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Shane Bauer, author of our February pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club, Now Read This, joins Amna Nawaz to answer reader questions on “American Prison,” and Amna announces the March book selection.
Our book club Pick for February is an eye opening account of the private prison industry from journalist Shane Bauer. Bauer spent four months working undercover as a guard at Louisiana's Winn Correctional Center. In "American Prison," Bauer details the corruption and the dysfunction he witnessed at Wynn. He also delves into the long, dark history of for profit incarceration in America. Shane Bauer joins me now in the studio. Welcome to The NewsHour.
Thanks for having me.
So I guess I have to ask you, there's a lot of different ways to report on prisons in America. You can develop sources or pull documents. You decided to go inside undercover. Why did you decide to use that approach?
There's a few reasons. One is that it is very hard to get into prisons. Reporters typically only get into prisons where we get like a kind of scripted tour for maybe an hour or so. And private prisons are even more difficult. So, you know, I wanted to kind of be able to see what was happening inside of these prisons and also really get a sense of the kind of day to day life in a prison, which you just cannot do from reporting from documents.
Well, one of our readers wanted to know a little bit about your process. Dolores Crain of Slidell, Louisiana, writes, if your fear of being uncovered or discovered as an undercover reporter hadn't interrupted your work as a correctional officer, do you think that would have produced a different outcome to your book? In other words, when you're undercover, how do you know when it's time to get out?
When I was considering leaving, there was always this part of me that was like, what's going to happen tomorrow? What if I miss something big, you know? And maybe fortunately for me, the project ended because my colleague from Mother Jones magazine, who I was initially writing for, got arrested trying to take photos of the prison. And they found out I was there. So I had to leave. You know, if it wasn't for that, I don't know how much longer I would've stayed.
In your reporting, you really get into sort of the mindset once you're inside, right? What are the priorities of the for-profit prison industries there? And you actually document cause you had hidden recording devices with you, too. There was one assistant warden you quoted from in there talking about how they treat the people who are incarcerated there. You write, he said, "We want them institutionalized, not individualized. We want them for lack of a better term to feel like a herd of cattle." How did you see that work its way into the everyday workings of the prison?
A bunch of men are in dorms, about 40, 40 guys in a dorm. You know, they come out when it's time to eat. And this is what the warden was saying is, you know, I think he actually said you send them to the pasture and then back to the barn. It was like, you know, you're just moving men from one location to the next. And there was also a lot of pressure on us as guards to take away from prisoners things that gave them a kind of sense of individual identity. You know, some prisoners would make little pieces of clothes for themselves, hats, things like that. And we were supposed to kind of take those things away. A lot of the guards wouldn't actually kind of enforce these rules because they just didn't see it in their interest. You know, when you're a guard making $9 an hour, there's little incentive for you to kind of really, you know, do something like take a piece of clothing for a prisoner when it's going to make the prisoners, you know, angry with you and make your job harder in the end.
You know, we had a couple of reader questions about what your thoughts are on the broader way we treat incarcerated people in America after all this time inside. Linda Maloney of Cameron Park, California wrote in to say, "Forced labor is horrible, but forced idleness is a slow death. What do you think should be provided to occupy prisoners and prepare them for a better future? And along the same lines, there was another question from Paul Alves in Toronto, who wants to know if you found in your research, any example of a penal system that actually does work to rehabilitate people inside?
We have gone so far from that goal that I think that any prison system that is humane or any attempt to kind of get people back on the right track would be so far from what we have that it would be almost unrecognizable. I write about the history of American prisons in my book and a lot of it is about forced labor but like the one reader said, it's now really about forced idleness. We're essentially just warehousing people, that's what we've been doing for the past few decades. People come out after years, sometimes decades of just being housed in these places and are not in any way equipped to kind of deal with the regular world.
What do you think it would take for these institutions to reform their practices? Is it even possible?
Well, specifically regarding private prisons, I don't think it's possible, honestly, because the margin of profit of these companies is not very large. And, you know, the way that they are making money is by cutting corners. So they are, you know, lowering staff, paying staff less, cutting programs, educational programs. The prison I was in was even cutting recreational time just because there weren't staff to, you know, watch prisoners when they're outside, you know. So if states really started to kind of force these companies to come up to the level of service of these already abysmal services of public prisons, they would not be saving money anymore. Their whole reason for existing, that kind of profit motive and the reason that states use them, which is that they save money, would cease to exist.
The book is "American Prison." The author is Shane Bauer. Thanks so much for being here and taking questions from our readers. Thank you.
And you can watch more from this conversation online or on our now read this Facebook page. Before we go, our book club Pick for March is "Inheritence," a memoir by Danny Shapiro about her reckoning with DNA test results that shook her identity to its core. "Inheritance" tackles genealogy, spirituality, ethics and above all else, enduring love. We hope you'll read along with us. Get involved with all of our book club members across the country through our Facebook page and of course, here on the NewsHour, for Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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