“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
― Nelson Mandela
As of 2013, there were an estimated 133,000 prisoners institutionalized in private prisons. There are times in life when you must question the motives of individuals who seek to make profit off of government decreed punishment. American Prison, written by investigative journalist Shane Bauer, is an expose on the private prison system-a written record of his undercover experience as a prison guard in a Louisiana correctional facility. During his time as a CO, Bauer observed the dehumanization of prisoners and a severe lack of regard for their wellbeing. What makes this account so fascinating, is that Bauer was once a prisoner himself in Iran for hiking too close to the border. For two years, he was subjected to a criminal’s lifestyle-solitary confinement & egregious living conditions. If anyone can speak on the harrowing experience of prison, it would be him.
In the process of his undercover work and outside research, Bauer identified that racism was still a very prevalent part of private prison success. When the Thirteenth Amendment was first passed, it seemingly ended the centuries long practice of slavery. What we fail to notice in the verbiage, Bauer notes, is the phrase,”except for punishment of a crime.” Essentially, as long as Black men were convicted, slavery could continue to be a justifiable oppression.
From the roots of this systematic injustice came the private prison–an institution where individuals could benefit richly from the incarceration of so-called criminals. At the beginning of this creation, it made sense to convict anyone and everyone who could be tried as guilty, because it would result in a paycheck from the government to take care of their needs while incarcerated. What resulted from this, comments Bauer, is a modern day system that pockets the money for personal gain, while providing prisoners with the absolute bare minimum (sometimes even less than this) for survival. American’s sense of justice was found in the dollar bill, and served with the accumulation of it.
The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment came to life in that Louisiana prison. Bauer, once a prisoner himself, observed his behavior becoming crueler and inhumane towards the prisoners. His coworkers expressed an interest only in themselves, and even spoke of their incarcerated counterparts like they were cattle-incapable of humanity. At one point, Bauer poses the question, “Are the soldiers of Abu Ghraib, or even Auschwitz guards and ISIS hostage-takers, inherently different from you and me?” To Bauer, there was no obvious distinction. Shouldn’t that terrify us?
The nucleus of this message is written in the way America views punishment. Private-for-profit prisons, in Bauer’s experience, do not have a prisoner’s best interest at heart. There is nothing humane about a correctional facility that profits off the suffering of its convicts. The margin for dissent here is about as slim as a moral crevice can be–the prisoners at Winn Correctional Facility were subjected to borderline torture ( locked in isolation for weeks as a game for prison guards, denied basic rights like food, water, and decent healthcare, etc). The list goes on until it begins to sound more like oppression than it does correction.
At the end of his lengthy expose, Bauer discusses a visit he took to CCA’s corporate headquarters after he left Winn. After purchasing a single share in the company so he could attend a meeting with majority shareholders, Bauer’s resolve crumpled in a sense. He asks us, “How many times have such meetings been held in American History? How many times have men, be they private prison executives or convict lessees, gotten together to…sit in company headquarters or legislative offices, far from their prisons or labor camps, [to] craft stories that soothe their consciences?” For hours, he watched solders speak of their atrocities like they were desserts, sweet on the tongue and easy to digest. There was nothing humane about it.
There is something to be feared about monopolizing on the correction of convicts. It is not inherently bad, in a sense, but its modern execution remains largely focused on viewing human beings as a resource that can be bought and sold like shares on the stock market. Give Bauer’s American Prison a read and understand for yourself what it actually means to be human capital.