Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Undercover journalist Shane Bauer has written an expose about private prisons in the United States and invites the reader to judge how our civilization is doing.
Bauer is an investigative journalist who took an entry- level position in 2014 with the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic). He was assigned to the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana where he worked as a guard almost four months until his cover was blown.
“American Prison” is a chronology of his experience in the prison as well as a look back at the development of the U.S. penal system from the mid-19th century. That history traces the transition from slavery practices, to the provision of free convict labor from private prisons aided by federal funds.
Private prisons became established in the South after the Civil War. Bauer explains how convict leasing worked: Prison populations were leased to individuals and companies to provide a captive, steady labor supply. Inmates dug mines, built railroads, picked cotton, even operated textile mills without pay, while the prison owners received income from the inmates’ grueling labor. The death rate was staggering among the convicts, but loss of a prisoner was incidental compared to the capital loss represented by the death of a slave.
“American Prison” is an eye opener to a severely broken penal system. It discloses that 22% of the world's prisoners are in U.S. prisons, even though the U.S. comprises only 4.4% of the global population. The author states that this percentage does not mean U.S. citizens are more likely to commit crimes than citizens of other nations, but that, in a capitalistic society, private prisons are good business.
Founded in 1983, CoreCivic is now a $3.04 billion publicly traded company. Private prisons were banned during the Obama administration, but incoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions of the Trump administration, immediately reversed that decision and since then the stock of the company has soared.
Sadly, this book reveals that our prison system is not about rehabilitation, nor even punishment, but only about the bottom line. The more incarcerations, the more profit. In order to squeeze profits, the correctional officers at Winn received a wage of $9 per hour and were outnumbered by the inmates 200 to 1.
The less money spent on salaries, utilities, maintenance, healthcare, food and recreation, the more revenue for shareholders. There is no inducement to release prisoners because the longer they remain in prison, the more reimbursement the company receives. Currently, 8% of U.S. prisons are operated by private companies.
A note about the unique perspective of the author: He was incarcerated for two years in Tehran’s disreputable Evin Prison because he had unintentionally 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.