A Harrowing Tale of the Incarceration System in Shane Bauer’s ‘American Prison’

Lee Polevoi


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment

By Shane Bauer

Penguin Press

351 pages


For four months in 2014, investigative reporter Shane Bauer worked as a guard at Winn Correction Center in Louisiana, owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).


Winn is not a federal penitentiary or state-run correctional facility. Like many other such institutions, it’s a for-profit institution. As Bauer outlines in painstaking detail, Winn Correction exemplifies what happens when the profit motive bumps up against demands of justice, the need to jail violent offenders and the challenges of effective rehabilitation.


American Prison aims to be several different things, including a first-person undercover account of what it feels like to guard a general population in a for-profit prison. It’s also  an in-depth history of American convict labor and the rise of private prisons since Colonial times—and how outsourced incarceration has grown over time into a huge business.


Bauer’s risky enterprise into life as a corrections officer was partly informed by his experiences as a prisoner in Iran for more than two years. Of his disorienting re-entry into freedom, he writes: 



“The free world is infinitely complex, and for a while it all came at me in a jumble. It was difficult for me to filter out what was important from the constant background noise of daily life. I also had to rebuild the mental capacity to make choices. I found myself staring at menus, unable to decide what to eat, so I relied on other people to choose for me … I had nightmares nearly every night about being thrown back into prison. I found myself overreacting to people who had any amount of authority, as though they were guards. I felt angry at everything.”


Nevertheless, once again at liberty in the U.S., he applies for jobs in private prisons “because I wanted to see the inner workings of an industry that holds some 130,000 of our nation’s 1.5 million prisoners.” Despite using his real name and being easily researched online, he gets a job with CCA and has a harrowing tale to tell.


What Bauer uncovers (surreptitiously, using a concealed camera and audio equipment) is frightening and sometimes difficult to comprehend. In his experience, private prisons are notoriously frugal and unfeeling, always to the detriment of inmates. And when prisoners are mistreated, they have little recourse but to take it out on the guards. For Bauer, maintaining authority without becoming a monster is among the great challenges of the job.


As noted, many pages are devoted to chronicling the history of the private prison system. The author has clearly done his research and this part of American Prison shines a different light on America’s legacy of racism and injustice.


But what’s most compelling about the book is witnessing the slow, malignant personality change—even as Bauer resists it—that comes from serving as a low-paid, under-trained guard in a violent prison environment. Though he doesn’t succumb to brutishness, there are moments when he must become a major hard-ass just to survive in the penal environment.



Mostly he reacts to the obscene taunts and insults of prisoners much as the rest of us might, with agony and indecision:


“I struggle constantly to understand what my role should be. How much should I engage? Is it wrong for me to be here, in this trailer park and in the prison, with people who don’t know that I’m a reporter or that they might someday show up in the pages of a book?”


There’s a lot of shocking detail here about a for-profit prison’s dire record of care and treatment of prisoners. What makes for the strongest passages in American Prison are the author’s personal and psychological struggles to be the one in control, or at least his determination to appear that way.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.



For Highbrow Magazine

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