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'Mother Jones' Reporter Reveals Details Of Life Inside A Private Prison

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the Justice Department announced yesterday that it would stop using private prisons, Shane Bauer counted it as a victory. He's a reporter who spent four months working as a guard at a Louisiana prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. Mother Jones magazine published his investigative report earlier this summer. Shane Bauer, welcome to the program.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why did you decide that going undercover was the only way to tell this story?

BAUER: It's very difficult to get information about what happens inside of our prisons. And this is especially true with private prisons. Private prisons do not have to comply with public records laws, for example, because they are private companies. And in the 30 years that these prisons have existed, we have not had an up-close look at the day-to-day life inside of them.

SHAPIRO: And one of the big criticisms we hear of private prisons, including yesterday from the Justice Department, is that they put profit above all else - above safety, security, services for inmates and for guards. To what extent did you find that to be true?

BAUER: Well, the job that I had paid $9 an hour as a guard. I met guards that had been there for 20 years that were making $9 an hour, far below what the guards at the state-run prisons were making. And the prison was also really understaffed. There were days that I came in that there were 24 guards for 1,500 inmates. This meant that there was a lot of violence. There had been in four months around 200 weapons found in the prison. There were stabbings every week.

There was an inmate who escaped in the middle of the day, just climbed over the fence and nobody saw him because nobody was around. He was in view of the guard towers, but the prison had cut those positions to save money.

SHAPIRO: After you finished your time working at the prison, you went back and interviewed a couple of guards on video. Let's listen to some of what they told you about their safety concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I left Winn because I had so many incidents where I could have been in the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For the last 18 months that I worked out there, there was a lot of stabbings going on. I felt my luck was just about to run out.

SHAPIRO: Shane, how much of this is about prison work generally and about private prison work specifically?

BAUER: Well, prisons are generally dangerous places to work, but there are particular issues in the private system. At the prison that I worked, for example, the guards didn't have nightsticks or pepper spray. They had no means really to do the job other than a radio to radio for backup. You know, the morale was so low among guards that basic functions like security checks, just walking through the dorms and, you know, making sure everything is OK almost never happened.

SHAPIRO: The government obviously contracts with private prisons in hopes of saving money - whether or not they do is debatable. But after the private prisons get these contracts, how involved does the government remain in overseeing their operations?

BAUER: Well, this varies between, you know, the federal level and each state. Each has its own system. Typically, what I've seen is that there's not day-to-day oversight. There might be audits from time to time. In Louisiana, while I was there, there happened to be a lot of state pressure because there was a surge in violence and there was an escape. So the state was showing up regularly and pressuring the company to build up its staff and to deal with these kind of basic issues that were going on in the prison. But what often happens is the state does not step in until there's a crisis.

SHAPIRO: The private prisons that the Justice Department works with on the federal level are only a small percentage of the total. How do you react to the announcement that the DOJ is going to phase this out?

BAUER: I and others were kind of shocked to find that they were taking this large step. But, you know, I think, frankly, it's a step that makes sense. I mean, when you see the same results over and over again - the issues of understaffing, safety - then, you know, at some point the Department of Justice has to ask why are we still using these companies?

SHAPIRO: Shane Bauer is a reporter from Mother Jones magazine who joined us from New Hampshire Public Radio. Thanks very much for your time.

BAUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.