The PBS NewsHour/New York Times Book Club February 2020 selection
New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018
One of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018
Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism
Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award
A New York Times Notable Book
A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history.
In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can't understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.
The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly-trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison's sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone.
A blistering indictment of the private prison system, and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Journalist Shane Bauer spent four months as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana. His first-person reporting is just half of the story: He intersperses harrowing details of his personal experiences with an eye-opening history of the country’s privatized prison system. Bauer’s deeply felt, alarming portrait of these secretive institutions plunges us into a world where both prisoners and guards suffer, and profit—not rehabilitation—is the administration’s only goal. Bauer’s struggle to retain his humanity during his stint leavens even the most shocking scenes. American Prison is an infuriating and unforgettable book.
Deprivation, abuse, and fear oppress inmates and guards alike in this hard-hitting expos of the for-profit prison industry. Mother Jones reporter Bauer, who wrote about being imprisoned in Iran for two years in A Sliver of Light, hired on as a guard in 2014 at Louisiana's Winn Correctional Center, a private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic). Equipped with a hidden camera and recorder, he found a snake pit of exploited labor and substandard correctional services. Bauer and his fellow guards were understaffed (sometimes three guards for a 352-prisoner unit), paid $9 an hour, poorly trained, and afraid of inmates; prison management veered between chaotic laxness and brutal crackdowns. With a $34-per-day-per-inmate budget, the prison axed educational and recreational programs and fatally skimped on health care (one inmate Bauer met lost both legs after officials failed to hospitalize him for an infection; another hanged himself after his suicide threats were ignored). Bauer vividly depicts Winn's poisonous culture as he finds himself succumbing to its mind-set of paranoid authoritarianism ("Striving to treat everyone as human takes too much energy. More and more I focus on proving I won't back down"). In addition, he sets his reportage in the context of a history of for-profit incarceration in the South that is rife with racism and torture. The result is a gripping indictment of a bad business.