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The Business of Punishment: How Forced Prison Labor Has Generated Revenue Since the Colonial Era

Web ExclusiveSeptember 20, 2018
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We continue our interview with award-winning journalist Shane Bauer about his new book, American Prison, which dives deep into the profit-earning motives of U.S. prisons. Starting with convict labor in colonial-era settlements all the way to present-day mass incarceration, Bauer also recounts his own stint as an undercover prison guard at the privately owned Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, and the four months he was held in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison as a political prisoner.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our interview with Shane Bauer, award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones, who has published his new book this week that draws upon his experience going undercover as a prison guard at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana run by the Corrections Corporation of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane first described what he saw in a National Magazine Award-winning article for Mother Jones. This week he published his new book, that 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: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.

Thank you for staying with us for Part 2 of our conversation. And I just want to step back for a minute. You’re exploring American prisons here after you were imprisoned, not here, but you were imprisoned in Iran. And there are many people who remember. Maybe there are a number of people who don’t know who you are. But if you can explain what happened? Because then I want to talk about why, when you’re ultimately freed, after more than two years in prison, a lot of that time in solitary confinement, you’d come back and immediately go into the prisons of the United States. But talk about that experience and how it informed American Prison.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. So, in 2009, I was living in Damascus, Syria. I was working as a reporter in the Middle East. And I took a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal and Shon Meckfessel. And we—

AMY GOODMAN: These are your friends and your partner.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, yeah. We were there for a week. We were there on a visit. And Iraqi Kurdistan at the time actually had a kind of a tourist industry. It was safe. And we were near a local tourist site, a waterfall, and we went for a hike and unknowingly came near the Iran-Iraq border and were beckoned by some soldiers, who we thought were Iraqi Kurdish soldiers but were actually Iranian, and we were arrested. And that led to over two years in prison, in Iran’s Evin Prison. I was in a political ward, held in solitary confinement for much of the time and just generally isolated from the world, you know, outside. When I was—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Were you ever charged?

SHANE BAUER: I was. Before—shortly before we were released, we were brought to trial. We went through kind of a sham trial. We were told that we were the head of an American-Israeli conspiracy against Iran and things like that, charged with espionage and illegal entry, and sentenced to eight years. But then, a couple months later, we were released.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, your partner, was held for over a year in solitary confinement. You were held with Josh Fattal, your friend, but you were held for more than two years—


AMY GOODMAN: —in the prison. You ultimately got out of prison. Democracy Now!, you might say, we were mildly obsessed with your case—and you had also reported for us before, as a reporter, when you were in Iraq—and spoke to your mothers, who had fought so hard to get you out. The world’s attention was on you. Talk about, when you were freed, your experience. How long were you in solitary confinement? And how did it affect you?

SHANE BAUER: I was in solitary confinement for four months. I was—for a while, had had nothing. I was just in an empty cell, nothing to read. And I would kind of hope to be interrogated, just to have human interaction. It really showed me, you know, kind of how social human beings are and how much we require contact with other people. I noticed my mind slowing, kind of felt almost animal-like, where I was hardly having thoughts anymore. And time was my enemy. I mean, it was torturous.

And when I came back here, I got out when there was a huge hunger strike happening in California, where prisoners were protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement. Tens of thousands of people were hunger-striking. And having been, you know, in solitary myself and having gone on hunger strike in prison, I naturally was drawn to this and followed it. And when I eventually went back to reporting, I dug into this more and found that we, you know, have 80,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States. California had more than a thousand inmates who had been in for over 10 years, some as high as 40 years, people who had not even necessarily committed violent crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: You say it’s only natural. No, what’s only natural is to run as far away from any prison as you possibly could, to deal with your own pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. But you ran right back into it.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, it’s not uncommon for prisoners who are released to kind of still be engaged with prison in some ways. It helped me kind of make sense of, you know, coming out of prison, just by connecting with people who were still inside, even though it was in another country. And I ended up, you know, kind of, rather than going back to the Middle East, which is where I had been working, I just got kind of pulled deeper and deeper into the American prison system.

I mean, we have the largest prison system in the world. It’s just vast, and it’s really unprecedented in world history, the scope of the prison system here. So, I just kind of got really pulled into it. And that led me to doing this undercover investigation, particularly with private prisons, because it was kind of one of the areas of our prison system that was the least known. I mean, it was very difficult to get inside these prisons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you talk, Shane, because you’re one of the few people who has experiences both in the American prison system, obviously, as an observer and not an inmate, and then also in Iran, and not just in Iran but in Evin Prison, which is a notorious jail for political prisoners—what were the conditions there like versus what you’ve seen here?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s hard to compare prisons, but, you know, the prison I was in in Iran had a political prison, people that were pro-democracy activists that were being held there. People were interrogated, sometimes tortured physically.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get to meet any?

SHANE BAUER: We were not allowed to interact with other prisoners. But, you know, you find a way, and you can kind of talk to people in neighboring cells and things like that. So, I did—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Even when you were in solitary, could you hear other people on—

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, through the cell doors and things like that. When guards aren’t around, you know, we could speak to each other a little bit.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Did you speak Persian?

SHANE BAUER: No, no, I didn’t. But a lot of them spoke English. You know, it was a very controlled prison. You leave the cell, you’re blindfolded. You go—when you go outside, you don’t interact with other people in other cells. Whereas here, the prison I was in, in Louisiana, it was much more chaotic, I would say. And it was kind of, in some ways, the opposite, where Evin was highly controlled and the prison in Louisiana was just very barebones. There would be, you know, 24, 25 guards for 1,500 inmates. It was very violent. And prisoners, rather than being isolated, were held in dorms of 44 inmates, you know, all together in one place.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many guards for 44 prisoners?

SHANE BAUER: Well, a unit would be about 350 prisoners, so eight of these dorms for a unit. And on the floor, the guards who actually interact with inmates on a regular basis, there would be two. Two guards.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, there was just this massive—just to go back to something you said earlier, we’ve just come out of this massive hunger strike that prisoners have carried out here. You said you also went on hunger strike when you were held in Iran. Now, was that when you were in solitary confinement?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was the response? Were there others also—other prisoners also hunger-striking?

SHANE BAUER: Well, it was me and the two people that I was imprisoned with, managed to coordinate with each other. So, we went on a hunger strike.

AMY GOODMAN: You, Josh and Sarah?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. So we went on a hunger strike basically to demand that we would be allowed to see other again.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you communicate with Sarah? Josh, you had been living with in the cell, but Sarah, a woman—talk about how you communicated with her.

SHANE BAUER: Well, we actually—none of us were together at that time. We were all isolated. But they would take us to a kind of courtyard, you know, for a small period of day, one by one, so we would kind of leave—hide notes out there. So, the other person would go out, and, you know, we—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So you had a pencil and paper?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. And sometimes they—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And were you allowed books?

SHANE BAUER: Sometimes they took the—we didn’t have pen and paper, but we had managed to, you know, grab some from guards or something like that, left on the table or something. We didn’t have books initially. But eventually, we were allowed books. And they would, you know, bring us some books, and they started allowing our families to send us books.

AMY GOODMAN: You chronicle what happened to you in your first book that you wrote with Josh and Sarah, called A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. I want to go now back to Winn, where you were undercover, that you write about so well in American Prison, the Winn correctional facility in Louisiana. And I want to go to some clips that you got there. You come across a prisoner who’s lost his fingers and legs, as you describe, due to lack of proper medical care.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: Gangrene. 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: They’re doctors they can hire. They’re 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: Now, CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, has said it, quote, “is committed to ensuring that all individuals entrusted to our care have appropriate access to medical services as needed.”

SHANE BAUER: Right. I mean, it was a common issue in the prison, where people would go to the infirmary, ask for medical care, would be, like this lawyer said, given Motrin and sent back to their cells. I saw a man who had collapsed from chest pain, and this had happened to him several times, and he was repeatedly just sent back to his bed rather than being taken to a hospital. And, you know, the company was resistant to taking them to the hospital because they would have to foot the bill if they did.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, while you were at Winn, tensions grew high at that facility. This Mother Jones video, another one that you provided, produced, goes inside during that 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.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Shane, could you talk about what was happening there and what the result of this was?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. I mean, the prisoners were constantly complaining and constantly frustrated that they didn’t have basic services and even programs—you know, recreation time, educational programs. These things were being cut because the company was cutting staff to save money. And at the same time, the prison was violent, and a lot of the prisoners were complaining about this. You know, “Why aren’t you guys kind of gaining control of this prison?”

The guards were paid $9 an hour. The morale was very low. They tended to just kind of come in and clock in and clock out and wouldn’t do the basic duties they were meant to do. They knew they wouldn’t be fired. And it just reached such a kind of peak that the company locked the prison down for a week. So prisoners couldn’t leave their dorms. They couldn’t go to canteen. They brought in what they called a SORT team, a Special Operations Response Team. It’s kind of a SWAT-like unit. They brought it in from other prisons to kind of crack down in the prison rather than providing the services that people are asking for.

And after the prisoners had been on lockdown for days, in my unit they were threatening to riot. People were saying, “We need soap. You know, we need to go to canteen and buy these kind of basic supplies.” And there had just been a riot in an immigrant detention center in Texas just before that, which was on TV. And they were saying, “If you don’t give us these basic things that we need, we’re going to put this place on television.”

AMY GOODMAN: But, Shane, how were you videoing? I mean, we’re looking at you being like interviewed—


AMY GOODMAN: —in the prison. I am assuming you’re interviewing yourself.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re narrating this.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, yeah. I managed to kind of sneak in a hidden camera that I would use to record in the prison while I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a promotional video by CoreCivic—well, then Corrections Corporation of America—that touts prison privatization as a cost-saving initiative.

CCA SPOKESPERSON: This company, CCA, we are the leader and the largest in the world, as far as private prisons and jails. We’re highly rated in the stock market. It hones your ability to do it less expensively, because we have to earn a profit.

AMY GOODMAN: “Because we have to earn a profit.” So, talk about that. And then, I mean, the beauty of your book, American Prison, is you go deeply into history and American history, the history of prisons, the history of slave labor and also the history of torture. And I’d like you to talk about torture in American prisons, but respond first to this.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I mean, kind of the debate that people have now about private prisons has been had many times throughout American history. And when you go back and read kind of old newspapers, you see op-eds and things where people are saying, you know, “If we’re running prisons at a profit, the company running these prisons or the businessmen running these prisons are going to be trying to cut corners. They’re not going to be prioritizing rehabilitation. They’re going to be prioritizing making money.” Which is exactly what’s happening now, and it’s happened many times throughout American history.

AMY GOODMAN: Give them a little less food, make a little more money.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, you know, and the profit margins of these companies is not high, so it’s kind of built into the system—

AMY GOODMAN: Less rehabilitation, more money.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. It’s built into the system that if these prisons have to turn a profit, they cannot be run in a decent way. And, you know, state prisons are also abysmal. But even getting them to the level of state prisons would cut out the whole purpose for them existing, which is to save a little bit of money for the state and to make money for themselves.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, do you know how this compares, the situation in the U.S. with respect to this very large number of private prisons, to other countries where there are also very large prison populations?

SHANE BAUER: I mean, private prisons aren’t common around the world, but there are some countries that use them. The U.K. does. South Africa does a little bit. Mexico does now, and other Latin American countries do. And they’re facing a lot of the same problems that we are here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, on the question of rehabilitation, one of the main criticisms of American prisons is that in fact it’s a punitive system—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —and it’s not at all one in which—can you talk about that a little bit?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. And this is something that just I saw going back into the history, you know, that the very first penitentiaries—the whole penitentiary system was created in this country, the idea that if somebody, say, is convicted of theft, rather than being pilloried, they’d be sentenced to a time in prison. And the idea was that they would be rehabilitated, you know, have time to reflect, and then would go back to society. And they would also be rehabilitated through labor. This is the idea.

And a couple—two, three decades into the existence of penitentiaries, a lot of states were debating whether to abolish them. A lot of states were saying that it was a failed experiment, that people weren’t actually being rehabilitated, that it was actually leading to an increase of crime because people were just kind of learning from each other and going back into society.

But what saved the prison system was that in New York, in Auburn state penitentiary, a captain there decided to lease the labor of the prisoners to private contractors, and he vowed to turn them into what he called “insulated working machines.” So he instituted a regiment where prisoners were allowed not allowed to speak to each other, and whipping, which had been banned by the American Revolution, was reinstated in New York so they could whip prisoners who were shirking work. And that prison started to actually turn a profit. So other states replicated that model.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: When exactly was this? Sorry.

SHANE BAUER: This was the early 19th century. So other states replicated this model and would take out loans and then build a prison and pay back the loans through the use of prison labor and then were making money. And it got to the point where much later, after the Civil War, some states—Alabama was making 10 percent of its state revenue through leasing prison labor.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about whipping. Let’s go back to this issue of torture—


AMY GOODMAN: —and the history of torture in prisons in the United States.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, I mean, it’s just a really brutal history. Prisoners have been whipped. There were states that would hang prisoners from their thumbs. There was a torture called watering, where a tube would be shoved down someone’s throat and they’d be pumped with water, made to feel like they were dying because their stomach was pressing against their heart.

And they were tortured for not making work quotas. And if you go back to the time of slavery, you know, slavery was a more productive system than free labor. Slaves were picking approximately 75 percent more cotton per hour than free laborers, and it’s because they were driven by torture, by the whip. So, when slavery ended, people couldn’t do that with laborers anymore. They couldn’t whip laborers anymore and drive them at those paces, but they could with prisoners. So torture continued to be used in the same way for decades.

Arkansas bans the whip in 1967. And Arkansas and many other states at that time also were saving money by using prisoners as guards. They would give guns to some of the most brutal prisoners. An inmate guard who would shoot and kill a prisoner who was trying to escape would be granted an immediate parole. And they would—prisoners would be used as overseers in the fields. They would whip other prisoners. And in Arkansas, they were even electrocuting other prisoners for not making quotas in the fields.

And in Arkansas, actually, there was a police investigation that uncovered a lot of brutality around this system, and the state then brought in a reformer to kind of change the system. He started hiring guards and taking the guns away from the prisoners. He banned the whip. And as a result, the prison was no longer making a profit to the state, and he was fired. And it was shortly after that that Hutto, the founder of CCA, was brought in to run the system, and he again brought it back on a profitable basis.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we begin to wrap up, the state of for-profit prisons—for example, on this issue of whether torture takes place and the death rate in these prisons, are they higher than state prisons? Or—

SHANE BAUER: Violence is certainly higher. One of the problems is that what I found at Winn is that the company kind of cooks the books. It’s hard to know the actual rate of violence. When I was at Winn, I would note every time there was a stabbing. And when I left, I did a records request with the state of Louisiana to ask how many stabbings there were in the prison. And the number they gave me for the entire year was lower than the number that I had recorded for the four months that I was there.


SHANE BAUER: Similarly with suicide. There was an inmate who committed suicide at Winn—his name was Damien Coestly—when he had gone repeatedly on hunger strike to demand mental health services. When he died, he weighed 71 pounds. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know him?

SHANE BAUER: I did, yeah. I met him in the prison. I had actually watched him on suicide watch at one point. But I also did a records request with the state of Louisiana and asked how many suicides had occurred, and they said zero had occurred that year. The company claims that their suicide rate is lower than it is in public prisons. But what happened was, when Damien hanged himself, he was in a coma for a period, and he was sent out to the hospital. And the warden granted him a pardon during that time that he was unconscious, and when he died in the hospital, he was no longer technically under the care of the prison, so they were able to keep it off the books.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you wrote this book, Shane, coming out of this National Magazine Award-winning piece you did undercover at Winn, because you said that you didn’t get to say all you wanted to say in that article. As you expanded your investigation, what surprised you most?

SHANE BAUER: What I was really surprised by, and what I frankly didn’t know when I did this undercover investigation, was how fundamental the profit motive is in the creation of the American prison system and the growth of the American prison system throughout history, and how fundamentally intertwined the foundation of our prison system is with slavery. You know, it was created, in a lot of ways, to subsidize the slave system in the South. Prisons were being used—they were essentially factories. Throughout the country, prisons were basically factories at the time, and they were being used to manufacture clothes to sell at a discount to planters for their slaves.

And, you know, after slavery, it was a way for states to continue this system. And it was only until the 1970s that prisons were not identical to slavery. And it was just a handful of years after that system of kind of for-profit plantations in the South ended that a person who was a part of that system started this kind of new chapter, which is one of many chapters in American history, of people trying to profit from other people who are held captive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you talk about, Shane, the way in which—I mean, obviously you’ve, in the book, tracked the origins of the private prison system. But have there been moments where the number of private prisons has diminished? And now, of course, we see that there is a massive amount.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: But it hasn’t always been this way.

SHANE BAUER: No. No, it’s been—throughout American history, it’s been kind of a back and forth between prisons being run by private companies and being run by the states. But through most of American history, they were all for profit, whether the profit was for the companies or for the states. And now the vast majority of our prisons are state-run prisons. It’s only about 8 percent that are private. And they cost the state a lot of money. But, you know, this is something that has in the past led to prison privatization, when there is a boom in the prison population and states can’t afford to manage this rise in their prison population, so private companies will step in and say, “Hey, we can do it for cheaper.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is the number of prisoners in the U.S. now rising? I mean, at the moment?



SHANE BAUER: The number of prisoners is now following, but—is falling.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Falling, yeah.

SHANE BAUER: But when these private prison corporations started in the 1980s, it was rising rapidly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were in prison in Iran. You were in solitary confinement for a period of the more than two years you were there. You come back, and you go undercover in the prison in Louisiana. And I know you took pause—OK, you got in. They didn’t even ask you if you were a reporter or whatever, and you wrote everything down in your documents. But you would wait for a second, take a breath, think, “Do I really want to go back into this?”


AMY GOODMAN: So, what was it like? Did you feel—when you went into the prison, did it almost terrify you? I mean, bring on a kind of claustrophobia that you felt—now, you’re a guard; then, you were a prisoner.

SHANE BAUER: I don’t think it was a claustrophobia. And in some ways, I think it was maybe less daunting to me than it might have been somebody else, that prisons were kind of demystified to me. It wasn’t such a big leap for me to go back in, in some ways. But what was difficult was being on the other side and being a guard. You know, there were times—the first time I remember that I found a contraband cellphone in the prison as a guard, I really stopped, because, you know, as a prisoner, I would have taken a phone in a second and used it, and I would have never snitched on another prisoner that had a phone. And I still thought of myself, and still do think of myself, as a former prisoner. And my sympathies kind of naturally lied there.

But I had taken this job, and my job was to take things like that. So, you know, it was challenging at first to kind of be on that side, and I had to kind of—I struggled really a lot with kind of ethical issues and guilt. And I really had to turn that part of myself off. Which I think is common with prison guards. A lot of the guards that I started with, I went through training with, they generally want to be kind of good people and treat people humanely, but you quickly find that this type of interaction, where you’re locking somebody up day after day, is not a kind of normal way to interact with other human beings. And you have to, to do that job, just kind of turn off that part of yourself that, you know, would maybe make you feel guilty for some of the things you do.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for your work and for being here, Shane Bauer, award-winning reporter. His new book is called American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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