Curious about what the inside of a prison is really like? So was award-winning investigative journalist Shane Bauer, who was hired for just $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. He used his real name. There was no significant background check. He lasted four months.
American Prison combines Shane’s firsthand experience as a prison guard with the history of for-profit prisons in America, from their origins in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Shane describes how private prisons became entrenched in the southern United States as part of a systemic effort to continue African-American labor force in the aftermath of slavery, and how the smoke of these origins still lingers today.
What I found most fascinating about American Prison was Shane’s recognition that he was becoming crueler and more aggressive towards the inmates the longer he worked in the prison. In a town where the average family income is $25,000 a year, the prison sees a high turnover rate for staff who often leave to pursue less stressful jobs that pay similar wages. In Winnfield, it isn’t unusual to see a former prison guard working at a fast food restaurant or greeting you as you walk into Walmart.
Guards are trained not to intervene when inmates fight each other, sometimes with handmade weapons, sometimes ending in violent death.
I volunteered at a not-for-profit women’s prison for a couple of years, and this audiobook still shocked me. My relationship with the officers and the inmates was neutral, and despite the occasional complaint from inmates regarding what they considered petty rules and officers not feeling respected by particular inmates, the environment inside the prison did not reflect the animosity, anxiety, and danger that runs rampant in for-profit prisons across the United States.
Shane’s investigation of a broken system is disturbing, gripping, and most importantly, long overdue. The stories of the inmates will stay with you long after finishing the audiobook, and Shane’s own experience of being imprisoned for two years in Iran makes him the perfect person to expose the reality of corporate-run prisons.
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