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Inside a private prison: One reporter's harrowing story

Posted June 26

"If a inmate hit me, I'm go' hit (him) 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.”

Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer heard this from his training officer on his first day as a corrections officer at Winn Correctional Center. For four months, Bauer trained and worked in the private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana, to see first-hand what countless investigations and TV shows like Netflix’s "Orange is the New Black" have sought to expose the past few years. Fourteen months and 35,000 words later, he and the Mother Jones published "My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard" this week.

Comparing it to Nellie Bly’s famous stint on Blackwell Island in 1887, Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery wrote in her post that the story will likely “draw a fair bit of curiosity … but is revealing as hell.”

With nearly 2.3 million prisoners, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated citizens in the world, according to World Prison Brief. Six percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners, however, are locked inside private prisons, which have been criticized as more dangerous than public facilities.

The organization who owns Winn, Corrections Corporation of America, owns 61 prisons across the U.S. During the investigation, the organization repeatedly told Bauer that some of the claims he heard about were unfounded.

But Bauer saw his own disturbing trends while researching the topic. As Gawker put it, he saw "stabbings, seemingly bloodthirsty fellow guards, and one prison break ... he also felt his own character break."

"You just pit 'em against each other and that's the easiest way to get your job done,” an 18-year-old CO-in-training told Bauer.

Mother Jones found that inmate-on-inmate violence is, in fact, 38 percent higher in private prisons than in public prisons.

Piper Kerman, the woman who wrote "Orange is the New Black" after serving time in a federal prison, recently wrote a piece for Fusion about the dangers of for-profit correctional facilities.

“To maximize profit for their investors and reduce operational costs, private prisons often cut corners on staffing and other essentials of safety," Kerman wrote. “The resulting safety and human rights violations in some privately operated prisons have been horrific.”

Mother Jones and Bauer’s story attracted the attention of the CCA, that promptly tried to kill the article by claiming it violated Bauer’s employee contract, according to Jeffery’s post.

But Bauer and Mother Jones aren’t the only one looking into the mistreatment of prisoners.

The Nation recently looked into 20,000 pages of documents that pointed to neglect by federal officials when it came to monitoring private prisons. According to the article, there were 34 deaths between January 2007 and June 2015 because of “substandard medical care.” Fourteen of those deaths occurred in prisons managed by CCA.

And The Guardian recently published an in-depth look into how U.S. prisons are cutting costs — and quality — when it comes to health care for prisoners.

In May, The Tennessean found only 8 of 3,487 prisoners with hepatitis C in Tennessee received treatment that could cure the disease.

You can find Bauer's story in full on the Mother Jones website.

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

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