Shane Bauer was one of three American hikers seized and imprisoned in 2009 after straying across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran. There he was held under harsh conditions for 26 months before being released. Thus, he was well-versed in incarceration dynamics when he went undercover for Mother Jones magazine in 2014 to work as a $9-an-hour security guard in a Louisiana lockup owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the publicly traded chain of prisons now named CoreCivic.
In the four months he spent undercover, Bauer amassed volumes of first-hand information on how prison management systematically mistreated both the prisoners and their guards to maximize profits. Understaffing was rampant, prisoners were deprived of basic psychological and medical care, promised rehabilitation programs were cancelled or abandoned, and legitimate inmate complaints were ignored or discarded.
But one of Bauer’s surprise discoveries was about himself—about how fear of being tricked, worn down or bullied inexorably drained him of sympathy for his charges, even as he realized he was drifting from his moral moorings. “My priorities change,” he reflects at one point. “Striving to treat everyone as human takes too much energy. More and more I focus on proving I won’t back down.”
In alternating chapters, Bauer details the long and shameful history of how convict labor—exacted through extreme brutality, particularly in the South—has been used to enrich private coffers and state treasuries. When prisoners can turn a profit, he notes, there’s an irresistible incentive to convict more of them and keep them longer. By the time Bauer completed this book, CoreCivic had become a major player in the housing of immigrants.