Inside Mother Jones’ monster investigation of private prisons

Shane Bauer tried to keep a straight face. The Mother Jones senior reporter was on assignment at a private prison in Louisiana, working as a guard. Conditions at the facility were deplorable. A poorly-trained staff lacked the support to respond to growing violence. And one of Bauer’s colleagues, who had no knowledge of Bauer’s primary job, told him that an investigative journalist should shed light on the facility’s rampant mismanagement and horrid treatment of inmates. 

“I wish I could have said something,” Bauer recalls in an interview with CJR. Though he’d landed the job under his own name, Bauer kept his motives secret from colleagues and prisoners for four months. On Thursday, 15 months after Bauer resigned from Winn Correctional Center, Mother Jones published a colossal exposé that seems to fulfill his former co-worker’s wishes. 

Bauer’s grisly retelling of his time at the facility—a 35,000-word opus accompanied by a six-part video series, with a podcast produced with Reveal to come next week—confirms many of our worst fears about the private prison industry. Corporate hunger for profits led to a woeful lack of resources in the cell blocks that Bauer patrolled. Inmates lived in squalor and were denied health care for serious sickness. Prison officials resorted to the use of force in lieu of proper staffing. Low wages begat a constant turnover among employees. It was a bad dream for prison guards like Bauer and a hopeless nightmare for the men behind bars. 

“Every guard that I worked with complained about the place,” Bauer says in an interview. “And at times, I saw camaraderie among the guards and prisoners over their disdain for the [management] company….I was surprised by how chaotic it was. I saw people get stabbed right in front of me.” 

Undercover reporting is not and should not be a journalistic norm. But it has seen occasional success when reporters have exhausted all other options. In 1887, Nellie Bly infiltrated a walled-off New York mental institution to write about the plight of patients, and Ted Conover posed as a correctional officer at Sing Sing, a notorious maximum-security facility, for his 2000 book Newjack

Stories from private prisons are similarly untouchable through normal journalistic means. Prisons are already opaque to outside observers, and for-profit facilities are immune to many public access laws. Bauer, for his part, did not attempt to conceal his identity when applying for jobs with the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the nation’s largest private prison operators.

“Within a couple weeks [of applying], pretty much every CCA prison was calling me for interviews,” Bauer says. “I never lied when I was there. That was a ground rule. If somebody had figured it out and asked me if I was a journalist, I would have said yes.” 

Instead, Bauer excelled at his $9-an-hour job, at least relative to the many other cadets who came and went during his short stint there. He was offered a promotion within months. After reading his descriptions, it’s hard to imagine the type of employee—let alone inmate—who could last long in such an environment.

In one particularly chilling scene, Bauer watches over prisoners on suicide watch. Confined to tiny, empty cells, they sleep on metal bunks and are given meager rations. One inmate masturbates while staring at Bauer, while another, just one cell over, yells that he’s going to “get up on top of this bed and jump straight onto my motherfucking neck if y’all don’t get the fuck out from the front of my cell.” The prison, which held more than 1,500 inmates, did not employ a full-time psychiatrist.

The piece’s underlying argument—that private prisons don’t have the cost benefits that corporations and lawmakers would have us believe—hits its stride during a brutal surge in violence. Order is restored only when state wardens arrive as reinforcements. Bauer recorded 12 stabbings at his prison over the first two months of 2015, but his employer’s eventual report to the state counted only five by November of that year. Bauer describes one spate of violence:

A CO is frantically calling for a stretcher. Several inmates are stabbing each other; they can’t count how many…

A minute later, a bleeding man is wheeled by on a work cart and I return inside. Several people were injured, and I hear one was stabbed about 30 times. Miraculously, no one dies.

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.

Bauer was able to capture such details with the help of an audio and video recorder. He mentions the former in his piece but declined to elaborate on his methods by phone this week. “After the first couple of days I was in training, I felt that if I had left, I would already have a  good story,” Bauer adds. “People were speaking freely. They weren’t acting or being cautious, because they didn’t know they were talking to a reporter.”

And in a way, they weren’t. Bauer’s firsthand accounts of prisoners’ daily struggles were bracketed by historical context on the growth of private prisons generally and the Corrections Corporation of America in particular. But his own psychological transformation makes for another compelling through line. The story nods to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in which study participants quickly assumed social roles of guards and prisoners. Bauer noticed himself doing the same over a very short period.

“I did things I’m not proud of,” he tells CJR. “I sent people to solitary confinement.” He continues: 

Initially, I felt like I was a journalist with a guard suit on, like it was a mask. But as time passed, I became more and more of a guard. All of my energy was dedicated to working there. The duties I had as a guard were impossible to do in and of themselves with the type of staff we had. On top of that, thinking about what questions I needed to be asking was really difficult. The longer I was there, I started feeling like I was these two different people at different times of the day…Some days, when I was driving home, I was feeling ashamed. I was writing about this other person who existed inside the prison. 

Bauer played the part so successfully that he was only found out when a Mother Jones videographer was arrested while gathering footage nearby. He skipped town almost immediately and resigned his post within days—a final harrowing anecdote toward the end of the piece. “It felt like I stepped out of this time warp,” he says. “And I remember sitting, having a beer for the first time after it all, and having this huge sense of relief. Obviously the inmates were still going through far worse than I ever dealt with.” 

Five months later, Mother Jones received a letter threatening legal action from a law firm representing the prison operator. Bauer summarizes in his piece: “CCA’s counsel claimed I was bound by the company’s code of conduct, which states, ‘All employees must safeguard the company’s trade secrets and confidential information.’”

It’s the sort of legal shot across the bow that’s commonplace from corporations wary of negative coverage. But, as Mother Jones Editor Clara Jeffery writes in a note that accompanied Bauer’s story, it’s also a particularly chilling endnote in the age of Peter Thiel. “The letter came not from CCA’s in-house counsel,” Jeffery writes, “but from the same law firm that had represented a billionaire megadonor in his three-year quest to punish [Mother Jones] for reporting on his anti-LGBT activities. When he lost, he pledged $1 million to support others who might want to sue us.”

Jeffery doesn’t know if there is in fact an explicit connection. “But,” she adds in an interview, “there is an increasing collection of power and money at the top that doesn’t want the scrutiny. And they’re aided by a general tilt toward NDAs and ‘trade secrets’ and invoking these private protections. So it’s becoming harder and harder for the public to know what’s going on, even if it’s a corporate entity providing a public service.”

As for the Corrections Corporation of America’s primary complaint about Mother Jones’ methods—that Bauer didn’t identify himself as a reporter—Jeffery replies, “Wouldn’t you just Google people before you hire them?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Clara Jeffery’s surname.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.