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Jun 25, 2016

The man inside: Four months as a prison guard

Co-produced with PRX Logo

UPDATE, May 20, 2017: The Barack Obama-era decision to phase out federal use of corporate-run prisons no longer stands. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed course on private prisons.

Corrections Corporation of America has since changed its name to CoreCivic and continues to run private prisons around the country. We revisit our hour with Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer who goes inside one of these prisons. An updated version of the original episode can be heard on this page.​

UPDATE, Sept. 3, 2016: This week, Reveal revisits an hour with Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer inside a private prison on lockdown. We take an unfiltered look at America’s private corrections industry and follow up on some big news from the Department of Justice. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.

Prisons are almost impossible for reporters to get inside, and few people know what life inside is like for inmates and guards. But one journalist cracked the shell of secrecy by getting a job as a prison guard. He witnessed cost-cutting measures and reported safety concerns affecting prisoners and staff. On this episode of Reveal, we take an unprecedented look inside the multibillion-dollar private prison industry.

Welcome to the hellhole

Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer gets a job as a guard at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The prison is run by the private company Corrections Corporation of America, and over four months, he investigates how the prison is run. Shane buys a pen that doubles as an audio recorder and a watch that takes video. Shane makes it through training and ends up guarding suicide watch on day one of the job, documenting everything he can.

Lockdown

Shane witnesses stabbings, beatings and prisoners threatening to riot inside a private prison on lockdown. The conditions inside Winn Correctional Center, and his duties there as a guard, are getting the better of him.

Man down

The prison life is relentless: Shane meets a prisoner who contracted gangrene at Winn and lost his legs and fingers as a result. However, an unexpected offer and a twist of fate change Shane’s status as a guard.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: Shane Bauer’s full investigation for Mother Jones
  • Examine: What life is like for people on both sides of the bars

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ezekiel Honig, “Porchside Prologue” from “Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band” (Anticipate)
  • Ezekiel Honig, “Porchside Economics” from “Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band” (Anticipate)
  • Ezekiel Honig + Morgan Packard, “Hibernate” from “Early Morning Migration” (Microcosm)
  • Untitled 01, “Steven R. Smith” from “Live at Smith's Home Studio on Daniel Blumin's Show on 10/12/2008” (WFMU)
  • Tom Carter, “For 4 Cs” from “Live on WFMU's Airborne Event”
  • All other selections: original music by Jim Briggs (Cut-Off Man Records)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al [inaudible 00:00:05].
It's a foggy morning in November 2014. Shane Bauer, a wiry 30 something with a goatee and glasses wakes up in his cramped apartment in rural Louisiana. He's nervous and anxious. Today is the day he's been preparing for weeks. He's about to start his new job as a guard in a private prison.
Shane Bauer: Winn Correctional Center is in the middle of the Kisatchie National Forest. It's basically a forest of yellow pines cross-hashed with brick roads. You drive through this forest and the forest clears and you see what kind of looks like a factory, a very utilitarian type building. Some guard tower, barbed wired. It's a tough prison.
Al Letson: Guards like Shane don't carry weapons. It's not long before he starts getting death threats from inmates.
Shane Bauer: They're sort of threatening to riot. They're saying to us, "If you don't let us out of here, we're going to put this prison on the news."
Al Letson: The news is something Shane is pretty familiar with. He's a reporter for Mother Jones Magazine and he spent 4 months working at Winn Correctional Center to find out what life inside a private prison is really like.
Shane Bauer: Prisons, generally, are very hard to get access to. Private prisons, in particular, are even more secretive.
Al Letson: That includes Winn. It's run by a Correction Corporation of America or CCA, a private company that routinely turns away journalists and refuses to release records that government-run prisons would be required to share.
Shane Bauer: I decided that I really wanted to have a completely unfiltered look where I'm not getting all the information through a prison spokesperson or a company spokesperson or a prisoner that might have a reason to lie or to bend the truth.
Al Letson: Shane buys a pen that doubles as an audio recorder and a watch that takes videos. He also has a notepad to jot down his observations. Shane documents everything he can and most nights after his shift, he goes back to his apartment, sets up his camera on a tripod, and talks about his day.
Shane Bauer: It's crazy being a prison and it's also [inaudible 00:02:27] crazy to feel like I'm this infiltrator. If they find out, they're going to be pissed.
Al Letson: Through recordings, interviews with Shane, other guards and inmates, we're going to take you inside Winn Correctional Center. This is not a story for young listeners.
The US locks up more people than any other country on Earth. We have about 5% of the world's population and more than 20% of it's prison population. To deal with that overcrowding, the US turned to private prisons. Those private companies make big money. CCA, the company that runs the prison where Shane gets a job takes in $1.9 billion a year. That's billion with a B. Its stock is traded on Wall Street. What does that mean for inmates and guards when a for-profit company is running things? That's what we're going to find out with Shane. We begin on the day he applied for the job.
Shane Bauer: Basically I went on the website of the Corrections Corporation of America and filled out an application, sent it off, and that was that.
Al Letson: Shane put his real name on the application and the Foundation for National Progress as his current employer. That's the publisher of Mother Jones.
Shane Bauer: They did do a criminal background check as part of the process but I'm guessing they didn't use Google.
Al Letson: If they had Googled him, they would've found out who Shane is. An author who co-wrote a book about the 2 years he spent in an Iranian prison and a reporter who's covered police militarization, the Middle East, and prisons so his chances of getting a job with CCA seems like a stretch.
Shane Bauer: To be honest with you, I didn't think it was going to happen.
Al Letson: But a few weeks after he clicks apply, Shane gets word. He's hired. He passes his physical and drug test and gets a white polyester button down shirt and slate gray pants. To blend in, he picks up a camouflage baseball cap from a thrift store and buys a beat up Dodge Ram pickup truck.
Shane Bauer: The first time that I went in there, I was very nervous. When I got to the entrance of the prison, there was a security check and I had to turn off the truck, get out of the truck. I had audio equipment just laying on the seat and a dog came and sniffed the truck and my heart was pounding this whole time and I thought that was it but the dog smelled the passenger side, came around to the driver side, smelled it, and they let me go.
Al Letson: When training begins, Shane joins a group of cadets in a concrete block building just outside the prison. Classroom walls are white and flatly lit with overhead florescent lights, a red, white, and blue CCA logo is painted on the wall, and in bold letters above a dry erase board, it says "Excellence in Corrections."
Shane Bauer: We went over things like CPR, policies on the use of force. We're taught what to do if we see inmates fighting or violence. We were basically told to just tell them to stop and call for backup.
Al Letson: That backup comes from the SORT team. CCA's version of SWAT unit rolling through wind like storm troopers. They're the only ones who carry any kind of weapon. In training, one of Shane's instructors is the captain of the SORT team.
Shane Bauer: He told us basically the protocol in that prison is to verbally tell them to stop and that's it. Back out, lock the room, and as he said, "Let them cut each other up." I was really surprised by that. What he said was, "You don't make a lot of money. The next time you get a raise, it's not going to be for much so it's not worth it."
Al Letson: All of the guards have something in common, they need a job, even one that doesn't pay much.
Shane Bauer: Private prisons in generally these companies like the Corrections Corporations of America, their main argument is, "Look, we can save the state money. We can do this cheaper than the state can do it." The main way that they save money is in staffing. At state run prisons, guards were making $12.50 an hour. At this prison, they were making $9 an hour.
Al Letson: That's less than $19,000 a year.
Shane Bauer: There was a lot of single moms working as prison guards and at the Wal-Mart, they couldn't get more than 39 hours to qualify for benefits and at this job they could. In training, one of the trainers said, "If you're breathing and you have a driver's license and are willing to work, we're willing to hire you." They were really desperate for employees.
Al Letson: As training continues, cadets learn basic self-defense, how to put on shackles. They also get sprayed with tear gas so they know what it feels like.
Shane Bauer: We just had to stand there as this cloud wafted into our faces. I thought I was going to throw up. I wanted to throw up but couldn't. I couldn't breathe. It was nasty.
Al Letson: Winn has tear gas training because the SORT team uses a lot of chemical agents. Tear gas and other chemical sprays are the way they maintain order. If a riot breaks out, tear gas. Fighting or stabbing, pepper spray. These are the go-to non-lethal weapons.
Shane Bauer: After I left Winn, through some public records requests with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, I found that over the first 4 months of 2015, which is when I was there, Winn reported using chemical agents like pepper spray and tear gas 79 times. That's 7 times more frequent than Angola prison which is the maximum security prison in Louisiana. It was more than any prison by far in the rest of the state.
Al Letson: Shane and the other cadets also spent time in the prison as part of their training.
Shane Bauer: I went in with my group of cadets. We're walking as a group and some of the prisoners are eyeing with the female guards, making comments. I'm trying to be friendly, say hello to them, but also not seem too friendly, and trying to not seem afraid really is what I'm focusing on because I am.
Al Letson: Winn is a medium security prison but it's a rough place. More than half of the inmate are in for violent crimes.
Shane Bauer: I'm about 5'10, weight 155 pounds. Not a big guy. I was really hitting the gym hard before I went there. I tried to do whatever I could to bulk up but it didn't have a great effect. When you go into the prison, you see a lot of inmates that spend hours every day working out. They have nothing else to do. It's very clear that if anything's going to go down even if it's just one-on-one, I'm not coming out on top.
Al Letson: Shane's very aware of all of this when he and other trainees make their way down the walk, the main outdoor artery of the prison. The cadets travel up the middle lane from the administration building as prisoners move down their designated sidelanes.
Shane Bauer: We walked down this narrow walkway fenced in and as we got close to it, I could hear, from inside the building, shouting.
Al Letson: Cadets are about to enter the segregation unit. It's like solitary confinement except in most cases 2 prisoners share one cell that's 8 feet wide and 8 feet long.
Shane Bauer: The door opened and it was just this concoughany inside of ... Doors banging, people yelling, screaming. It was just ... Felt really chaotic. The reason that they took us there was to show us suicide watch. We got to the gate of this unit and the guard on staff opened the gate and said to us, "Welcome to the hell hole. Welcome to the dungeon."
Al Letson: After 4 weeks, Shane graduates to become a full-fledged corrections officer or CO. His first day on the job, he returns to suicide watch. There're 2 cells covered in plexiglass. Shane's job is to watch the inmates and take notes every 15 minutes.
Shane Bauer: One of the guys that I'm watching for hours is staring at me and masturbating. I'm telling him to stop. That only encourages him and it's like we're all stuck in this situation that we really don't want to be in. It's miserable.
Al Letson: Suicide watch is the only place at Winn where one guard is watching just 2 inmates. That is expensive. The mental health director tells Shane the sparse conditions are supposed to be a deterrent so people won't want to be on suicide watch. In other words, they make it as unpleasant as possible.
Shane Bauer: People bang on the plexiglass, sometimes begging for more food.
Al Letson: CCA says inmates on suicide watch gets just as many calories as everyone else. But that's not what Shane saw.
Shane Bauer: Prisoners on suicide watch have different meals than the rest of the inmates. They get what are called Suicide Bags which are basically a brown bag lunch that has one bologna sandwich, one peanut butter sandwich, 6 carrot sticks, and 6 apple sticks. When you add that up, the amount of calories come to significantly less than what the USDA recommends for most men.
Al Letson: Damien Costly is another inmate Shane guards on suicide watch that day. He's a super thin young African American man. He's in for murder and is wrapped up in his suicide blanket, a thin tear-proof garment that doubles as a smock. It's the only think allowed inside a suicide watch cell besides toilet paper. No reading material and no mattress. Just a steel bunk.
Shane Bauer: He's saying if I don't move, he's going to get up on his top bunk, jump off the bed, and break his neck.
Al Letson: Damien is frequently in and out of suicide watch. Some of the other guards say he's faking but getting a professional opinion isn't easy. There's just one psychologist and one psychiatrist, both part time and a full time social worker for 1500 inmates.
Shane Bauer: He tells me he's having mental emergencies which I report but it takes about 6 hours for a psychiatrist to show up and talk to him. They talk through the bars for a couple of minutes.
Al Letson: This is your first day?
Shane Bauer: Yeah. Yeah.
Al Letson: Were you shocked by that?
Shane Bauer: I was very shocked. It was really kind of an awakening. It's like, "Okay. I'm really starting this. I'm going to be in this every day."
Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05]
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: Coming up, day two and beyond.
Shane: Today, I lost it. I snapped. I had an explosion of anger that I don't remember the last time I had.
Al: This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. What happens when private companies run prisons for the government? That's what journalist Shane Bauer of Mother Jones Magazine wanted to find out. Today, we've been hearing about his job as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. It's run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, a company whose CEO makes 3.4 million dollars a year, nearly 19 times what the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes. Shane, on the other hand, is bringing home 9 bucks an hour. It's low pay and long hours. Shane worked there for 4 months, each day, going to work gets harder. Before we pick up the story, we want to warn you that this episode contains graphic language and violence, and is not appropriate for all listeners.
Shane: I'm pulling in, parking my truck, and it's like I'm taking this big breath that I'm holding for 12 hours. I walk in, go through security, get patted down, put my things through an x-ray machine. The gate closes, clangs behind you, and it just feels like you're stepping into a very dark world.
Al: Winn is made up of 5 units that house 350 inmates each. They're one story brick buildings where prisoners sleep and spend most of their days.
Shane: The units that the prisoners live in are cement brick, kind of a harsh fluorescent lighting, shiny cement floor, they smell like a shirt that has been worn for several days by a smoker. They're not allowed to smoke inside, but that rule is not really enforced.
Al: The 5 units are all named after trees. They're known for housing different types of inmates. Birch holds a lot of disabled prisoners. Cypress is the segregation unit where inmates are held in locked cells. Dogwood is where better behaved inmates live.
Shane: Then there were Ash and Elm units. Those units, the inmates called them the projects. Amongst the general population units, they were where some of the harder inmates were. Ash is the unit that I worked in.
Al: Even though Shane is a journalist, he's also a guard. That means acting like one. One day, the unit manager in Ash tells him to search the common areas.
Shane: We're looking around. I look under a water fountain and I see a cell phone. There are inmates watching us, so I know that if I pull this phone out, they're all going to know I took it. I'm creating problems for myself, making my job harder. At the same time, my job is to take the phone. I take the phone. That day, after I took the phone, we walk down the tier and count everybody. Everybody was giving me the meanest look.
Al: A tier is like a dorm. Each unit has 8 of them. They're big open rooms with beds lining the walls. There are open showers, open toilets, with a low wall for privacy. Each tier and the 44 prisoners that live there, are enclosed behind a large metal gate. Shane guards all 8 tiers of Ash unit with his partner.
Bakel: Hello, my name is Dave Bakel. I'm 62 years old.
Al: Bakel doesn't look cut out for guard duty. He's heavy set with glasses that look like wood shop protective wear. Bakel is counting the days until his Social Security kicks in to supplement his retirement checks from the coast guard.
Shane: I spent a lot of time with him. He would tell me about civil war re-enactments he would go to, the old westerns that he read. He became my teacher of sorts. When I got out of training, I didn't feel ready for the job. I didn't feel equipped. Bakel basically showed me the ropes.
Al: Inmates say when Bakel gets mad, he sounds like Yosemite Sam.
Bakel: I hate all this God damn paper work. Fuck it! God damn!
Al: It's Shane and Bakel, his aging, often friendly, and occasionally hot headed partner, as the only floor officers for 350 inmates.
Shane: There is a lot of time that I'm just standing at the bars. I'm on one side of the bars. The prison is on the other side. We're just talking. You're just there, living with these guys for 12 hours a day.
The thing is, I'm not one of these 18 year olds they got running around here.
I started to realize that the bulk of prisoners in my unit were just trying to do their time.
Cornerstore: I want to be able to go outside in my shorts and my house slippers and stand in the rain. The things I miss, you can't do that here.
Al: That's Cornerstore. He's an African American inmate who is 37 but looks 55. His hair is scraggly. His uniform tattered, his face puffy, he's been in wind for more than 10 years. Behind bars, half his life. He's afraid of retribution from other inmates and staff, so we aren't using his real name.
Cornerstore: I have to just go have fun. That doesn't mean me getting in trouble for it. What it means is enjoy life. I want to be able to take my mother for some shoes. Walk in the sand.
Al: Cornerstore is eager to do his time and leave. Shane gets along with him and many of the other inmates, but not with all of them.
Shane: There's a set of prisoners that I'm constantly clashing with.
Inmate: What did you do?
Shane: I [inaudible 00:20:08] around.
Inmate: You better not do it.
Shane: It was really startling to me how quickly I changed. When I start, I'm really trying to be friendly. An easy going guard.
Inmate: Other people will piss you off, I understand that.
Shane: I can't step over.
It didn't take long for me to be dealing with people that were kind of taking advantage of me. Would push me too far. I start writing people up a lot. Showing people that I wasn't weak and that became my mission in a way.
I already wrote it up. It has your name on it. I already wrote it up.
Inmate: When?
Shane: Yesterday.
Inmate: No you didn't.
Al: At the beginning of Shane's 8th week at Winn, he walks into Ash unit and is hit with the smell of human waste. In one of the dorms, brown liquid is oozing out of the shower drain. Inmates tell Shane there are worms squirming on the floor. Shane and the other COs start letting inmates out into the yard when Bakel slams the gate closed. He calls on the radio "Code Blue, inmate assault in progress". Shane runs to the gate.
Shane: Break it up! Come on.
There are 2 guys that are basically grappling. They are separated from me and Bakel by the bars.
Bakel: Break it up. Come on. Come on.
Shane: They're both trying to hold each other off. They both have shanks in their hands.
Al: A shank is a handmade knife.
Shane: They are trying to prevent the other person from being able to swing up and stab down. When I was in training, our instructor told us, "Let them cut each other. Stand there, tell them to stop, and call for back up." We don't intervene, we just shout for them to stop.
Knock it off. Come on.
There's a bunch of inmates standing around, just quietly watching. It feels almost mundane. At one point, one of them breaks his arm free and swings up and jabs down into the other guy's neck.
Fuck, man.
I guess he hit his ear. He cut off a piece of his earlobe. There's really nothing I can do except call on my radio. We're just standing there. We didn't have pepper spray. We didn't have billy clubs. All we had was a radio. Even the radios were new. 6 months before I was there, the guards didn't even have radios.
Weapons involved in Ash A2.
Al: The fight lasts for about 4 minutes until someone from SORT, or the Special Operations Response Team, shows up.
SORT: Everybody lay down.
Al: They are the only ones who carry weapons and ammo, like plastic buckshot, electrified shields, and pepper spray.
Shane: He sprays the guys that are stabbing each other and that's it. Cuffs them and takes them out.
In the first 4 months of 2015, CCA reported 200 weapons found at Winn. That's 23 times more than were found at Angola, which is a maximum security prison.
Al: Why are there so many more weapons at Winn? Well Shane says they didn't have the staff to constantly search for them.
Shane: Every day, when I came in for my shift, we would have a meeting. I would count how many people were there. Sometimes there would be 24 guards there for 1500 inmates. There often were not enough staff to keep the prison running the way it was supposed to.
Al: CCA later told Shane he was too low on the totem pole to understand their staffing policies. The company's contract with Louisiana spells it out pretty clearly. They're supposed to have 36 guards show up for work at 6:00 AM every day.
Shane: One day, the inmates are coming back from chow. I'm inside the unit and my work partner Bakel starts yelling "Code Blue" outside, which means two inmates are fighting. I run out there and a bunch of inmates are holding one guy up against the fence, who seems to be the attacker. This young white guy is rolling around in the ground crying.
We're going to take care of you. Calm down.
What I find out later is that the young white guy is this other man's punk. What that means in prison is that they have a sexual relationship. He is the subservient one. The other guy is called his old man. I don't know if he was trying to avoid this man or what the reason was. As soon as his old man saw him, he beat him with a lock in a sock. This guy gets taken to the infirmary and a little while later, he is back in the unit. He has 2 choices. He can either go to protective custody, which is back in segregation, or he can go on the tier where inmates have threatened him. Now at Winn, guards don't turn a blind eye to overt rate, but they do accept the more systemic abuse of punks. By going back on the tier, he is assuming this risk that he might become someone else's punk. To him, segregation is so bad that he decides to stay on the tier.
Inmates would tell me constantly that Winn was more violent than other prisons they'd been to.
Cornerstore: Winn has no control. They have no control over security, whatsoever.
Al: That's Cornerstore again.
Cornerstore: Forced fighting and stabbings, it doesn't surprise me no more, after you've seen it so long.
Al: Prisoners and guards agree about that.
Jennifer: Winn is hell in a canyon.
Al: Jennifer Callahan is in her 30s, and like most guards at Winn, she's African American. It was her job to keep tabs on the entire unit from inside an octagonal control room called the key, watching feeds of the unit's surveillance cameras.
Jennifer: I left Winn because I had so many incidence where I could have been in the hospital probably right today. We was having them stabbings going on, so I felt like it was best for me to leave. It's a bad place.
Shane: In the first 2 months I was there, I knew of at least 12 stabbings that had occurred. When I got the data from the Department of Corrections, it showed that CCA had only reported 5 stabbings in a 10 month period. They weren't reporting all the stabbings.
Male: I feel like my luck was running out. All the [inaudible 00:28:01] going on, stabbings.
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05]
Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:52:09] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Dave Bakel: ... because of all the [inaudible 00:28:03] going on, the stabbings. That is being kind of hazardous to your health.
Al Letson: Shane's work partner, Dave Bakel.
Dave Bakel: I wish there had been more officers on the floor, wait for the supervisor, anybody else to get there. It took a few minutes. Just wasn't enough back up.
Shane Bauer: The warden, the higher level staff at the prison, they didn't have a lot of control over it. They want more staff. They can't raise the pay themselves. That is a decision made by the corporate office in Nashville, Tennessee. They're having to think about shareholders and the bottom line.
Al Letson: Since almost everything that happens at the prison requires guards, fewer guards means fewer programs for prisoners.
Shane Bauer: A lot of programs got cut. There used to be welding classes, there used to be hobby shops. There used to be work crews. That got cut because there wasn't enough staff to keep it running. Most of the inmates are sitting in the dorm all day long.
Al Letson: Getting bored, frustrated, and angry. They can only take it out on each other and guards like Shane.
Shane Bauer: Tension gets really high. People start threatening me. People start fighting with each other. This is ongoing. Stabbings are becoming more and more frequent. One day, there were a couple of stabbings that occurred in the prison. I came to work the following day, and the prison was on lock down.
Al Letson: The inmates don't have access to the canteen, where they can buy things like snacks, toiletries, and tobacco.
Inmate: The solution to the problem here is lock everybody down. You would think that somebody with a college education would be smart enough to understand I'm not solving the problem by putting people on lock down.
Shane Bauer: As the days pass, tension rises. People are really frustrated because they're cooped up in these dorms. They can't go outside. They start threatening to riot. They're saying to us, "If you don't let us out of here, we're going to put this prison on the news." They're saying things like, "You guys are treating us like animals. We don't have soap. We've been on lock down. We're not going to take it anymore." I remember one inmate says to me personally, "We're going to get you." I'm scared and trying very hard not to appear scared. We're just waiting.
Al Letson: This goes on for 11 days.
Shane Bauer: I was fully a guard at that point. I had problems with a good amount of inmates, so when it got to that point, you really start thinking about that. I know there's a good amount of people in this unit that probably wouldn't mind hurting me if they got the chance.
Al Letson: The company sends in a SORT tactical team from prisons around the country.
Shane Bauer: These guys basically show up to crack down. The prison on lock down, they are going unit by unit, tearing it up, searching for everything.
Al Letson: In the morning meeting, the assistant warden tells Shane and the rest of the guards.
Shane Bauer: These are guys who's job is to use force. He actually says to us, pain increases the intelligence of the stupid. If these inmates want to get stupid, then we'll use some pain to increase their intelligence level.
Al Letson: In just 2 days, the SORT team turns up 75 shanks. An out of state warden comes in to talk down the prisoners. Winn ends the lock down, and the SORT team finally escorts the inmates to the canteen.
Winn is understaffed, and that means Shane and some of the other guards are working over time on top of their normal 12 hour shifts. Shane barely has time to drive home, sleep, eat, and turn around. He also tries to keep his video journal going.
Shane Bauer: Today I lost it. I snapped. I had an explosion of anger that I don't remember the last time I had.
There was one day when we were doing count. Basically the prison stops, the inmates are sitting on their beds, and we count them. You are walking a catwalk in between them. 44 guys at a time. After I pass somebody, people will be making these comments. The kind of things that sexual predators say. They're talking about my ass. They're talking about things they're going to do to me. Talking about how tight my pants are. Anything. I'm walking down the tier, and somebody makes a comment about how I walk, saying that I have a twist in my walk. Somebody says something about my panties. Then a guy starts singing. He's singing, "You like that dick. You like that dick." When he says that, I stop. For some reason, I don't know why. That is the last straw. I turn around and I say, "What did you say?" He says, "I didn't say anything." I just burst. I just start shouting at him. I'm saying, "Why are you guys saying this stuff to me all the time? Maybe you're the one who likes dick." I asked for this guy's ID. He won't give me his ID. "I'm writing you up." I'm shouting at him. Shouting. I feel out of control. As I start cooling down, I feel very ashamed. I'm thinking to myself, I'm not homophobic. Why would I say something like that? I'm just really embarrassed.
Al Letson: More of life inside Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana with reporter Shane Bauer, when we come back.
Shane Bauer: The guard mind is getting stronger. It's kind of entrenching itself day by day.
Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we're hearing Shane Bauer's story. He's a journalist from Mother Jones Magazine, working as a guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. The private prison is run by a large company called Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, which made 221 million dollars in net income last year. Shane's been there for a few months, and is guarding Ash unit at Winn, one of the more violent sections of the prison, when he hears ...
Shane Bauer: Inmates basically called men down from the tier. I ran over to the tier. There's a guy who is on his bed, just in serious pain. He is holding his chest and he is kind of moaning. The inmates said that he, earlier that day, had been to the infirmary because he collapsed while playing basketball. That they had told him that he had fluid in his lungs. They sent him back to the unit.
Male Inmate: He got some water in his lungs or something.
Shane Bauer: We got a stretcher coming right now.
Now he is collapsed again. I radio for help, and they come with the stretcher. Hours later, he's back again. He's asking to go to a doctor to go to a hospital. They weren't sending him. I asked a nurse about this. It was like, "I've seen this guy. He's almost passed out. He's in serious pain." She said, "The doctor and I can't send him to the hospital just for that."
He's going to the infirmary and they won't send him to the hospital.
Female: He's been to the hospital.
Shane Bauer: He hasn't been to the hospital.
Female: I thought they sent him to the hospital.
Shane Bauer: No, just the infirmary.
It seemed common for nurses or doctors to assume that prisoners were faking their ailments, which prisoners did do. There were a good number of people who did have serious issues that weren't getting addressed. One person that I met was named Robert Scott, who didn't have legs and most of his fingers were missing.
How long have you been in the wheelchair?
Robert: March.
Shane Bauer: Really? Less than a year? Wow. That must be a hard adjustment.
He had been writing grievances and going to the infirmary repeatedly, saying he was having pain in his legs. At some point, he was not able to sleep. He would just sit in a chair because he was in so much pain. He would pass out and just fall over onto the floor.
Robert: They would never take me because there's nothing wrong with me.
Al Letson: Robert says he once showed his swollen foot dripping with puss to the warden. His fingertips and toes eventually turned black. His medical records show that he asked to see a doctor 9 times over 4 months. When he visited the infirmary, the medical staff offered him Motrin. He said they refused to treat him.
Shane Bauer: When an inmate goes to a hospital, for a serious condition, CCA has to foot the bill for that.
Al Letson: Eventually, he had to have his legs and fingers amputated.
Shane Bauer: People threaten me pretty much every day.
Al Letson: This is from Shane's video diary.
Shane Bauer: I'm worried about it. I don't want to get stabbed. This guy's on this tier who's threatened me. Someone just threatened to stab us today. It just feels like this whole thing is coming to a head.
Al Letson: One day, the captain calls Shane into his office. Shane's nervous. This has never happened before. Shane walks through the prison to the administrative office where he finds the captain sitting alone at his desk. He has something serious to discuss. Shane's performance review. The captain says Shane has a knack for this kind of work. Not long after his review ...
Shane Bauer: I was offered a promotion. I was told that I could have either become a sergeant or a corrections counselor.
Al Letson: Before Shane can decide whether he wants to take the promotion and stay, something else happens that will change everything. His colleague, James West, comes to Winnfield to help document Shane's experience as a prison guard.
James: Reframed. I'm rolling Shane, so just take your time. Whenever you're ready. Why private prisons in America as a subject?
Shane Bauer: The reason that I'm going into a private prison is ...
James: James interviews Shane and also films around the town.
Shane Bauer: He decided that he wanted to go back to the prison and get a night shot of the prison. I went home because I had to work the next day.
Al Letson: It gets really late. Shane falls asleep and James still isn't back at the apartment. It turns out James had been spotted taking pictures near Winn. When he gets back later, authorities have set up a check point.
Shane Bauer: They stop him, they take him out of his vehicle.
Sheriff: When you get around to prison, you don't fuck around.
Shane Bauer: Police body cameras captured the scene that night.
Sheriff: You got pictures of this prison on that camera?
James: [inaudible 00:39:50]
Al Letson: James, in a striped t-shirt, is surrounded by guys from the prison's tactical team, wearing black ride gear. A spotlight in high beams from the squad car light up the empty country road.
Sheriff: You got it on the SD card? Let me see.
James: No sir, I'm not going to show you that.
Al Letson: The sheriff is questioning him. He wants to see what's on James' camera.
Sheriff: We'll take everything you got.
Al Letson: James reaches for the camera. The sheriff grabs his arm.
James: You can't take my camera. I know that.
Sheriff: You want to take the SD card out? Or you want to go with us?
James: I don't want to give you that stuff.
Sheriff: You don't have to. If you don't want to give it to me, I will take it.
Al Letson: James refuses to give it up. The sheriff arrests him.
James: What am I being arrested for?
Sheriff: Trespassing. Now go ahead and put your hands behind your back.
James: Sir, please. I'm cooperating.
Sheriff: No you're not.
James: How am I not cooperating?
Sheriff: You the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law. You have the right to have ...
Shane Bauer: Of course I call my editors right away. Our lawyers get on it and try to get him out as soon as we can.
Al Letson: Shane leaves his apartment and spends the night in a hotel.
Shane Bauer: Check, one, two, three.
Al Letson: ... where he records this video diary entry.
Shane Bauer: It's been almost 24 hours since James was arrested. He is in the Winn Parrish County Jail. I've been basically running on adrenaline for the last 24 hours and hardly slept. Really worried about James.
Al Letson: Shane figures he's next.
Shane Bauer: First thing in the morning, I get up and ship away all of my files. Anything that has to do with reporting. James is let out and basically pack up the apartment and drive straight to Texas.
Diana: This is Diana.
Shane Bauer: Hi Ms. Diana. This is CO Bauer. I'm actually calling because I've decided to resign.
Diana: Oh that's too bad. I hate to hear that. What's the reason for resignation?
Shane Bauer: I felt like in the end, I realized that it wasn't working out for me.
Al Letson: Shane makes it back to California and starts writing his story. He keeps researching Corrections Corporation of America, now from the outside. He files public records requests. He talks to prison officials, inmates, and lawyers. Then months after he leaves Winn Correctional Center, Shane returns to Winnfield, Louisiana. Shane's first visit is with his former partner Dave Bakel.
Shane Bauer: What's going on, Bakel? Good to see you. How you doing? You got some hair.
Al Letson: Bakel's hair is grown out, long enough to pull back in a ponytail, since Shane last saw him.
Dave Bakel: Well, as I call it, living here in Hicksville, USA, there's not a whole lot of jobs here. When I first started out there, it was 8 something an hour. You could wind up being there 10 years, and still be making the same wage. To me, it's just not right.
Al Letson: He says it got so bad, that he quit.
Dave Bakel: I'll say, the last 18 months, I was in the middle of 3 stabbings. One there at Elm Gate, and 2 in Ash.
Al Letson: Now, Bakel works as a janitor at a lumbermill. He says Winn used to be a better place to work when inmates had access to vocational programs like the hobby shop.
Dave Bakel: In the hobby shop, I'd have a little table saw going. Hear a router going. To me, that's music in my ears. I'm all for work programs, because it gives them something to do instead of just sitting there and figuring out to do something to make your day miserable. If they're occupied, they ain't occupied to think how to make it miserable for you.
Cornerstore: You don't have anything to do there going to find something to do. If you don't want to give them recreational purposes, they have only one other means of recreation. It's fighting.
Al Letson: That's Cornerstore again. We met him earlier in the show when he was an inmate. Now, after 18 years behind bars, he's a free man. It's a sunny afternoon at a Baton Rouge park on the edge of the Mississippi River. Today, he's touching the water for the first time.
Cornerstore: That's the river water.
Shane Bauer: Is it cold?
Cornerstore: It's all right. That's the river water.
Al Letson: Cornerstore spent time in a state-run prison before Winn. He says that the public facility had better security.
Cornerstore: When fights break out, in a state facility, it would be broken up much more quicker. I mean, they have the necessities, what it takes to do a job. I mean, at Winnfield, it's entirely different.
Al Letson: Shane asks him what he would tell the CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, if he had the chance.
Cornerstore: Beef your security up, that's what you need to do. In order for all of these workers to take their job serious, I think you have to go up on their pay. You're not making 9 dollars an hour, I mean 8 dollars an hour. That ain't no money, man. Nobody really wants to come work there, because of how low the pay is. Everything is just messed up.
Al Letson: Shane also found out what happened to Damien Costly. He was the man on suicide watch during Shane's first day on the job.
Wendy: By the time this email reaches you, I hope it finds you in the best of health and spirits. How are you doing, ma?
Al Letson: That's Damien's mother, Wendy Porter.
Wendy: For me, I'm having a hard time getting my vegetarian tray from the kitchen, so I need you to call up here and ask the warden to tell medical to put me on a vegetarian diet list.
Al Letson: Wendy flips through some photos in the living room of her suburban home, in the outskirts of New Orleans.
Wendy: He went to the prom. He was a handsome little something. Look at him. See that's his goatee right there? He was a handsome little something.
Al Letson: Damien Costly was at Winn for murder. He shot a man for spitting in his face. The dispute was over a girl. Earlier in the show, we played a clip of Damien from Shane's first day on the job.
Damien: I'm going to get on top of the bed and jump.
Al Letson: Damien told Shane he was having a mental health emergency. Shane reported it. 6 hours later, a psychiatrist came and talked to Damien through the bars for a few minutes.
Shane Bauer: Damien committed suicide after I left. Damien had been on suicide watch and was taken off suicide watch.
Al Letson: Shane interviewed inmates and guards about Damien's suicide. He learned that it was SORT, a prison tactical team, that took Damien off suicide watch without the approval of the mental health staff. An inmate says Damien asked to go back on suicide watch, but he was ignored.
Shane Bauer: On suicide watch, he would be monitored. When he's not on suicide watch, he is just in a cell on a tier. He's supposed to be monitored every 30 minutes, but when I was there, I never saw that happen. Nobody had walked on that tier in about an hour and a half. He was being ignored. He tied a sheet to one of the bars and hung himself. There was an inmate in his cell who is severely mentally ill, who was just trying to hold him up to relieve the pressure from his neck. He was taken to the hospital, and he lived for over a week but was unconscious, and eventually died. His autopsy report showed that when he died, he weighed 71 pounds.
Wendy: He said, "Mom, nobody want to give me my food." I called and I called and I called. I never could get in touch with Warden Key. Give him his food! That's all he wanted, was his food. He didn't want no meat. He just wanted something like a fruit and a vegetable or something. He didn't want no meat. He weighed 71 pounds. That was like somebody starving. I keep food in my house. I give people food. He weighed 71 pounds.
Shane Bauer: Damien went on hunger strike a lot. Protesting the lack of dietary options and mental health services at Winn. He filed a lot of grievances with the prison administration about these conditions.
Wendy: It's all about a dollar. You ain't nothing but a dollar. You got a dollar sign. That's what you is, a dollar sign to them. You know what my son said? He said it over the phone. He said, "When I get through with them, they're going to shut this place down. It ain't fit for an animal."
Shane Bauer: Damien was bringing the prison $34 a day. To have him sitting on suicide watch, every day, having one guard watch him, cost a lot of money. To have enough staff to walk up and down the tiers every half hour like they're supposed to, costs a lot of money. To provide more mental health services costs a lot money. This is a life. This isn't just prisoners and guards being frustrated by the lack of services, the lack of security, the shortage of staff, this is a person's life that is over now. It's not coming back.
Al Letson: After Shane left his job at Winn, word got out in local papers that a reporter had been working there. A few weeks later, Corrections Corporation of America notified the Louisiana Department of Corrections that it wasn't going to renew it's contract to run the prison. Another private prison operator named La Salle has taken over. The prison still has the same name. Many of the same inmates and staff, it's just under new management. Winn Correctional Center is just one example of one facility. As you hear this, there are 131,000 inmates in private prisons across the country. For more on Winn Correctional Center and CCA, go to our website, where you can see photos of prisoners and guards from Winn and find a link to Shane Bauer's article, in Mother Jones Magazine. I'm telling you it is so worth the read. It's an incredible piece of journalism. We want to thank Shane Bauer, Dave Gilson, James West, and the entire team from Mother Jones Magazine, for sharing their story. Remember to subscribe to our podcast, and while you're there, do us a favor and leave a review. It helps us get the word out about the show.
Michael I Schiller produced today's show. Cheryl Devall was the senior editor. Ike [inaudible 00:51:01] provided additional production support, and Peter Conheim helped out with the engineering. Our sound design team is the Wonder Twins, my man, Jay Breezy and Claire See-No-More. Our head of studio is ChristoaScharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Susanne Reber's our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. The support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Fort Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, and the FX and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.
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