Another reason it’s bad to allow private corporations to take over government functions: Four months as a private-prison guard
In Mother Jones Shane Bauer has a lengthy and interesting (and damning) report of four months he spent as a guard for Corrections Corporation of America, complete with video. It begins:
“Have you ever had a riot?” I ask a recruiter from a prison run by theCorrections Corporation of America (CCA).
“The last riot we had was two years ago,” he says over the phone.
“Yeah, but that was with the Puerto Ricans!” says a woman’s voice, cutting in. “We got rid of them.”
“When can you start?” the man asks.
I tell him I need to think it over.
I take a breath. Am I really going to become a prison guard? Now that it might actually happen, it feels scary and a bit extreme.
I started applying for jobs in private prisons because I wanted to see the inner workings of an industry that holds 131,000 of the nation’s 1.6 million prisoners. As a journalist, it’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system. When prisons do let reporters in, it’s usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates. Private prisons are especially secretive. Their records often aren’t subject to public access laws; CCA has fought to defeatlegislation that would make private prisons subject to the same disclosure rules as their public counterparts. And even if I could get uncensored information from private prison inmates, how would I verify their claims? I keep coming back to this question: Is there any other way to see what really happens inside a private prison?
CCA certainly seemed eager to give me a chance to join its team. Within two weeks of filling out its online application, using my real name and personal information, several CCA prisons contacted me, some multiple times.
They weren’t interested in the details of my résumé. They didn’t ask about my job history, my current employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones, or why someone who writes about criminal justice in California would want to move across the country to work in a prison. They didn’t even ask about the time I was arrested for shoplifting when I was 19.
When I call Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, the HR lady who answers is chipper and has a smoky Southern voice. “I should tell you upfront that the job only pays $9 an hour, but the prison is in the middle of a national forest. Do you like to hunt and fish?”
“I like fishing.”
“Well, there is plenty of fishing, and people around here like to hunt squirrels. You ever squirrel hunt?”
“Well, I think you’ll like Louisiana. I know it’s not a lot of money, but they say you can go from a CO to a warden in just seven years! The CEO of the company started out as a CO”—a corrections officer.
Ultimately, I choose Winn. Not only does Louisiana have the highest incarceration rate in the world—more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents—but Winn is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country.
I phone HR and tell her I’ll take the job.
“Well, poop can stick!” she says.
I pass the background check within 24 hours.
Two weeks later, in November 2014, having grown a goatee, pulled the plugs from my earlobes, and bought a beat-up Dodge Ram pickup, I pull into Winnfield, a hardscrabble town of 4,600 people three hours north of Baton Rouge. I drive past the former Mexican restaurant that now serves drive-thru daiquiris to people heading home from work, and down a street of collapsed wooden houses, empty except for a tethered dog. About 38 percent of households here live below thepoverty line; the median household income is $25,000. Residents are proud of the fact that three governors came from Winnfield. They are less proud that the last sheriff was locked up for dealing meth.
Thirteen miles away, Winn Correctional Center lies in the middle of the Kisatchie National Forest, 600,000 acres of Southern yellow pines crosshatched with dirt roads. As I drive through the thick forest, the prison emerges from the fog. You might mistake the dull expanse of cement buildings and corrugated metal sheds for an oddly placed factory were it not for the office-park-style sign displaying CCA’s corporate logo, with the head of a bald eagle inside the “A.”
At the entrance, a guard who looks about 60, a gun on her hip, asks me to turn off my truck, open the doors, and step out. A tall, stern-faced man leads a German shepherd into the cab of my truck. My heart hammers. I tell the woman I’m a new cadet, here to start my four weeks of training. She directs me to a building just outside the prison fence.
“Have a good one, baby,” she says as I pull through the gate. I exhale.
I park, find the classroom, and sit down with five other students.
“You nervous?” a 19-year-old black guy asks me. I’ll call him Reynolds. (I’ve changed the names and nicknames of the people I met in prison unless noted otherwise.)
“A little,” I say. “You?”
“Nah, I been around,” he says. “I seen killin’. My uncle killed three people. My brother been in jail, and my cousin.” He has scars on his arms. One, he says, is from a shootout in Baton Rouge. The other is from a street fight in Winnfield. He elbowed someone in the face, and the next thing he knew he got knifed from behind. “It was some gang shit.” He says he just needs a job until he starts college in a few months. He has a baby to feed. He also wants to put speakers in his truck. They told him he could work on his days off, so he’ll probably come in every day. “That will be a fat paycheck.” He puts his head down on the table and falls asleep.
The human resources director comes in and scolds Reynolds for napping. He perks up when she tells us that if we recruit a friend to work here, we’ll get 500 bucks. She gives us an assortment of other tips: Don’t eat the food given to inmates; don’t have sex with them or you could be fined $10,000 or get 10 years at hard labor; try not to get sick because we don’t get paid sick time. If we have friends or relatives incarcerated here, we need to report it. She hands out fridge magnets with the number of a hotline to use if we feel suicidal or start fighting with our families. We get three counseling sessions for free.
I studiously jot down notes as the HR director fires up a video of the company’s CEO, Damon Hininger, who tells us what a great opportunity it is to be a corrections officer at CCA. Once a guard himself, he made $3.4 million in 2015, nearly 19 times the salary of the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “You may be brand new to CCA,” Hininger says, “but we need you. We need your enthusiasm. We need your bright ideas. During the academy, I felt camaraderie. I felt a little anxiety too. That is completely normal. The other thing I felt was tremendous excitement.”
I look around the room. Not one person—not the recent high school graduate, not the former Walmart manager, not the nurse, not the mother of twins who’s come back to Winn after 10 years of McDonald’s and a stint in the military—looks excited.
“I don’t think this is for me,” a postal worker says. . .
A sidebar notes:
CCA RUNS 61 FACILITIES ACROSS THE UNITED STATES:
- These include 34 state prisons,14 federal prisons, 9immigration detention centers, and 4 jails.
- It owns 50 of these sites.
- 38 hold men, 2 hold women, 21holds women and children.
- 17 are in Texas, 7 are in Tennessee, and 6 are in Arizona.
Later in the article:
On my fifth week on the job, I’m asked to train a new cadet….”It’s pretty bad in here,” I tell him. “People get stabbed here all the time.” At least seven inmates have been stabbed in the last six weeks….Three days later, I see two inmates stab each other in Ash. A week after that, another inmate is stabbed and beaten by multiple people in Elm. People say he was cut more than 40 times.
….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.)
Reported or not, by my seventh week as a guard the violence is getting out of control. The stabbings start to happen so frequently that, on February 16, the prison goes on indefinite lockdown. No inmates leave their tiers. The walk is empty. Crows gather and puddles of water form on the rec yards. More men in black are sent in by corporate. They march around the prison in military formation. Some wear face masks. . .
The prisons in the US constitute another institutional failure.