Behind bars

Beatings. Stabbings. An Escape. My four months as a private prison guard.

Journalist Shane Bauer worked undercover as a guard at Winn Correctional Center, a privately run prison in Winnfield, Louisiana.

Guards are paid a starting salary of $9 per hour — a pittance even by Louisiana standards. As one prisoner notes, the only difference between the guards and prisoners is that the guards are only there 12 hours a day. Prison staff is kept short by the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the facility for profit. The prisoners have a lot of time on their hands and many figure they have nothing to lose. That makes the power relationship between the two groups … complicated.

Conditions at the prison would brutalize anyone, whether they are a guard or a prisoner.

Bauer’s experience as a prison guard changed him, and not for the better.

Bauer’s article is long — it took me about four days to read — magnificent, and deeply disturbing. It’s an instant classic of journalism.

Mass incarceration is a blot on America’s claim to be the land of freedom, opportunity, and respect for civil rights.

Bauer:

In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”

Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”

He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.

“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.

“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,'” says a veteran guard.

Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.'” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”

“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.

We could try to break up a fight if we wanted, he says, but since we won’t have pepper spray or a nightstick, he wouldn’t recommend it. “We are not going to pay you that much,” he says emphatically. “The next raise you get is not going to be much more than the one you got last time. The only thing that’s important to us is that we go home at the end of the day. Period. So if them fools want to cut each other, well, happy cutting.”

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