The most recent expose of the for-profit corporations that manage criminal justice programs, My Prison Experiment, by Shane Bauer, details his four months as a corrections officer at a prison managed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and it is most definitely not a pretty picture. While it is well established that privately run prisons have a remarkable record of mismanagement, that record has, heretofore, been written in the bureaucratic language of policy reports and official documents. Mr. Bauer spent four months behind the prison walls and has given us first person reportage on the outrageous neglect that is the not-so-secret formula for the obscene profits that these carceral entrepreneurs are making.
Mr. Bauer applied for a position at the Winn Correctional Facility in Winnfield, LA, described as the oldest privately operated medium security prison in the U.S. Mr. Bauer was, in fact, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine. And the conditions Mr. Bauer finds are shocking indeed. Guards are paid only slightly more than the minimum wage, and the turnover rate is faster than a room at a hot-sheets motel. The guards that stick around the longest are often the same ones that are doing a brisk business with the inmates, smuggling in drugs and cell phones. Only two weeks into training, an inmate advises Bauer to go with the flow and smuggle in drugs like the other guards do. Training for new corrections officers amounts to a few hours of classes per day for four weeks. The trainees review the final exam questions before they take the test.
At Winn, Bauer finds a very uneasy, and fluid, relationship between staff and inmates. The understaffing and high turnover means that it is impossible to manage the day to day running of the prison without the collaboration of the inmates, and this means assigning them roles that seem incongruous, such as acting as bodyguards for a female social worker. After Bauer confiscates a cell-phone, he spends days smoothing over the matter with the inmates in order to maintain the relationships that enable him to assert some measure of control; another CO was attacked and hospitalized after he seized a phone.
The ultimate authority at Winn are the commando-like SORT (Special Operations Response Team) units; yet another example of how the criminal justice system apes the militiary. As the security situation at Winn deteriorates during Bauer’s tenure, CCA calls in SORT teams from out of state to restore order, rather than hire more regular COs. Presumably CCA determined that their chosen course of action was more cost-effective. During the first ten months of 2015, when the SORT operations were in full swing, Winn reported “twice as many immediate uses of force as the 8 other Louisana prisons combined,” according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Any pretense at rehabilitating inmates and preparing them to reenter society—like job training, for instance— vanishes into thin air or, more accurately, migrates to the bottom line of CCA. You see, CCA is paid a flat rate per prisoner and any costs that are “saved” become profits. And the State of Louisiana guarantees that it will keep Winn at 96 percent of its capacity or pay CCA the difference. Infrastructure needs, such as fixing the toilets that routinely back up and flood the wards with sewage, are foregone in the name of efficiency. Such is the magic of the free market and the invisible hand. Bauer tells us that CCA, and its competitor GEO, have contracts that cover hundreds of facilities that house about 136,000 inmates, or 8% of the total prison population in America.
The most disturbing aspect of Bauer’s story is what happens to himself, and his attitude towards the inmates, in the pressure cooker of a prison that is spinning out of control. With the inmates constantly acting out for any number of reasons—to protest conditions, to manipulate the relaxation of some regulation, to gain an advantage in the underground prison economy, or reacting spontaneously to the despair of their sentence—the COs are under extreme pressure to maintain at least the façade of control. To project the appearance of authority, and against his better nature, Bauer finds himself raging at prisoners and threatening harsh punishments and physical harm, even though he has no genuine stake in maintaining the balance of power. This same cognitive shift was found in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, and was encapsulated in Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where else, other than prison, do men hold such power over others, the power to tell them when to sleep, when to wake, when to eat?
And what can we say of the role of a corporation in the running of a prison, with all the inherent potential for abuse? The corporation, and its officeholders and board members, have the fiduciary responsibility to make money for the stockholders. Is it possible to reconcile that duty with the moral duty to provide humane care for the inmates who are under their absolute control? Can a corporation keep an eye on the bottom line, while respecting the line between right and wrong that is so essential in a coercive environment? I, for one, think it is not possible and Mr. Bauer’s brave and honest reporting tells us so.