American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into The Business Of Punishment, by Shane Bauer
A lot of this book consists of the author’s attempts to troll a private prison firm by serving as an undercover $9/hr corrections officer at the Winn correctional facility near Winnfield, Louisiana. Although I am in general quite negative on a great many of the books that are written that seek to attack America’s use of prison as a means of social control, largely because even if I am no great fan of prison itself I am indeed a big fan of the use of such punishment in the protection of property rights and in dealing with America’s criminal classes, this book was less irritating than most because the author is rather hilariously incompetent as a guard and his story does reveal some important aspects of the criminal justice system and the role of private enterprise within it. The author notes correctly that private companies only find running prisons profitable by reducing staffing level and controlling wage, maintenance, and health expenses, or by being able to put the prisoners to work in that which would be profitable, like factories or agriculture or some other like enterprise. And the author also correctly notes that such slavery is entirely legal, since those who have been duly and properly convicted of crime can in fact be sentenced to slavery.
Coming in at about 300 pages or so, this book is mostly the tale of one man who decides to take a low-wage job at a private prison in Louisiana as a way of finding material for a book against private prisons. The experience sounds like it would be suitable for a film like “Tropic Thunder” where the author is engaging in deep method acting and shows himself to be a hilariously incompetent prison guard who cannot decide who he needs to wheedle and charm to get enough material for his book, taking notes and lots of photos and videos and generally involving himself in hilarious mysteries, until his cover is blown by an associate of his who is arrested trespassing on the prison grounds to take photographs. Until that experience comes, which forces the author to buy a share of the company he worked for so he can troll them at shareholder meetings, the author tries to talk himself out of a speeding ticket, struggles to deal with the repercussions of his job, and finds that his other corrections officers are just as shady as many of the prisoners they are supposed to be guarding, which should surprise no one who has ever known prison guards personally.
If this book is meant as some kind of daring expose of private prisons, it is more indicative of the general corruption of the criminal justice system as a whole. For a variety of good reasons, Americans in general have a high degree of respect for law and order and a correct understanding that there exists a criminal class that is responsible for a great deal of the disorder that exists in society. Unfortunately, a great deal of that criminal class seeks positions of power within the political or societal infrastructure to better commit crimes, and the low wages that prison guards get helps make them easily corruptible by prisoners who are a part of larger corrupt organizations that seek to trade in drugs, phones, and weapons. If the author thinks that his discussion of low-wage workers who struggle to improve their lot in life will lead to a groundswell of opposition to mass imprisonment or private involvement in imprisonment, this book doesn’t seem to be fit to accomplish that task. What it does demonstrate is that both criminals and leftist writers tend to greatly misjudge the role of punishment regimes and the constant pressure to be tough on crime without spending too much on it, which leads to predictable results. One might almost think such things enough to swear people off of committing crimes, but alas, it isn’t.