Rattling the Bars: A Look Inside Private Prisons in the US
Investigative journalist Shane Bauer speaks to Eddie Conway about his book, American Prison, and the history of prison privatization in the US
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
This week, on this this episode of Rattling the Bars, we want to look at private prisons through the eyes of someone who has been inside of them. Shane Bauer spent two years in prison in Iran, and when he returned to America he went undercover as a journalist and a reporter as a guard in a private prison in Louisiana. His book, American prison, is an in-depth look at what happens in those prisons. So, we get the opportunity to ask him here.
So, Shane, thanks for joining me.
SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Tell me a little bit about the private prison system and the lend lease prison system, that early prison system after slavery. Is there a relationship between the two?
SHANE BAUER: Yeah. I mean actually, the history of for-profit prisons goes way back. I mean, back really to the American Revolution. Our first penitentiaries in this country were meant to turn a profit. They were essentially factories where prisoners were laboring from dawn to dusk for private contractors. In the South in particular, after the Civil War, prisoners were put to work on plantations, coal mines, laying railroad tracks. All the Southern prison systems were privatized, so prisoners were forced to labor for private companies, much like they had labored as enslaved people.
The death rates, actually at that time, were higher than they were under slavery. Depending on the state, between 16 and 25 percent of convicts died every year. And into the early 20th century, states started, rather than sending their prisoners to private companies and getting a cut of the profits, they essentially cut out the middleman and bought plantations of their own. So, they would work prisoners on plantations and all of the profits would go directly into state treasuries. It was a very profitable system, and this system really continued into the 1960s and 1970s in the South.
Up until 1967, Arkansas was still allowing whipping of prisoners for people who didn’t meet quotas of cotton picking. And this world is the world in which the founder of the Corrections Corporation of America started his career. A man named Terrell Don Hutto ran a prison plantation in Texas. He owned a plantation with his family, he had houseboys that would serve him and his family. And he later ran prison plantations in Arkansas at a profit to this state. He was really the last person to run a publicly run prison at a profit. And around the time that he left the plantations in Arkansas in the mid 70s, the prison population in America just skyrocketed.
And he was approached a few years later by a couple of businessmen who proposed the idea … they knew him and knew his reputation for running prisons as a business, and they proposed the idea that they’d start a corporation where, rather than making money from prison labor, prisoners themselves would be the commodities. And they would essentially be building prisons and states would be paying them money to run their prisons, and they would trade on New York Stock Exchange. So, they started, basically, the modern private prison industry from there.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Now, you say in your book that torture is a central component for private prisons. Explain that, why are you saying that?
SHANE BAUER: Well, historically, I would say it was. Like slavery, slavery was a very profitable system, enslaved people picked much faster than free people in the South. And that is the main reason is that slaves could be driven by torture, particularly by whipping. After slavery, the prisoners that were laboring for private companies were also driven by torture. So often, companies preferred using prisoners, one because they were cheaper than free laborers, and two because they could be forced to produce faster by whipping or by a number of different tortures that were used; forcing tubes of water down people’s throats, hanging people by their wrists or their thumbs, Arkansas was electrocuting people until the 1960s who weren’t working fast enough.
Hutto himself, while this wasn’t a private prison, this was a public prison, when he was running the plantation in Arkansas, he was condemned by federal judges for torture because inmates who would refuse to work in the field would be put in solitary confinement naked for a month.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, tell me something. Now, you spent, like I said earlier, two years in a prison in Iran, and you kind of served four months in a private prison here. And your position is that America’s prisons are worse than the prisons that are being ran in Iran?
SHANE BAUER: I don’t know if I would say that. I mean, I think both places are bad in different ways and it’s hard to say what’s worse. I mean, the prison I was at in Iran was a political prison, I was in there with pro-democracy activists. People were physically tortured, interrogated, we were blindfolded when we left our cells. Whereas Win, the prison, was very chaotic. It was run in a way that was –
EDDIE CONWAY: Win is the one in Louisiana, right?
SHANE BAUER: Winnfield, Louisiana, right. And the company was finding every way it could to cut corners to make a profit. So, that led to very low levels of security staff. For example, there would be 24 or 25 guards for 1500 inmates. There was a higher level of violence there than other prisons as a result, other prisons in Louisiana. Health care was horrible. I met a man who lost his legs and fingers to gangrene because he had been complaining for months, begging to go to the hospital because of severe pain, and the prison would just give him some Motrin and send him back. And by its contract, if it sent people out to a hospital, they would have to pay the bill. So, they were very reluctant to do that. So, prisoners were always telling me, “This place is not like any other place I’ve been in Louisiana, it’s just pure chaos, there’s no structure. It just kind of runs itself.” And it was really violent.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, now, what happened to you? You spent four months there as a guard. Did this have any kind of impact on you, your psyche, et cetera?
SHANE BAUER: Absolutely. I went in, as a former prisoner, really wanting to see what life was like for prisoners in these corporate run prisons. And I thought I’d be kind of just easygoing, stay out of people’s way, and it would be fine. But I really was grappling, at first, with being in the role of a guard. I confiscated a cell phone once, for example, which as a prisoner, I would have died to have a cell phone and I would have never snitched on another prisoner that had one. But I was on the other side now, and it was my job to lock people up every day, to punish people. And I was really struggling with that at first, and I realized that in order to do the job, I really had to kind of turn that part of myself off.
And I saw myself very quickly becoming more and more kind of authoritarian, obsessed with the various problems I had with different prisoners. And I was in a unit of 350 people with one other guard on the floor. So, there was a lot of pressure, prisoners were constantly frustrated that their programs were getting cut or their recreation time was getting cut because there wasn’t enough staff. And I just started feeling, honestly, when I would go home, ashamed of the person I was inside, because it just felt like it was a different person.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, were you aware of the divestment movement now that’s growing across the country? What do you think about it, and is that a solution to stop private prisons?
SHANE BAUER: I mean, it seems to be a lever that regular people, especially students, have. A lot of these decisions about whether to use private prisons are made at pretty high levels, so this is a more direct way to impact the bottom line of the company. And the shares of the company, there are very few just kind of individual people that buy shares in these companies. The vast majority of shares are owned by banks and mutual funds. So, people are kind of targeting shareholders, that’s really who the shareholders are, aside from the executives in the companies themselves.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. So, most private prisons are used for undocumented immigrants or other people. Why should the American public be concerned about what goes on in private prisons, immigrant jails and so on?
SHANE BAUER: I mean, if somebody is not concerned about just the treatment of people in prison, say they just don’t care about that. I mean, the treatment in these places tends to be worse than public prisons, but we put that aside, I think people should understand that most people who are in prison leave prison. And we should be asking ourselves, what is the purpose of this institution? When people are spending years essentially warehoused with a bunch of other men, and they’re just waiting to get out, they come out no better equipped than they were when they went in, to have a kind of productive role in society. And so, we’re going to be still dealing with the same problems.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, all right. So, we’re going to stop here. And I appreciate your time and your insight.
SHANE BAUER: Thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.