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by Peter Moskos

July 2, 2016

"My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation"

Shane Bauer researched and wrote an amazingly important article for Mother Jones. (It's a book really, at 35,000 words.) Bauer because a prison guard for a few months, took notes, and wrote about it. It can be that simple. You really should read all this. It's gripping. And big props to Mother Jones for doing real investigative reporting. He became a correctional officer so you don't have to. It's the best thing I've read all year:
If I were not working at Winn and were reporting on the prison through more traditional means, I would never know how violent it is. While I work here, I keep track of every stabbing that I see or hear about from supervisors or eyewitnesses. During the first two months of 2015, at least 12 people are shanked. The company is required to report all serious assaults to the DOC. But DOC records show that for the first 10 months of 2015, CCA reported only five stabbings. (CCA says it reports all assaults and that the DOC may have classified incidents differently.)
I know my field is police. But I wrote a damn book about incarceration. This book of mine, In Defense of Flogging, was favorable reviewed in The Economist and featured in Mother Jones, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Atlantic and seemingly every other publication in the world. My idea even got me a fabulous speaking gig ever at Sydney Opera House's Festival of Dangerous Ideas!

(But no. It didn't sell at all. Why do you ask?)

Here's my point: I give a shit about incarceration in this country. Most people don't. And then those who do care are too busy bitching about police to notice the real harms -- evils even -- that are happening to literally millions of American, just out of sight in our jails and prisons.

Bauer doesn't go into great depth explaining mass incarceration. He doesn't offer massive policy solutions to the war on drugs. He doesn't hide behind sociological theory. What he writes is more basic and all the more powerful. Bauer describes what the hell happens in prison: how it operates, how guards survive, how prisoners survive. Guards are paid $9 an hour (yes, $18,000 a year, though it went up to $10 an hour) and go through minimal training and work 12-hour shifts in one of the world's shittiest jobs. And yes, of course corruption is rampant.

Bauer works at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, a medium-security prison. It's not the nation's best prison nor is it the worst (though it's certainly well below average). But you can't run a prison well. At least not on the cheap. Of course the inmates run the prison. But we knew that, right? And what goes on there -- to both workers and prisoners -- should cause more outrage.

Meanwhile the CEO of the for-profit CCA made $3.4 million dollars in 2015. (19 times the salary of the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.) CCA pinches every penny possible, because every dime not spent on labor or inmates is profit. They're in it for the money. (They also lobby for more prisoners and tougher immigration laws, which is essentially the same thing.)

[Keep in mind that private prison only hold about 8 percent of all prisoners, but there's something particularly horrible about the concept of profiting momentarily from human captivity.]

Because the prison in understaffed and guards poorly paid, they don't break up fights. So prisoners fend for themselves:
He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.
We could try to break up a fight if we wanted, he says, but since we won't have pepper spray or a nightstick, he wouldn't recommend it. "We are not going to pay you that much," he says emphatically. "The next raise you get is not going to be much more than the one you got last time. The only thing that's important to us is that we go home at the end of the day. Period. So if them fools want to cut each other, well, happy cutting."
And this:
One day, I meet a man with no legs in a wheelchair. His name is Robert Scott. (He consented to having his real name used.) He's been at Winn 12 years. "I was walking when I got here," he tells me. "I was walking, had all my fingers." I notice he is wearing fingerless gloves with nothing poking out of them. "They took my legs off in January and my fingers in June. Gangrene don't play. I kept going to the infirmary, saying, 'My feet hurt. My feet hurt.' They said, 'Ain't nothin' wrong wicha. I don't see nothin' wrong wicha.' They didn't believe me, or they talk bad to me—'I can't believe you comin' up here!'"

His medical records show that in the space of four months he made at least nine requests to see a doctor. He complained of sore spots on his feet, swelling, oozing pus, and pain so severe he couldn't sleep. When he visited the infirmary, medical staff offered him sole pads, corn removal strips, and Motrin. He says he once showed his swollen foot, dripping with pus, to the warden. On one of these occasions, Scott alleges in a federal lawsuit against CCA, a nurse told him, "Ain't nothing wrong with you. If you make another medical emergency you will receive a disciplinary write-up for malingering." He filed a written request to be taken to a hospital for a second opinion, but it was denied.

Eventually, numbness spread to his hands, but the infirmary refused to treat him. His fingertips and toes turned black and wept pus. Inmates began to fear his condition was contagious. When Scott's sleeplessness kept another inmate awake, the inmate threatened to kill him if he was not moved to another tier. A resulting altercation drew the attention of staff, who finally sent him to the local hospital.
Of course you could always escape before you lose you limbs. It's not like the guards are paying attention:
Two weeks after I start training, Chase Cortez (his real name) decides he has had enough of Winn. It's been nearly three years since he was locked up for theft, and he has only three months to go. But in the middle of a cool, sunny December day, he climbs onto the roof of Birch unit. He lies down and waits for the patrol vehicle to pass along the perimeter. He is in view of the guard towers, but they've been unmanned since at least 2010. Now, a single CO watches the video feeds from at least 30 cameras.

Cortez sees the patrol van pass, jumps down from the back side of the building, climbs the razor-wire perimeter fence, and then makes a run for the forest. He fumbles through the dense foliage until he spots a white pickup truck left by a hunter. Lucky for him, it is unlocked, with the key in the ignition.

In the control room, an alarm sounds, indicating that someone has touched the outer fence, a possible sign of a perimeter breach. The officer reaches over, switches the alarm off, and goes back to whatever she was doing. She notices nothing on the video screen, and she does not review the footage. Hours pass before the staff realizes someone is missing. Some guards tell me it was an inmate who finally brought the escape to their attention. Cortez is caught that evening after the sheriff chases him and he crashes the truck into a fence.
It is dinnertime, but inmates haven't had lunch yet. A naked man is shouting frantically for food, mercilessly slapping the plexiglass at the front of his cell. In the cell next to him, a small, wiry man is squatting on the floor in his underwear. His arms and face are scraped with little cuts. A guard tells me to watch him.

It is Cortez. I offer him a packet of Kool-Aid in a foam cup. He says thank you, then asks if I will put water in it. There is no water in his cell.
This comes from my book on incareration, In Defense of Flogging:
Years from now, if we’re lucky, future generations will look back to this age of massive incarceration with bemused wonder, seeing it as just another unfortunate blotch on our country’s otherwise noble, democratic ideals. Either that or they will judge us as willing collaborators in an unparalleled atrocity of human bondage. Let us hope for the former.


David Madden said...

Thanks for bringing this up (Mother Jones is not exactly my first choice for news). Police (myself included)tend to shit on COs but none of us have a desire to trade places! The few times I have spent inside a prison have not been pleasant and I cant imagine being stuck in there for 8-12 hours a day as a guard, let alone years at a time.
You're absolutely right, only the worst of the worst belong in prison. I dont care who you are, you will come out of prison much more fucked up than when you went in.

Andy D said...

David, not only that, but despite my general opinion that a damn lot of things in this country should be privatized, prisons are not one of them. Private prisons are some extra scary shit.

Noumenon said...

I was told that this is the same Shane Bauer who was held hostage by Iran with two other "hikers". Weird.

You know, income inequality sucks, but the inequality in "who has to spend all day with dangerous prisoners and mandatory overtime" is much worse.

I thought the story where the two prisoners were stabbing each other, but just a little (Ctrl+F for "worms") was interesting. From Randall Collins' work, I'd say they wanted to get broken up, but if either of them had folded right away, they might have gotten killed.