My four months as a private prison guard

Shane Bauer, My four months as a private prison guard. Mother Jones, July/August 2016. David Uberti writes in Columbia Journalism Review that Shane Bauer’s exposé of the conditions at Winn Correctional Center, a private prison in Louisiana, “confirms many of our worst fears about the private prison industry. Corporate hunger for profits led to a woeful lack of resources in the cell blocks that Bauer patrolled. Inmates lived in squalor and were denied health care for serious sickness. Prison officials resorted to the use of force in lieu of proper staffing. Low wages begat a constant turnover among employees. It was a bad dream for prison guards like Bauer and a hopeless nightmare for the men behind bars.”

I started applying for jobs in private prisons because I wanted to see the inner workings of an industry that holds 131,000 of the nation’s 1.6 million prisoners. As a journalist, it’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system. When prisons do let reporters in, it’s usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates. Private prisons are especially secretive. Their records often aren’t subject to public access laws; CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] has fought to defeat legislation that would make private prisons subject to the same disclosure rules as their public counterparts. And even if I could get uncensored information from private prison inmates, how would I verify their claims? I keep coming back to this question: Is there any other way to see what really happens inside a private prison?

CCA certainly seemed eager to give me a chance to join its team. Within two weeks of filling out its online application, using my real name and personal information, several CCA prisons contacted me, some multiple times.

They weren’t interested in the details of my résumé. They didn’t ask about my job history, my current employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones, or why someone who writes about criminal justice in California would want to move across the country to work in a prison….

The human resources director comes in and…tells us that if we recruit a friend to work here, we’ll get 500 bucks. She gives us an assortment of other tips: Don’t eat the food given to inmates; don’t have sex with them or you could be fined $10,000 or get 10 years at hard labor; try not to get sick because we don’t get paid sick time. If we have friends or relatives incarcerated here, we need to report it. She hands out fridge magnets with the number of a hotline to use if we feel suicidal or start fighting with our families. We get three counseling sessions for free….

At Winn, staff and inmates alike refer to guards as “free people.” Like the prisoners, the majority of the COs [corrections officers] at Winn are African American. More than half are women, many of them single moms. But in Ash and Elm, the floor officers—who more than anyone else deal with the inmates face-to-face—are exclusively men. Floor officers are both enforcers and a prisoner’s first point of contact if he needs something. It is their job to conduct security checks every 30 minutes, walking up and down each tier to make sure nothing is awry. Three times per 12-hour shift, all movement in the prison stops and the floor officers count the inmates. There are almost never more than two floor officers per general population unit. That’s one per 176 inmates. (CCA later tells me that the Louisiana Department of Corrections, or DOC, considered the “staffing pattern” at Winn “appropriate.”)…

Officially, inmates are only allowed to keep money in special prison-operated accounts that can be used at the canteen. In these accounts, prisoners with jobs receive their wages, which may be as little as 2 cents an hour for a dishwasher and as much as 20 cents for a sewing-machine operator at Winn’s garment factory. Their families can also deposit money in the accounts….

People say a lot of negative things about CCA,” the head of training, Miss Blanchard, tells us. “That we’ll hire anybody. That we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Which is not really true, but if you come here and you breathing and you got a valid driver’s license and you willing to work, then we’re willing to hire you.”…

The idea of privatizing prisons originated in the early 1980s with [Thomas] Beasley and fellow businessman Doctor Robert Crants. The two had no experience in corrections, so they recruited [T. Don] Hutto, who had been the head of Virginia’s and Arkansas’ prisons. In a 1978 ruling, the Supreme Court had found that a succession of Arkansas prison administrations, including Hutto’s, “tried to operate their prisons at a profit.” Guards on horseback herded the inmates, who sometimes did not have shoes, to the fields. The year after Hutto joined CCA, he became the head of the American Correctional Association, the largest prison association in the world.

To Beasley, the former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, the business of private prisons was simple: “You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers,” he told Inc. magazine in 1988. Beasley and Crants ran the business a lot like a hotel chain, charging the government a daily rate for each inmate. Early investors included Sodexho-Marriott and the venture capitalist Jack Massey, who helped build Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, and the Hospital Corporation of America.

The 1980s were a good time to get into the incarceration business. The prison population was skyrocketing, the drug war was heating up, the length of sentences was increasing, and states were starting to mandate that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their terms. Between 1980 and 1990, state spending on prisons quadrupled, but it wasn’t enough. Prisons in many states were filled beyond capacity. When a federal court declared in 1985 that Tennessee’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, CCA made an audacious proposal to take over the state’s entire prison system. The bid was unsuccessful, but it planted an idea in the minds of politicians across the country: They could outsource prison management and save money in the process. Privatization also gave states a way to quickly expand their prison systems without taking on new debt. In the perfect marriage of fiscal and tough-on-crime conservatism, the companies would fund and construct new lockups while the courts would keep them full.

When CCA shares appeared on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 1986, the company was operating two juvenile detention centers and two immigrant detention centers. Today, it runs more than 60 facilities, from state prisons and jails to federal immigration detention centers. All together, CCA houses at least 66,000 inmates at any given time. Its main competitor, the GEO Group, holds more than 70,000 inmates in the United States. Currently, private prisons oversee about 8 percent of the country’s total prison population.

Whatever taxpayer money CCA receives has to cover the cost of housing, feeding, and rehabilitating inmates. While I work at Winn, CCA receives about $34 per inmate per day. In comparison, the average daily cost per inmate at the state’s publicly run prisons is about $52. Some states pay CCA as much as $80 per prisoner per day. In 2015, CCA reported $1.9 billion in revenue; it made more than $221 million in net income—more than $3,300 for each prisoner in its care. CCA and other prison companies have written “occupancy guarantees” into their contracts, requiring states to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Two-thirds of the private-prison contracts recently reviewed by the anti-privatization group In the Public Interest had these prisoner quotas. Under CCA’s contract, Winn was guaranteed to be 96 percent full.

The main argument in favor of private prisons—that they save taxpayers money—remains controversial. One study estimated that private prisons cost 15 percent less than public ones; another found that public prisons were 14 percent cheaper. After reviewing these competing claims, researchers concluded that the savings “appear minimal.” CCA directed me to a 2013 report—funded in part by the company and GEO—that claimed private prisons could save states as much as 59 percent over public prisons without sacrificing quality.

Private prisons’ cost savings are “modest,” according to one Justice Department study, and are achieved mostly through “moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs.” Wages and benefits account for 59 percent of CCA’s operating expenses. When I start at Winn, nonranking guards make $9 an hour, no matter how long they’ve worked there. The starting pay for guards at public state prisons comes out to $12.50 an hour. CCA told me that it “set[s] salaries based on the prevailing wages in local markets,” adding that “the wages we provided in Winn Parish were competitive for that area.”…

Studies have shown that personalities can change dramatically when people find themselves in prison environments. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he randomly assigned college students to the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift basement “prison.” The experiment was intended to study how people respond to authority, but it quickly became clear that some of the most profound changes were happening to the guards. Some became sadistic, forcing the prisoners to sleep on concrete, sing and dance, defecate into buckets, and strip naked. The situation became so extreme that the two-week study was cut short after just six days. When it was over, many “guards” were ashamed at what they had done and some “prisoners” were traumatized for years. “We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment,” Zimbardo reflected. “For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.”

The question the study posed still lingers: Are the soldiers of Abu Ghraib, or even Auschwitz guards and ISIS hostage-takers, inherently different from you and me? We take comfort in the notion of an unbridgeable gulf between good and evil, but maybe we should understand, as Zimbardo’s work suggested, that evil is incremental—something we are all capable of, given the right circumstances….

CCA’s contract requires that Winn inmates are assigned to “productive full time activity” five days a week, but few are. The work program was dropped around the same time that guards were taken out of the towers [around 2010]. Many vocational programs at Winn have been axed. The hobby shops have become storage units; access to the law library is limited. The big recreation yard sits empty most of the time: There aren’t enough guards to watch over it. (Asked about the lack of classes, recreation, and other activities at Winn, CCA insisted “these resources and programs were largely available to inmates.” It said the work program was cut during contract negotiations with the DOC, and it acknowledged some gaps in programming due to “brief periods of staffing vacancies.”)…

Research shows that corrections officers experience above-average rates of job-related stress and burnout. Thirty-four percent of prison guards suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study by a nonprofit that researches “corrections fatigue.” That’s a higher rate than reported by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. COs commit suicide two and a half times more often than the population at large. They also have shorter life spans. A recent study of Florida prison guards and law enforcement officers found that they die 12 years earlier than the general population; one suggested cause was job-related stress….

On my first official day as a CO, I am stationed on suicide watch…. In the entire prison of more than 1,500 inmates, there are no full-time psychiatrists and just one full-time social worker: Miss Carter. In class, she told us that a third of the inmates have mental health problems, 10 percent have severe mental health issues, and roughly a quarter have IQs under 70. She said most prison mental health departments in Louisiana have at least three full-time social workers. Angola has at least 11. Here, there are few options for inmates with mental health needs. They can meet with Miss Carter, but with her caseload of 450 prisoners, that isn’t likely to happen more than once a month. They can try to get an appointment with the part-time psychiatrist or the part-time psychologist, who are spread even thinner. Another option is to ask for suicide watch….

Sexual predators prey on needy inmates, giving them commissary or drugs, seemingly as gifts, but eventually recalling the debt. If you don’t have money, the only way to pay is with your body….

Instructors…preached against giving concessions to inmates, but in reality most guards think you have to cooperate with them. Frankly, there just aren’t enough staff members to do otherwise….

In Idaho, CCA was accused of ceding control to prison gangs to save money on wages. A lawsuit filed in 2012 by eight inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center alleged there was effectively “a partnership between CCA and certain prison gangs,” in which gang members were used to discipline inmates. A subsequent FBI investigation found that employees had falsified records to cover up their understaffing of mandatory positions.* A confidential CCA memo that was disclosed in the case showed that inmate-on-inmate assaults were four times more frequent in the CCA prison than in all other Idaho prisons combined. No charges were brought against CCA, but the state pulled its contract. “It was a lot better than this place,” an out-of-state guard who worked in Idaho at the time told me.

There are no gangs at Winn, but that has more to do with Louisiana prison culture than the management of the prison. In most prisons around the country, the racial divide is stark and internal politics are determined by racialized prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia. But Louisiana is an anomaly. Here, there are no prison gangs. In a prison that is 75 percent black and less than 25 percent white, people of different races sit together in the chow hall, hang out on the yard, and sleep in the same dorms….

I quickly learn it’s no longer possible to be the silent observer I was in training, so I try to find the middle ground between appearing soft and being draconian. When I write up one inmate after he runs off the tier against my orders, I think about it all weekend, wondering if he will get sent to Cypress [high-security segregation unit]. I feel guilty and decide I will only write up inmates for two things: threatening me and refusing to get on their tier after they enter the unit. The floor is where most assaults happen, and if a lot of inmates are out there, things can get out of hand. That’s not why I choose to write them up for it, though. I write them up because my main job is to keep inmates off the floor, and if I don’t establish authority, I end up having to negotiate with each prisoner over how long he can wander the unit, which is exhausting….

At each morning meeting, we are given a new “game plan”: keep inmates off the bars of the tiers, move them quicker out to chow, keep them off the floor, finish count faster. We never discuss the problem that both guards and inmates complain about most: There aren’t enough employees. Corporate has tried to mitigate the problem by bringing officers in from out of state. The economics of this are never clear to me—it seems far more expensive to pay for their transportation and lodging than to hire more locals or raise wages….

During my time at Winn, I witness corners cut daily. Key officers, who are charged with documenting activities in the units, routinely record security checks that do not occur. I hear that these logbooks are audited by the state and are the only evidence of whether guards walk up and down the tiers every half-hour. I almost never see anyone do such a security check unless DOC [Louisiana Department of Corrections] officials are around….

Since 2003, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) has required prisons to take measures to prevent sexual assaults. At Winn, this includes teaching new cadets about the law. “Why is the law so important?” our instructor Kenny asked us during training. “Liability.” It was never fully clear whether the goal was to eliminate rape or to suppress homosexuality in the prison. Even consensual sex could lead to time in seg [segregation].

Nationwide, as many as 9 percent of male inmates report being sexually assaulted behind bars, but given the anti-snitch culture of prison, the real number might be higher….

Prison has a reputation as a place of homosexual predation, but it’s not that simple. Inmates…rarely see themselves as gay and typically go back to pursuing women once they get out. Self-identified gay or transgender prisoners are, however, often on the receiving end of abuse: Federal data shows that 39 percent of gay ex-prisoners reported being sexually assaulted by another inmate. One study found that 59 percent of transgender women in California’s prisons for men reported being assaulted.

But not all sex in prison is violent; many of the letters from male lovers I read in the mail room were full of tenderness and longing….

Nearly half of all allegations of sexual victimization in prisons involve staff. In the 2011 BJS survey, CCA prisons reported a rate of substantiated staff-on-inmate sexual assault similar to that of public facilities. However, CCA prisons’ rate of reported staff-on-inmate sexual harassment was five times higher. Another federal report found that former inmates of private state prisons are twice as likely to report being sexually victimized by staff members as inmates who were in public prisons.

Prisoners also sexually harass and abuse officers. A recurring issue is inmates standing at the bars and masturbating at women guards sitting in the key. I see some women’s reports of sexual abuse by prisoners handled swiftly, but I hear other female guards complain that their sexual-harassment charges have gone nowhere…. I regularly see the macho culture of prison transcend the division between guards and inmates—male officers routinely ignore the harassment of their female colleagues….

CCA does not disclose its medical expenses, but in a typical prison, health care costs are the second-biggest expense after staff. On average, a Louisiana prison puts 9 percent of its budget toward health care. In some states it can be much higher; health care is 31 percent of a California prison’s budget. Nearly 40 percent of Winn inmates have a chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma, according to Louisiana’s budget office. About 6 percent have a communicable disease such as HIV or hepatitis C….

Under Supreme Court rulings citing the Eighth Amendment, prisons are required to provide inmates with adequate health care. Yet CCA has found ways to minimize its obligations. At the out-of-state prisons where California ships some of its inmates, CCA will not accept prisoners who are over 65 years old, have mental health issues, or have serious conditions like HIV. The company’s Idaho prison contract specified that the “primary criteria” for screening incoming offenders was “no chronic mental health or health care issues.” The contracts of some CCA prisons in Tennessee and Hawaii stipulate that the states will bear the cost of HIV treatment. Such exemptions allow CCA to tout its cost-efficiency while taxpayers assume the medical expenses for the inmates the company won’t take or treat….

My priorities change. Striving to treat everyone as human takes too much energy. More and more, I focus on proving I won’t back down. I am vigilant; I come to work ready for people to catcall me or run up on me and threaten to punch me in the face. I show neither fear nor compunction. Sometimes prisoners call me racist, and it stings, but I try as hard as I can not to flinch because to do so would be to show a pressure point, a button that can be pressed when they want to make me bend.

Nearly every day the unit reaches a crescendo of frustration because inmates are supposed to be going somewhere like the law library, GED classes, vocational training, or a substance abuse group, but their programs are canceled or they are let out of the unit late. Inmates tell me that at other prisons, the schedule is firm. “That door would be opening up and everybody would be on the move,” an inmate who’s been incarcerated throughout the state says. Here, there is no schedule. We wait for the call over the radio; then we let the inmates go. They could eat at 11:30 a.m. They could eat at 3 p.m. School might happen, or maybe not. It’s been years since Winn has had the staff to run the big yard. Sometimes we let the inmates onto the small yard attached to the unit. Often we don’t. Canteen and law library hours are canceled regularly. There just aren’t enough officers to keep everything going….

The ACA [American Correctional Association] is a trade association, but it’s also the closest thing we have to a national regulatory body for prisons. More than 900 public and private correctional facilities and detention centers are accredited under its standards.

Over the next few weeks, inmates repaint every unit in preparation for the ACA audit. The maintenance man is run ragged as he tries to fix busted vents, plumbing, and cell and tier doors….

In anticipation of the audit, I read the ACA standards. How will the auditors deal with the fact that the cells in segregation are at least 20 square feet smaller than required? Or that inmates only get 10 minutes to eat, not the mandated 20? There are many other ACA standards and recommendations Winn does not appear to meet: We rarely have the required number of positions staffed; guards’ pay is not comparable to the pay of state corrections officers; guards rarely ever use the metal detectors at the entrances to the housing units; prisoners often don’t get one hour of daily access to exercise space; suicide watch meals are below caloric requirements; there aren’t enough toilets in the dorms. (The ACA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Then again, Winn passed its last ACA audit, in 2012, with a near-perfect score of 99 percent, the same score it received in its previous audit three years earlier. In fact, CCA’s average score across all its accredited prisons is also 99 percent.

On the morning of the audit, we wake everyone up and tell them to make their beds and take any pictures of women off their lockers. Two well-dressed white men enter Ash unit and do a slow lap around the floor. The only questions they ask Bacle and me are what our names are and how we’re doing. They do not examine our logbook, nor do they check our entries against the camera footage. If they did, they would find that some of the cameras don’t work. They do not check the doors. If they did, they would see they need to be yanked open by hand because most of the switches don’t work. They don’t check the fire alarm, which automatically closes smoke doors over the tiers, some of which must be jimmied back open by two guards. They do not ask to go on a tier. They do not interview any inmates. They do a single loop and they leave….

[Dave] Bacle [Shane Bauer’s partner at Winn Correctional Center] says he wishes an investigative reporter would come and look into this place. He complains about how, in other prisons, inmates get new charges for stabbing someone. Here, they are put in seg, but they rarely get shipped to another prison with tighter security. “CCA wants that fucking dollar!” Bacle says through clenched teeth. “That’s the reason why we play hell on getting a damn raise, because all they want is that dollar in their pocket.”…

…[W]e are under pressure from management to tighten up. This is true, but there is more. I see conspiracies brewing. Things I used to view as harmless transgressions I now view as personal attacks. When a physically disabled man doesn’t leave the shower in time for count, I am certain he is testing me, trying to break me down, to dominate me. The same is true when I see prisoners lying under their blankets during the daytime or standing at the bars. I don’t care about the rules, per se; many of them seem arbitrary. But I become obsessed with the notion that people are breaking them in front of me to whittle away at my will. I write inmates up all day long. One paper after another, I stack them, sometimes more than 25 disciplinaries in a day. Some inmates are clever; they know how to get under my skin without breaking the rules. So I shake down their beds and look for a reason to punish them.

I carry all this with me. Some days, when I stop for gas on the way home from work I notice myself, for a split second, casing the black men who enter the gas station. When I shoot pool at the local bar, I imagine—I hope—that the white man in hunting camouflage who’s playing against me will do something to spark a fight….

It is getting in my blood. The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take pleasure in saying “no” to prisoners. I like to hear them complain about my write-ups. I like to ignore them when they ask me to cut them a break. When they hang their clothes to dry in the TV room, an unauthorized area, I confiscate the laundry and get a thrill when they shout from down the tier as I take it away. During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT [Special Operations Response Team] team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action.

Until I leave. When I drive home, I wonder who I am becoming. I feel ashamed of my lack of self-control, my growing thirst for punishment and vengeance. I’m getting afraid of the expanding distance between the person I am at home and the one behind the wire. My glass of wine with dinner regularly becomes three….

Late one night in the middle of March, my wife wakes me. James West, my Mother Jones colleague who’s recently come to Louisiana to shoot video for my story, has not returned from trying to get a nighttime shot of the outside of Winn. Something is wrong. The sheriff of Winn Parish answers James’ phone. James, he says, will be in jail for a while. I feel the blood drain from my face. Then I wonder, “Will they come for me?” We scramble to pack up everything that has anything to do with my reporting and check into a hotel at 2 a.m. A few hours later, I call in sick….

James is charged with trespassing. By evening, a $10,000 bond is posted and he is released. “Send me a copy of the article when it’s done,” one of the cops tells him.

We pick up James at a gas station at the edge of Winnfield and drive out of town. The next morning, as I get coffee in the hotel lobby, I see a SORT officer standing outside in a black uniform, flex-cuffs hanging from his belt. Are they looking for me? We exit through a side door, and as I pull my truck out I see another man I recognize from the prison. We go back to the apartment, hurriedly throw everything in plastic bags, and leave. We drive across the border to Texas. I feel, oddly, sad.

A couple of days later, I call HR at Winn. “This is CO Bauer. I’m calling because I’ve decided to resign.”

“Oh! Mr. Bauer, I hate to hear that!” the HR woman says. “I hate to lose you. Your evaluation looked good and it looked like you were willing to hang in there and hopefully promote. Well, I hate it, Mr. Bauer. I truly do. In the future, if you decide to change your mind, you know the process.”…