In current times or in the past?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, sorry, historically, what you’re talking about.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Well, basically, the kind of privatized system of convict leasing, the states kind of became jealous of the profits that the private businessmen were making, and then bought their own plantations. But substantively, there was very little difference. In fact, a lot of them were the same plantations.

Angola prison in Louisiana started as a—after the Civil War, a man who leased all of the convicts in Louisiana, named Samuel Lawrence James, bought that plantation, and he used convicts and put them on the plantation and was essentially able to live a life that was identical to the life before the Civil War, where he had prisoners laboring there. Then the state later bought that plantation from him and ran it as a state prison, and it is still a state prison today, and inmates still are working the fields there.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the profit motive shape what you saw when you went undercover as a prison guard in Louisiana? And, I mean, you begin with this just amazing story. You actually did not lie about who you were—


AMY GOODMAN: —in your application to become a prison guard.


AMY GOODMAN: They just never asked you.

SHANE BAUER: Right, yeah. When I did a job interview, you know, they were almost trying to convince me to take the job. It was a $9-an-hour job. The main way that the company makes money is by offering lower wages than public prisons and also having low levels of staff in their prison. The company cuts corners in many, many ways, through staffing, medical care.

I met a man in the prison who had lost his legs to gangrene after spending months asking to be taken to a hospital. The company was resistant to take inmates to the hospital, because if they would, they would have to pay for it. You know, all of these things kind of affect the bottom line, ultimately. The prison was more violent than the state-run prisons, which were also very violent in Louisiana. There was, in a 4-month period, 200 weapons found in the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talked about your own experience and how being in this place made you feel more violent.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. I mean, there is enormous pressure on the people who work in these prisons. You know, most of the people that work there are just kind of poor people from the town making $9 an hour. It’s a very dangerous job. And the staffing is so low that it is literally impossible to do the duties that people are meant to do. And it, you know, has a very powerful psychological effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded President Obama’s memo for the Bureau of Prisons not to enter into new private prison contracts. How have these for-profit prisons thrived under President Trump?

SHANE BAUER: Well, when Obama announced that the federal government was going to stop using private prisons, the stock price of CoreCivic dropped by half overnight. The day that Donald Trump won the election, the stock price rose more than any company in the stock market, probably because people assumed that Trump’s immigration policies would lead to greater immigrant detention, and private prison companies control about two-thirds of immigrant detention centers. After Trump was inaugurated, he rescinded the Obama-era decision, and the company is now doing better than it was a couple of years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Don Hutto himself. I remember when we went down to Texas and went to the Don Hutto immigration detention center, which is now a women’s immigrant detention center in Texas. I mean, this story of the separation of families, how this has led to the thriving of these private prisons?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Actually, in the middle of that crisis, the stock price of CoreCivic rose by 14 percent. I mean, this is—immigrant detention is kind of the frontier of the private prison companies. It’s really their area of growth.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org under web exclusives. Shane Bauer, the award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones. His new book is just out. It’s called American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! has a job opening for a full-time broadcast engineer here in New York. Find out more at democracynow.org.

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