Shane Bauer is no stranger to prisons. In 2009, when he was a freelance journalist living in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iranian border guards arrested him and two others when they accidentally crossed into the country on a hiking trip. Bauer spent the next two years in an Iranian prison. He and the two others, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal eventually wrote a book about their experience, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Tehran.
After returning home to the Bay Area, Bauer heard about the conditions of California prisoners living in solitary confinement — something he had experienced in Tehran. Instead of returning to the Middle East full time, as he had intended, his reporting lens began to refocus on prisons closer to home.
Bauer quickly learned that prisons — especially those run by private companies — are secretive and suspicious of reporters. After a couple of years “circling the wagon,” as Bauer calls it, he decided to apply for a job as a guard with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which as of 2015 was America’s largest private corrections company. He figured that if he wanted any level of access, he would have to get it from the inside.
That application led to a job as a corrections officer at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., where he spent four months behind prison walls, this time as a guard. The resulting piece is a 35,000-word epic that’s a searing indictment of private prisons. Documenting appalling treatment of both prisoners and guards, it also vividly shows the troubling emotional transformation Bauer himself underwent. I highly recommend you read the story before reading this interview.
This interview was conducted by phone, and has been edited and condensed.
How did you first find yourself on the prison beat?
For a long time, I was pretty much exclusively writing about the Middle East. I was focused on conflict and war reporting, basically. Even when I got out of prison, I assumed I would go back to the Middle East, but just kind of got sucked into prisons here. I did one long story about solitary confinement when I got back and got into it from there.
Can you talk a little about the challenges of reporting on prisons in the United States?
It’s really hard to get information from prisons, or to really have a good idea of what’s happening inside. If you get inside, it’s for a carefully scripted tour, and if you are concerned with going in and wanting to come back, you have a lot of issues that access journalism faces. You have to not piss off the people who let you in. Prisons regularly blackball reporters they don’t like. So it’s hard to do really truthful journalism about what happens inside prisons. The other way I’ve used myself is to correspond with prisoners. But one, that takes a lot of time, and two, you still have to verify what people are telling you, and that’s really difficult with prisons.
Why did you choose to go undercover inside a prison?
It varies state to state, but we have public records laws in every state that help reporters get information and records from prisons and corrections departments, but in some states it’s extremely difficult to do in practice. Many states that I’ve dealt with will kind of drag it out for months, even a year, and some states just don’t respond until you sue. And with private prisons, it’s even more of an issue. They are notoriously secretive. Public records laws don’t apply in many cases, since they’re run by private companies, and we just haven’t in the three decades they’ve existed had a good look inside them. We hear about them in the news once in awhile, but that’s really it. We don’t really get to see the day-to-day goings on inside a prison. It’s important that we get an unfiltered look, and that’s why I approached the story that way.
Even after two days of training, I thought I had a magazine story. I had enough for a magazine story after two days. Once I had been there for a while, it was clear it had to be a huge story.
I guess I didn’t see any other way. I think I was feeling like I’m circling the wagon for a long time and not really getting anything satisfying. Even if I had access to records, there’s only so much records can tell. I really wanted to get kind of the day-to-day life of what’s happening inside. After spending two years in a prison myself and writing about it, there aren’t really accounts of what that’s like. There are prisoners who write memoirs, and that’s important, but not really a journalistic take.
You’ve said that you just filled out the CCA application on a whim, but decided to take the job when it was offered. Did you have any of the story’s structure pre-planned? For example, you would have stayed longer than the four months had your photographer not been arrested?
I didn’t think this was actually going to happen. I put in an application thinking, Why not? But I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it. If they Googled my name and found previous stories I had written, I thought that would disqualify me. I had written about private prisons, and there’s a lot of claims out there, and news stories that point to understaffing, health-care issues, various outcomes of the need to cut costs, so yeah, I expected I might see some of that, but I was going into this completely immersive experience, and the whole framework was that I was going to write about what I saw. There would be people I would get to know that would become characters in the story. Presumably there would be events. I never knew how long it would last, but I hoped it would be a story that was driven by scenes and people, and just kind of a story of the place during the time I was there. When I wrote my first draft of the story, it was really all that, then I spent a lot of time afterwards doing more reporting on CCA, looking into lawsuits it faced in other parts of the country to kind of paint a broader picture. The intention going in was to write faithfully what I saw and experienced. And that included writing about myself. I decided that had to be a part of the story.
Most reporters, when they embed or immerse in a strange place for a long period of time, experience some feelings of isolation. It seems like you really had a heightened version of that. Is that true?
It was definitely a lonely experience in a lot of ways. My wife did come down for a couple of chunks of time, but most of the time I was either in the prison or in the apartment by myself. And just the nature of how I was approaching this story, I couldn’t really talk to people about what I was doing, so it meant I couldn’t really talk about myself at all. That limits your ability to have any real friends. I would go to the bar and shoot pool and got to know a couple of people, but it was always extremely limited. I would tell them I was a guard at Winn, but that wasn’t much to build a relationship on. I was also working all the time, either at the prison or at home writing to stay on top of all the material. I felt like there was this tide of stuff happening, and if I didn’t keep up, I would lose a lot of it when it came time to write. Also, I just couldn’t talk about the story for a long time. We didn’t publish the story for a year after I left. It was this massive thing I was invested in but kind of had to keep under wraps. It was strange and very difficult.
Have you ever spent more time and effort on a single story?
No. No way. I don’t think Mother Jones ever has in the history of the publication. The fact-checking process itself was extensive and exhaustive. We had a huge team of people working on this. Editors, fact-checkers, a whole multimedia component, lawyers. It kind of took over the publication for a while.
When did you know that you had a really amazing story on your hands?
I think right when I started. Once I was inside. I didn’t know how long it was going to last, and I still thought it could end at any moment. Even after two days of training, I thought I had a magazine story. I had enough for a magazine story after two days. Once I had been there for a while, it was clear it had to be a huge story. There was just so much that was happening that I saw, that the story couldn’t be without. I think my editors realized that right away as well. There was never even a stated time limit, because they understood this was going to be a huge story. They knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After a week or two, I remember emailing them and saying this is one of the most important stories I’ll ever do in my life. There was a feeling that each and every day, I was getting material that could be a story in and of itself.
I do intend to write a book out of this. There’s so much I couldn’t fit into 35,000 words. After I had been on the job a couple of weeks, it was clear to me that this was a book.
You decided to go chronologically. Was that always your first choice? For a story this long, I’m sure it was tempting to throw some of the more colorful and troubling anecdotes further up.
I really wanted for readers to experience the story as if they were going through that process. If I started with the stabbing I witnessed, for example, it would change that dynamic. I also felt like it didn’t need that. I felt the frame of the story would be enticing enough. The fact I worked in this prison would pull a lot of people in. And one of the arcs of the story is what happens to me in becoming a guard and the only way to really tell that story is to go from beginning to end and see the steps of change that happened along the way. I think one draft I started in the segregation unit, but it didn’t feel like it needed that.
How much of the final story was there in the initial draft? I can’t imagine the editing that goes into a 35,000-word piece.
I don’t remember how long it was, but it was similar to what it is now. Probably around 30,000 words. The draft went through a process of adding outside reporting and pulling scenes out from Winn, or tightening them down. Dave Gilson is a great editor and helped me a lot with that. I spent a lot of weeks drilling down on medical stuff, researching cases, several cases of these horrific miscarriages. Then I realized we had too many dead baby stories in here, so let’s just use two. There’s that back and forth of focusing on one aspect of the story, then drawing that back to add in history, then digging into another aspect, filling that in and whittling that back. I think it’s probably the most heavily edited story I’ve ever done, but I think the first draft to this final, I think the bulk is there. The main scenes are the main scenes. A lot of the events speak for themselves. It’s more kind of trimming that stuff down. The material is so massive it felt like I was writing a book, so it was kind of a process of turning a book into a magazine article, so it was a lot of cutting down and getting to the essence of everything.
You were on an emotional roller coaster during your time there, from the paranoia you’d be discovered during training to the way you hardened toward the prisoners after a time. Does any of that linger?
I was surprised when I left Winn and was suddenly back in California one day. There was a point when I was working on it when I realized that I would have to deal with it when it was over. When I got out of Iranian prison, that first year was a really difficult adjustment. But I was surprised how quickly I was back in my normal life. I didn’t feel the PTSD stuff I had felt when I was in prison as a prisoner. I think a lot had to do with the fact that this was a choice, and I knew I had a great story and I was excited about it. But I did see once I left and looked back, I had a distance from it and was able to see how far down the rabbit hole I had gone. I did feel kind of ashamed at the person I had become in the prison. Even right before I published the story — and there’s always this moment when I work on a long project and I’m just sitting in my room writing and realize this is going to go out, oh shit, it’s too late to change any of it — but one of the things that came up then was reckoning with the fact that I had sent people to solitary confinement. And I had been in that situation myself, and it was not something that I take lightly. I don’t think I had another option — I was an individual in an established system and it was sometimes the only way I could protect myself — but it was still something I had to reckon with. There’s this way that being a guard in that prison, or being anyone in that prison, you just end up looking out for yourself. Ultimately you do what you have to do to take care of yourself — that’s the environment of the place. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to make it. As soon as people think you’re soft, you can’t really function in that situation if you’re a pushover. And that takes some giving up of humanity.
I was surprised by the level of treatment not only toward the prisoners, but the guards as well. Were you expecting to make the story as much about you and your colleagues as much as the “customers,” or was that a natural extension of you experiencing the awful work conditions?
When I went into this, what I really wanted to see was the prison conditions. And when I think of prison conditions, I think about conditions for prisoners. I didn’t think I was going to write a story about guards or being a guard, but I saw really quickly that the line between guards and prisoners was really thin. And while there’s definitely a lot of hostility between the two, there’s a lot of camaraderie around this shared sense of frustration towards CCA. I never met a rank-and-file guard that had good things to say about the company. The morale was really low. They made $9 an hour. There was a guard who himself had been a prisoner for 7 years. There were guards who know prisoners from childhood. They were essentially from the same social class. There were guards who smuggled things in in order to supplement their income. Even the high-level staff at the prison, including the warden, wanted to pay the guards more, but it wasn’t their decision. It was the decision of the headquarters in Tennessee.
I was surprised how quickly I was back in my normal life. I didn’t feel the PTSD stuff I had felt when I was in prison as a prisoner. I think a lot had to do with the fact that this was a choice, and I knew I had a great story and I was excited about it.
In terms of people like Dave Bacle, were you actively cultivating sources like him or were you just trying to make friends? I’m wondering how much you were operating as a guard and how much as a reporter, since you talk in one video about losing that “critical distance.”
It was both. I didn’t exactly think of him or others as sources in a typical way, because he didn’t know I was a journalist and I had no idea if I would be able to talk to him after. But he was a source in the sense that I would ask him questions. How long he had worked there, what he had seen, and I knew he would be a character. He was my main work partner, so I knew I needed to know him and be able to describe him and make him into a three-dimensional character. He was the person teaching me how to do the job and he was the one person, if I was in trouble, who would’ve been the one I counted on. He wouldn’t be able to do a lot physically, but if I got jumped, he would be the one of the radio calling for backup. Naturally there’s going to be a relationship there. When I first started working with him, he was really verbose and would kind of ramble about the Coast Guard and these boring stories, and there was this period where I thought, “This is my work partner?” He didn’t feel like the character I wanted, and I wasn’t that excited to write about him. But I spent a lot of time whittling down my material about him, and I got to an essence of him that I liked and found really illuminating.
But it’s kind of the nature of this where you’re not picking your characters, and I think it’s why this approach is more interesting and more honest. When we pick out characters, that by its nature is slanting our stories. We’re looking for people who might illustrate our own perspectives, and when you’re immersing like this you can’t do that, and you have to write about the people you’re around. So in one sense I don’t have the critical distance, but I do have this forced objectivity. I’m in the situation, these are the people who are there, and I’m going to write about them.
Since this story is essentially a work of immersive journalism, with you often becoming the main character, were you tempted to hark back to your time as a prisoner in Iran to provide context or further round yourself out in the story?
From the beginning, I did not want to write about my experience as a prisoner. Mostly because I didn’t think that really illuminated anything about this story. I used myself as a character only to shed light on that prison and that experience, and to bring to life Winn and what I was writing about. I didn’t think writing about being in an Iranian prison would add anything in that context. Maybe it would draw in some other readers, but I thought it would be a distraction. I didn’t want people to read this story through this lens of “Hey, here’s a guy who’s been in prison and now is a guard himself.” I wanted it to be about Winn and CCA and hoped people could to some degree think about themselves in my place, or maybe think of other ways they’ve felt something similar, if they’ve been in positions of power or that have shaped them. I wanted to be like any other person going through there, not this person who has the crazy back-story.