Undercover reporter spent four months as a prison guard in a Louisiana pen run by CCA

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is one of the world's largest private jailers; it runs prisons and immigration detention centers across the USA (and is diversifying into halfway houses, mental health center, and surveillance for poor neighborhoods). Mother Jones's Shane Bauer went undercover at CCA's Winn Prison in Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the world, and spent four months meticulously documenting the way that CCA destroys the lives of the prisoners in its care and its own employees, while paying its CEO $3.4M/year.

Bauer's report shows that CCA increases its profits by engaging in inhumane and illegal practices, eliminating library access, recreational and rehabilitative activities, and cutting back psychiatric care, drug addiction programs and counselling to a vastly inadequate level. Eliminating all these activities, limiting mealtimes to 10 minutes, and feeding prisoners sub-starvation diets means that they can also spend a lot less on staff, leaving guards exposed to hazardous conditions in overcrowded prisons.

The effect on guards is predictable enough: without sufficient resources to manage the prisoners, they turn to the prisoners to manage themselves. In some CCA prisons, the company has settled claims that the guards used gang members to subdue and discipline the prison population. In Winn, Bauer reports on guard-prisoner interactions that cross into unethical and dangerous territories, including turning a blind eye to contraband and allowing armed prisoners to attempt to murder one another rather than intervene.

The toll that this takes on both prisoners and guards is haunting. Bauer's hidden camera stills and secret recordings reveal a culture of corruption that goes all the way to the top and extends in every direction. The third-party inspectors whose perfunctory audit of the prison deliberately ignores the dangerous conditions are just a macrocosm for the way that the guards and prisoners interact.

Bauer's report runs over 35,000 words, and it's gripping stuff. After the investigation concluded, CCA demanded a "meaningful opportunity to respond" to it, but declined to have anyone be interviewed by Bauer. Instead, they answered 150 questions that Bauer sent them; their replies, throughout the article, are a litany of pleas of ignorance, deflection, and special pleading. The company's anonymous spokesman also engaged in ad hominem with Bauer, scolding him and saying his methods would be "better suited for celebrity and entertainment reporting."

America incarcerates more people than any other country in the history of the world, both in total numbers and as a proportion of its population. CCA and other private prison companies have secured contracts that guarantee them minimum occupancy in their facilities, and have lobbied extensively for harsher sentences for minor infractions.

They have destroyed a generation of mostly poor, mostly black and brown Americans, and they have gotten fantastically rich in the process. Now they're getting into running immigration detention centers, which puts them in charge of a population of even more marginalized people with even fewer avenues of redress for human rights violations.

This will not end well.

One day, I meet a man with no legs in a wheelchair. His name is Robert Scott. (He consented to having his real name used.) He's been at Winn 12 years. "I was walking when I got here," he tells me. "I was walking, had all my fingers." I notice he is wearing fingerless gloves with nothing poking out of them. "They took my legs off in January and my fingers in June. Gangrene don't play. I kept going to the infirmary, saying, 'My feet hurt. My feet hurt.' They said, 'Ain't nothin' wrong wicha. I don't see nothin' wrong wicha.' They didn't believe me, or they talk bad to me—'I can't believe you comin' up here!'"

His medical records show that in the space of four months he made at least nine requests to see a doctor. He complained of sore spots on his feet, swelling, oozing pus, and pain so severe he couldn't sleep. When he visited the infirmary, medical staff offered him sole pads, corn removal strips, and Motrin. He says he once showed his swollen foot, dripping with pus, to the warden. On one of these occasions, Scott alleges in a federal lawsuit against CCA, a nurse told him, "Ain't nothing wrong with you. If you make another medical emergency you will receive a disciplinary write-up for malingering." He filed a written request to be taken to a hospital for a second opinion, but it was denied.

Eventually, numbness spread to his hands, but the infirmary refused to treat him. His fingertips and toes turned black and wept pus. Inmates began to fear his condition was contagious. When Scott's sleeplessness kept another inmate awake, the inmate threatened to kill him if he was not moved to another tier. A resulting altercation drew the attention of staff, who finally sent him to the local hospital.

"But when I got my legs cut off they didn't come back and say, 'Robert, I'm sorry.' I done taked my lickin'. Part of being locked up." He is now suing CCA for neglect, claiming that inmates are denied medical care because the company operates the prison "on a 'skeleton crew' for profitable gain."

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation [Shane Bauer/Mother Jones]