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American Prison
Cover of American Prison
American Prison
A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment
New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018
One of President Barack Obama's favorite books of 2018
Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism
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.
New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018
One of President Barack Obama's favorite books of 2018
Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism
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.
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  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from June 18, 2018
    Deprivation, abuse, and fear oppress inmates and guards alike in this hard-hitting exposé 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.

  • Kirkus

    June 15, 2018
    A penetrating exposé on the cruelty and mind-bending corruption of privately run prisons across the United States, with a focus on the Winn facility in Louisiana.That prison was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, but after a shorter version of this book appeared in Mother Jones, the company rebranded as CoreCivic and lost the Winn contract with the government. Bauer (co-author: A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, 2014), who has won the National Magazine Award in addition to many others, spent four months inside the prison as a corrections officer, carrying out an undercover journalism assignment to find the truth behind CCA's documented record of lies about its practices. At least 8 percent of inmates in state prisons must adjust to the practices of laxly regulated private companies rather than those in government-run facilities. At Winn, correctional officers (a term they prefer to "guard") risk their safety every day for $9 per hour. Bauer determined that the guards, most of them unarmed, were outnumbered by the inmates by a ratio as high as 200 to 1. The author had also viewed prison from a different perspective, having been incarcerated for two years in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison because he had unwittingly crossed a border while hiking as a tourist. Despite the awful conditions in his Iranian cell, Bauer found many of the conditions in Louisiana to be even worse. Nearly every page of this tale contains examples of shocking inhumanity. During his four months at Winn, Bauer also noticed a cruelty streak developing in his own character; even some of the inmates told Bauer that he was changing, and not for the better. Interspersed with the chapters about Winn, Bauer includes historical context--e.g., after the end of the Civil War, states continued slavery by a different name, forcing prisoners to pick cotton and perform other grueling tasks that produced income for prison administrations.A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which "imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world."

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 15, 2018

    With the support of his editors at Mother Jones, investigative journalist Bauer spent four months working as a corrections officer at the private, for-profit Corrections Corporation of America prison in Winnfield, LA, in order to document the daily reality of incarceration in this country. This work weaves that experience with the long history of for-profit incarceration in the United States, a history that grew alongside chattel slavery and eventually replaced it as the nation's primary source of unfree labor. In addition to documenting the abuse of inmates, widespread and encouraged by management-level employees, this book also exposes how the majority of prison staff also live on the economic margins, vulnerable to exploitation by their employer. Bauer's work is effectively informed by his own arrest and 26 months of incarceration while on assignment in Iran. VERDICT Bauer tells a powerful story at a moment when Americans are asking hard questions about the use and abuse of incarceration. This informative book will surely find many passionate readers.--Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Massachusetts Historical Soc., Boston

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment
Shane Bauer
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