Shane Bauer is a reporter for Mother Jones. But for four months, he also was a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, one of the nation’s oldest private prisons.
Notice I use the word “also.” Bauer’s stint as a prison guard wasn’t an attempt at a career change. It was his chance to get inside the notoriously opaque private prison industrial complex.
At the time, Winn was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, an industry giant that’s one of America’s largest private prison companies. It runs 61 facilities across the country and has tens of thousands of people in its care – care that’s paid for with tax dollars.
But private prisons don’t have the same disclosure requirements as public prisons. So it goes without saying that the company routinely denies journalists access to its records, premises and prisoners.
As you’ll read in his deeply revelatory investigation, Bauer successfully gained entry and insight into a dangerous world where punishment and control lose meaning. He had to learn the rules fast for a journey that led to knowledge, but at the cost of his self-identity.
I wanted to find out more about this world, its rules and the cultures inside. So I sat down with Bauer to talk about what life is like for people on both sides of the bars.
Prison guard #protips
- Don’t eat food given to inmates.
“It was the head of HR that told us that on the first day of training,” Bauer said. “She basically said, ‘Don’t eat the food,’ because it’s gross. Although a lot of guards did eat those meals because they didn’t have a lot of money.” When Bauer started at Winn, he found the lowest-paid guards made $9 an hour.
“Prisoners who had more money wouldn’t go to chow because nobody liked the food there,” he said. “It was really terrible.”
The inmates he’s referring to were able to skip cafeteria meals because they could afford food from the canteen – a store inside the prison. But it’s no Whole Foods Market. Its inventory consists of mostly snack items such as honey buns, candy and chips.
According to Bauer, the universal disdain for the kitchen food spurred inmates to come up with ways to make their meals better. Some had intricate recipes for cooking ramen and baking cakes in microwaves.
But against advice, Bauer did try the food – he found most of it pretty bland and concurred that it’s “sometimes gross.”
- Don’t have sex with the prisoners.
“This came up in training a good number of times – warning against having sex with inmates,” he said. “I got the sense that it was fairly common.”
Bauer speculated that his instructors were using the no-sex rule to prepare them for the unintuitive task of not relating to the prisoners or having any kind of human connection with them. Intimate relations could complicate the guard and prisoner dynamic and open the door for more bad behavior.
It’s hard to be a guard if you’re relating to prisoners as regular human beings.”
According to Bauer, the biggest fear seemed to be based on the fact that the guards are not paid a lot. That could leave guards more vulnerable to pleas for leniency or offers of money, friendship and intimacy. One of Bauer’s officers made a point to warn his class about how easy it was to be manipulated into sex by an inmate.
- Don’t keep incarcerated family or friends a secret.
“If we saw somebody that we were related to or that we knew, we should let people know.”
And Bauer said he did observe guards who knew prisoners, mostly from childhood. They grew up in the same neighborhood; they were childhood friends.
For the same reasons guards aren’t supposed to start new relationships with inmates, they can’t be assigned to guard people with whom they have previous or established relationships.
- Don’t get sick.
This rule is a bit more straightforward because guards don’t get paid sick time. According to Bauer, guards are given only a certain number of holidays and vacation days. So if someone gets sick, he or she would have to use his or her vacation time or take unpaid time off.
This raised the question of whether the company implemented measures to help keep its staff healthy – such as providing hand sanitizer, tissues or vitamins. Bauer laughed: “No, no measures to keep us healthy.”
- Don’t ever say thank you.
This rule plays into the power dynamic of being a prison guard. Bauer explained that by thanking an inmate for following a command, a guard is treating the inmate as an equal, which his senior officers explicitly warn against.
“They don’t want you to indicate that you see the prisoners as the same as you would see someone else.”
Prisoners’ slice of life
- The living quarters, aka ‘the tiers’
Most of the prisoners at Winn live in open dormitory-style wings that can accommodate up to 44 men. Each inmate has his own bed and locker, and nearby are toilets, a long urinal, sinks and showers. All of this lies behind a locked gate to keep the prisoners confined and off the general floor of a compound.
There’s also a common area where prisoners have access to a microwave, telephone and JPay machine. A JPay machine is a computer inmates can use to send emails to the outside world – for about 30 cents apiece – and buy songs to download to their own JPay portable devices.
- The TV room
Each tier has a TV room, and Bauer noticed that it filled up at 12:30 p.m. on weekdays. That was when it was time for the prison’s most popular show: “The Young and the Restless.”
“I talked to people about it, and one of the reasons seemed to be that for daytime television, (it) was the most you got to see any kind of intimacy.”
And, according to Bauer, the inmates genuinely were into the theater of the soap opera. When counting the prisoners in the TV room, he saw “these tough guys would be talking about whatever drama it was – somebody having an affair with someone else,” he said. “They got really into it.”
- The canteen
Once a week, prisoners could go shopping at the canteen. Cash isn’t allowed in prison, so instead, inmates have special accounts that can be funded by outside family members or wages from doing jobs inside. According to Bauer’s investigation, these wages “may be as little as 2 cents an hour for a dishwasher and as much as 20 cents for a sewing-machine operator at Winn’s garment factory.”
As mentioned earlier, the canteen doesn’t stock the healthiest food. In fact, when Bauer was there, it also sold cigarettes and prisoners were allowed to smoke (they’re not anymore).
Cigarettes are a pretty big commodity in the illicit trading among inmates. Prisoners aren’t supposed to be doing trades, but Bauer said the guards couldn’t stop it, either.
“Canteen day was always such a big day because that was debt-paying time,” Bauer said. “For the guards, that was one of the more difficult days, because people are all trying to get out and do their trades.”
Bauer described the canteen items as currency. Items were assigned a value and used to pay for services such as in-house courier tasks or cooking meals from commissary items.
“There would be guys that would be making these elaborate dishes for other people,” he said. “They would make it in the microwave … it seemed like they were selling it.”
The canteen helps dictate how much something is worth in a trade. “What that cost is, that thing stands for that amount of money,” Bauer said. “So you can get a haircut by a prisoner by giving them ramen packets.”
A package of ramen is worth about a dollar, and it’s a very popular item among inmates.
- The contraband
Although everything sold at the canteen officially is above board, items could be considered illegal if an inmate modified them or used them in certain ways.
For example, Bauer described how some inmates were able to take batteries and make cellphone chargers. “So if you found it kind of packaged that way, that would be considered contraband,” he said.
And believe it or not, food from Winn’s own kitchen could be considered contraband.
“There’s a lot of food that would find its way out of the kitchen, and prisoners would use it to make their own meals,” he said. In his investigation, Bauer listed some of the illegal foods he’d find during searches: hamburger patties, butter, cheese.
More obvious contraband included cellphones and drugs.
- The mail
Bauer spent a few days in the mailroom at Winn, and he read a lot of letters coming in during that shift.
“I was really surprised by how many of them were coming from men who had been in prison at Winn,” he said. “They were sending them to their lovers in Winn.”
The tone of the letters varied, according to Bauer. Some were sad and distraught, while some were really tender – and this surprised him.
“The way that I had thought about intimacy in prison was really all about violence,” he said. “It showed me this other side” – the other side of the rampant sexual assault that does occur in prison.
The letters “showed that there’s a lot of people that really care about each other in there,” he said, “and really miss each other when they move.”
Turning the gaze inward
Bauer now has the unique experience of having been both a prisoner and prison guard.
In 2009, he was one of three Americans hiking along the Iran-Iraq border when they were arrested and detained. He spent two years in an Iranian prison.
Bauer has empathy for people who are incarcerated because of his own experience. And to find himself suddenly on the other side of the bars as a prison guard – to literally walk the walk and talk the talk – was jarring.
There are moments where I caught myself doing things that I remember guards doing with me.”
At times, he wanted to tell the inmates that he once had been imprisoned himself – but of course, he couldn’t. And as time went on, the longer he worked at the prison, the more he found his attitude toward the prisoners changing.
“When I started, I really was trying to be on good terms with everyone and show the prisoners that I wasn’t some hard ass,” Bauer said. “But I quickly found out that there’s people that will take advantage.”
In his story for Mother Jones, Bauer documented his evolution from a new cadet who wanted prisoners to see him as a laid-back guard who deserved their respect to someone increasingly disengaged. “It didn’t take long for me to stop trying to have human interactions with prisoners.”
As the days dragged on and his exhaustion from the job set in, Bauer said his shifts started blurring together. He would get to work still thinking about something that had happened the day before and note which inmates with whom he’d had a hard time. He’d get mired in these conflicts, these mini battles, and start thinking about how to get “one up” on the prisoners.
“At times, I was obsessed about making sure I had power in a situation where there is really no way to have power.”
That lack of power surprised him: “The power that we had was the power of the system. We didn’t have powers as individuals.”
Standing at about 5 feet, 10 inches and weighing a slight 155 pounds, Bauer knew he faced dangers every day at work. “At any moment, if any prisoner decided that they wanted to hurt me, they could.”
On top of the everyday risks all prison guards face, Bauer had a unique one: that someone could find out he was a journalist.
Bauer had used his real name on the job application. Corrections Corporation of America ran a background check, and he was cleared for hire – almost no questions asked. But all it would’ve taken was a simple Google search to reveal Bauer’s current occupation as a reporter for Mother Jones and his own headline-grabbing incarceration.
Bauer said he was most afraid of being found out in the early days of training. In one class, he was called out for taking notes because nobody else was.
After that, the instructor singled him out.
“There was one day where he wrote my name on the board. He asked me my name several times throughout the day. Like (he) kept forgetting and then just wrote it out on the board, ‘Shane Bauer.’ And toward the end of the day, he said to me, ‘You think that I don’t know your name, but I do know your name. It’s just a game I’m playing with you.’ And I was like, ‘He knows.’ I was sure at that moment that he knows. He’s playing with me. It’s over.”
Luckily, nothing happened.
It took awhile for that anxiety to calm down – only to be replaced by a more perpetual worry: “Once I was actually on the job, that fear just transitioned into the daily fears that I had about working there.”
To hear more from Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer and his firsthand account of being a prison guard, check out this episode of Reveal.
Julia B. Chan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @juliachanb.