Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer


Why I Read This Book

A lot of people will read this because President Obama recommended it. That was one consideration–I like to see what movers & shakers are reading these days. More important to me was the prison experience of a family member. I’ve visited in jails, a state-of-the-art youth facility, and a worn-out state prison. What I know is, once you are in the system it is far more difficult to stay out than anyone wants to believe.

The Book

Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer, after agonies of hand-wringing, decides to tell the truth of who he is on his application as telling a lie is not his style. I feel similarly, but really thought he was doing a little virtue signaling with this. He was imprisoned in Iran and so often had difficulty with feelings of solidarity with the prisoners while service undercover as a prison guard.

The story tells of his four months employed at a for-profit prison in Louisiana. Alternating chapters relate his experience and the development of for-profit (or profit-earning) prisons in America–especially after the end of slavery. Personally, I found this to be the most fascinating part of the story. From my family member’s experience, I was familiar with assault, rape, and other terrors of our prisoners’ lives behind bars. That there were cell phones smuggled in, that people had a regular income given by family or business partners (legal and illegal) also didn’t surprise me.

Bauer’s story fell apart (understandably) when his Australian photographer ran afoul of prison authorities. I felt that Bauer was backing off before this–that he wasn’t “into” his role as much after only a few weeks. The job IS horrible. He WAS under enormous stress. He was enduring sexual harassment as defined by any place but a prison. I found though that his “flyover country” mentality about Louisiana (and the other places were for-profit prisons exist) left him with a feeling of superiority over the “locals.” He was “slumming it” and knew it. That affected the story for me in a negative way.

Regardless of these personal criticisms, this is a story “tough on crime” folks should read. Using tax dollars to pay for prisons benefits EVERYONE (more below).

My thoughts from the other side

What continues to amaze me is how little is offered to prisoners to reform and remake their lives. I thought this was where Shane fell off.  While it is as much of a disgrace to hire people with no education in criminology, sociology, psychology, and criminal justice and to pay those workers–in one of the most stressful jobs in our nation,.  right at or just above the poverty line, so to is it a disgrace to expect people to leave prison without even money for a room for the night. Or with no better skills or education than they had when they were arrested. Or to expect them to go back to the same neighborhood where they got into trouble.

For-profit prisons, with their emphasis on profit to shareholders, make our horrible recidivism rate possible. They offer health care so insufficient as to sometimes be a human rights violation if it was in another country.  Bauer does a great job of documenting and recounting a few such stories. But they are DAILY occurrences in for-profit prisons.

In spite of studies that show over and over that mental health and/or substance abuse counseling and occupational training or higher education given in prison significantly reduce the number who are re-arrested, the for-profit prison companies give only lip service to providing such things. As few as 10 to 20 seats in a program within an eligible prison population of 2-3,000 inmates. No wonder that state-owned, tax-supported prisons, with higher pay and more services, have a better record. Yet, “get tough on crime” politicians are often so in the pocket of for-profit prison providers and their lobbyists that this is ignored.

Prisoners when leaving have only what they’ve earned on a prison job–if they even GET a job in prison. They are paid cents per hour for their work. [I’m not saying they should get minimum wage]. Often it doesn’t even cover a bus ticket home to the county where they must serve probation. Once out, though they have served their time and are free, in most states convicted felons must “check the box” on an employment application that says they were convicted, regardless of the type job. Obviously, there are jobs that this IS important, but not all. Some states have done away with this. Some professions where felonies have been a bar to entrance have made some types of charges “acceptable” once the appropriate sentence is served.

Families, too, suffer in ways the general public do not realize. To visit a loved one often involves a phone-in lottery to get an appointment, then missing work (often unpaid) and even paying for a ride in a van to the prison. There is a large fee to be paid FIRST when depositing money into an inmates’ account. They must pay for soap, laundry, warm clothing, etc.  Phone calls are a true racket. The cost per minute is on par with an international call back in the days of operators placing them. Needless to say, while some are well supported in prison, most families struggle to deal with these costs.



American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

8 thoughts on “Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer

  1. I enjoyed your review, although this does sound depressing. I would be annoyed with the author for the reasons you cited. I can believe all the sad things you say here; it’s frustrating but it’s hard to know where to even start on such a big issue. It seems our leaders can’t accomplish even the most basic things, let alone start in to reform a system so big. You have to pay a fee to give money into an inmate’s account? What the heck?!


  2. Thanks for sharing this review. I’m going to check it out – I don’t know a lot about the prison systems and the differences between the government facilities and for profit ones. Your criticisms seem valid.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m kind of interested in this, though your review has me thinking I’ll wait until there are cheaper used copies (or free library ones!) available. Considering that the US imprisons more people per capita than most of the world, and certainly more than any other western country, more people should be thinking about them. We do prison very, very, badly. Not only is it unjust to imprison many people for the things we imprison them for, but they’re such awful places that they promote alienation from the mainstream and criminality. I had a cousin who went to prison because his friends decided to start a fire in their school as a prank — he sat outside in the parking lot, but was tagged as an accomplice. He was never the same thereafter.

    Liked by 1 person

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