Getting the Facts Right: How the Mother Jones Fixation with Private Prisons Misleads Us (A Late Rejoinder)

Back in July 2016, when Mother Jones devoted an entire issue on an exposé of the privately-managed prison Winn Correctional Center, I wrote the following piece. Originally I had goals of getting it into timely circulation but then the Alton Sterling shooting happened, and then I prioritized meeting dissertation deadlines, and then the Trump election nightmare occurred. Since there continues to be so much mis-information and obsession with private prisons, I decided it was better to put this piece of writing up on this blog rather than let it just wither on my hard drive. 

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After forty years of the US prison build up and accompanying anti-prison activism, the current crisis of imprisonment is finally receiving widespread attention. From presidential debates to New York Times editorials to new foundation grants, the reigning discussion on criminal justice is no longer relegated to the realm of ‘tough on crime’ but asks how to undo mass incarceration. For those of us committed to rolling back the punitive power of the state to repress and contain, it is critical that we leverage this opening to the very best of our abilities. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Private prisons have long been the red herring of understanding mass incarceration. Despite their late arrival on the scene, media outlets have all too often identified privatization as the driver of prison expansion. Such narratives ignore that fact that only about 8% of prison beds are in private facilities and that recent years have witnessed a decline in the number of people locked up in private prisons.[1] Rather than being the propellers of the prison industrial complex, they are what Ruthie Wilson Gilmore calls the system’s parasite.

Mother Jones recently published  “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard”[2] by Shane Bauer about his time working in Louisiana’s state-owned and privately-run Winn Correctional Center. The piece falls squarely in the enduring tradition of sensationalistic prison journalism. According to Bauer, he decided to get a job as a prison guard at Winn so that he could “see what really happens inside a private prison.” In this 35,000+ word, magazine-filling article, Bauer recounts the four months he worked at Winn, and details at length the various forms of violence he witnessed and participated in alongside asides into the operations of Winn’s then management company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Throughout his piece, Bauer extolls the under-staffing of Winn, the CCA profit motive, the lack of real checks on private prisons, and the multifaceted forms of violence that characterize everyday prison life. What the piece completely fails to do is situate these inarguable wrongs in the context of publicly managed prisons.  Indeed, Bauer minimizes the roles of the state, muddles the political economy of incarceration, and individualizes the source of prison violence at the expense of showing how Winn works as part of, rather than an aberration of, the broader Louisiana penal system. In doing so, he positions private prisons as always worse than their public counterparts and neglects to question the very punitive power of the state that allows prisons to flourish.

What About the State?

The opening of Winn in 1990 was the result of the same accumulated processes that led to the establishment of publicly-run prisons, such as Dixon and Wade, that were opened as part of Louisiana’s prison boom. The quick version of this story goes as follows: From the 1970s onwards the Louisiana state legislatures, often backed by the governor, wrote and passed tough on crime laws that expanded what constitutes a crime and increased sentences for said crimes while reducing opportunities for early release. The increase of such punitive laws coupled with the bulking up of police departments’ power led to more and more people being locked up for longer and longer. Governor-appointed parole boards became more restrictive in letting people out, while the number of clemencies granting by governors drastically dropped. Together this has produced a cycle of rising prison populations, which, in turn, has created overcrowded and dehumanizing conditions that federal courts have repeatedly required the state to alleviate. Time and time again, the state legislature and the governor have decided to solve overcrowding crises not by repealing draconian laws but by growing the prison system through diverting unprecedented state resources into adding beds to existing prisons, building new ones, and even expanding parish jails to house state prisoners. The Department of Corrections runs the penal system based on the policies and operational budget set out by the legislature as well as their own internal policies and practices. The DOC maintains final responsibility over state prisoners held in privately run prisons and local jails. Despite the claims of prison wardens, sheriffs, and DOC officials to the contrary, Louisiana jails and prisons of all stripes continue to be places of double-bunking, arbitrary disciplinary procedures, malignant neglect, high rates of premature death[3], and frequently the loss of hope.[4] These various institutions – police departments, sheriffs, state legislatures, the Louisiana executive branch personified by the governor, parole boards, and DOC staff work together to make up the penal system of this thing we call the state.

Understanding how the penal system operates helps to illuminate that, counter to Bauer’s claims, the CCA are not the ones calling the shots. Rather, they are following the laws and policies put in place by the state legislature and other state officials. For instance, Bauer implies that Winn’s guards and officials revoke incarcerated men’s “good time” for slight prison violations so that CCA officials may collect more cash for their extended incarceration. This assertion simultaneously ignores the routine taking back of good time at publicly run state prisons and erases the decades-long assaults on good time by tough on crime politicians that have created the mechanisms for guards to reduce and revoke good time in the first place. Similarly, Bauer positions the story of one man who is kept behind bars after his early release date because he doesn’t have a permanent address as a symptom of CCA’s profit motives. Again, there is no discussion of how or when the Louisiana legislature and the Department of Corrections created such policies and practices. By making the CCA out to be the singular bad guy, Bauer obscures that the source of political power is not private prison companies but state bodies.

Even the per diem system where CCA gets a set payment per prisoner it houses each night at Winn is not as exceptional at Bauer makes it out to be. The DOC first adopted the use of per diems to pay sheriffs to house state prisons in local jails in response to federal court orders a full 15 years before Winn’s gates were open. And, the agreement that the DOC had with CCA to keep Winn at least 96% full of prisoners at all times mirrors the long-standing agreements between numerous Louisiana sheriffs and the DOC that state prisoners must make up the majority of certain jails’ population. Private prisons did not invent this model. They merely copied the already existing practices of Louisiana’s carceral regime.

Moreover, the problems at Winn depicted by Bauer are not unusual but parallel the inhumane conditions of violence and neglect found at its public counterparts. Rather than making Winn exceptional, the issues Bauer recounts —the disregard given to incarcerated people’s grievances, the prevalence of medical neglect, the arbitrary pitching of prisoners’ mail, the inhumanity of solitary confinement, the scaling back of educational programming, the systematic production of violent environments—demonstrates that the problems facing private prisons are the exact ones that have been the source of prisoner lawsuits and protests in state-run jails and prisons across the nation for decades. Winn is not an exception as much as an exemplar of Louisiana’s penal system.

The Political Economy of Incarceration

What’s more, in understating the role of the state, Bauer misconstrues the political economy of incarceration. First of all, Bauer asserts that private prisons emerged in the 1980s to take advantage of the crisis of prison overcrowding. Bauer claims that states jumped on the privatization bandwagon so that they could “quickly expand their prison systems without taking on new debt.”[5] This assessment is completely counter to how Winn (and Louisiana’s other private prison Allen) came to be. The story of prison construction is actually one of the state finding innovative methods to take on debt in the face of popular opposition to prison expansion, not to avoid new debt. In the mid-1980s, Louisiana followed other states in creating new debt-financing schemes for prison construction through lease revenue bonds (LRBs). LRBs allowed the state to take on debt to build and later expand three prisons, including Winn, without having to attain voter approval. Thus, the state took on millions in debt that was later paid back with tax payer dollars for almost 20 years, and the bond holders (aka banks) netted huge profits from the interest. These bond holders are the real profiteers of incarceration rather than the CCA whose shareholder prices have considerably dropped since the late 1990s.[6]

Furthermore, in outlining how CCA attempts to squeeze every last penny from the then daily $34 per dim rate the DOC paid the CCA for managing Winn, Bauer misses the main question. Where does this money come from in the first place? From the everyday taxes of people living, working, and playing in Louisiana. During the year Bauer worked at Winn, over $18 million of Louisiana taxpayer dollars went into operating the prison.[7] The operational costs of Winn are paid by the state. Like all subcontractors, CCA does its best to grab as a much profit as they can. But it is public not private monies that are primarily responsible for keeping prisons running across the US, even the private ones.

Most significantly, the context of the broader Louisiana political economy is largely absent from “My Four Months.” One of the main reasons Bauer gives for why he decided to take a job at Winn instead of another privately-run prison is that “Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world.” However, the build up of the Louisiana penal system was not the result of privatization plans but was produced by the combination of rising tough on crime politics and economic booms and busts over the last forty years. In 1970 Louisiana has one prison with 4,196 people locked up while by its peak of incarceration in 2012, the state was home to 12 state prisons and scores of parish jails holding state prisoners with a penal population of over 40,000.[8] At first, prisons were easily built with Louisiana’s oil revenue surpluses that were the result of the 1970s oil crises. But then, once oil prices dropped in the 1980s and Louisiana entered into economic recession with rising unemployment and significant revenue shortages, the state turned to debt financing for penal construction. As mentioned above, it was in this moment that Louisiana decided to have the last two state prisons it built, Winn and Allen, be privately operated to save some costs amidst state-wide revanchivist budget slashing. For this reason, the state legislature decided upon the low per diem rate, that Bauer identified as the source of much of Winn’s woes, to pay private prison companies.

Yet, following the opening of Winn and Allen, the Louisiana government turned to a different strategy to become the incarceration capital of the world—building its penal system through expanding parish jails to hold state prisoners. While this arrangement was first used in response to overcrowding crises in the 1970s at the ire of sheriffs statewide, economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s put financial pressure on sheriffs who came to organize for more beds for state prisoners to aggrandize their budgets. This aligned with the needs of the DOC and state politicians who were facing overcrowding again in the 1990s and were seeking more cost-effective solutions for expanding the penal system. Using LRBs to expand numerous parish jails while paying sheriffs an even lower per diem rate than the one offered private prison companies, the state government found a way to keep people behind bars without having to raise Louisiana’s notoriously low taxes. Today it is not private prisons that hold the majority of people incarcerated in Louisiana but parish jails.[9]

Moreover, this context helps to clarify how Winn is situated within Louisiana not only due to internal scandals, as Bauer would have it, but various economic and political pressures. The slight decline in funding for Winn that Bauer describes is due to the budgetary crises and austerity measures that marked the years of former Governor Bobby Jindal’s administration. This decline is in no way exceptional but fits within the larger pattern of state contractions in recent decades. Indeed, it is curious that no where to be found in “My Four Months” is discussion that in the most recent Louisiana legislative sessions, shutting Winn altogether was debated as a strategy for dealing with the state’s most recent round of budget crises.[10] While this option was not taken up, it is a reminder that private prison companies are always beholden to the decision’s of state governments who decide whether they will continue their contracts or transfer their prisoners to state-run prisons.

At the same time, while the reductions in Winn and and broader DOC budget are real, it is important to remember that such reductions pale in comparison to the cuts to other sectors such as healthcare and education.  It is still much more politically viable for the Louisiana government to keep people locked up while cutting corners here and there than it is to turn away from the huge expenses of mass incarceration and invest in the social welfare of the state.

The Question of Violence

Finally, it is worth remarking on the topic that more than any other structures Bauer’s piece: prison violence. Although Bauer frames this focus as about revealing the harms of prison privatization, in doing so, he falls into the persistence trope of prison writing, the fetishization of prison violence. Despite his seeming attempt to get at the root of such violence, his vacillation between guard violence, prisoner violence, and the violence spurred on by the CCA muddies rather than clarifies the state-sanctioned violence of imprisonment.

Throughout “My Four Months,” Bauer locates the source of violence at Winn as the desires of greedy CCA executives and shareholders. For Bauer, the low wages paid to guards and the lack of meaningful training and oversight leads to the prevalence of brutality amongst prison staff. Not only does this argument displace the violence of incarceration onto individuals and private interests, it begs some serious questions: Does Bauer believe that low paid people are more likely to be violent than their higher paid counterparts? If this is the case, how does Bauer account for the numerous examples of brutality by much higher paid guards in publicly run-prisons in states such as California, Illinois, and New York?[11]

At the same time, by focusing on the actions of particular guards and prisoners, Bauer individualizes the question of violence. For example, in Bauer’s discussion of sexualized violence behind bars, he fails to account for how men’s prisons are set up to entrench and extend patriarchal dominance and control. In doing so he misses how such oppressive power relations within prisons are magnifications of the broader relations of domination, exploitation, and dispossession that structure the US.

Moreover, in overly focusing on the role of individualized violence, Bauer collapses violence amongst prisoners and violence enacted on prisoners by Winn staff. This can be seen in Bauer’s statement that during his time as a guard Winn was the most “armored” prison in Louisiana as evidenced by the number of shanks found by guards. Not only does this statement elide the material differences between prisoner-made weapons and the guns of the SWOT team stationed at Winn, it also reinforces the notion that dangerous prisoners rather than the incarceration itself is the root of violence. His repeated refrain about the understaffing of Winn likewise implies that if only the prison hired more guards who were better trained, Winn would be a safer place.[12] This is the same liberal argument that has repeatedly circulated as the answer to police violence, yet in reality it has not proven to halt the routinized killing of Black people.

Additionally, Bauer’s focus on the violence of a few individual guards and his own participation in violent acts is situated within the backdrop of the notorious Stanford prison experiment where white male college students were broken into groups of “prisoners” and “guards” and quickly devolved into cruelty and violence. In implying that anyone could become a brutal prison guard, he evades his own responsibility for his actions. Yet the fact that most of the prison staff that Bauer starts with at Winn quit within a few months counters this claim. What does it reveal about the stability of Winn and other private prisons that they have such difficulty in keeping a staff? How can we understand people’s resignations at Winn as potentially not only a refusal to accept low pay but people’s unwillingness to dehumanize others for work?

In Closing

At this moment, what we need more than ever is journalism that investigates and explains the actual levers of mass incarceration. Recent journalism on the rise of debtors jails is an valuable example of the possibilities of such work. However, as long as we continue to focus our energies on private prisons instead of the complex state and economic processes that give rise to this form of state-sanctioned violence, the point is missed about private prisons such as Winn. Closing them down will not stem the violence of incarceration nor will it ensure that anyone gets free. The problem of private prisons is not that they’re private, but that they are prisons. To think otherwise will mislead us time and time again in our attempts to create a more free world.

Thanks to Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and David Stein for feedback and support on this piece. 

NOTES

[1] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14.pdf. Even CCA admits the problem of such decline in its 2015 annual report: http://www.cca.com/investors/financial-information/annual-reports.

[2] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer

[3] Such premature death takes myriad forms: death from treatable illness, suicide, violence at the hands of guards and prisoners alike, as well as the overall decrease of two years of people’s life expectancy for every year spent behind bars. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2012.301148?journalCode=ajph

[4]These dehumanizing conditions have persisted even at times that the entire Louisiana penal system was under extensive federal court orders that required detailed monthly reporting.

[5] It is worth noting this history Mother Jones reports is simply a repetition of recent CCA annual reports. See their 2008 Annual Report http://www.cca.com/investors/financial-information/annual-reports

[6] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-corrections-corperation-america-private-prisons-company-profile.

[7] http://www.doa.la.gov/opb/pub/FY15/StateBudget_FY15.pdf pg. 22

[8] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf.

[9] And, given California’s turn to a similar “realignment strategy” these are the types of trends that are ripe for further investigation.

[10] This was also discussed for the other privately run prison Allen Correctional Center. It is also important to note that even as the state has just lowered per diem rates for both private prisons and local sheriffs housing state prisoners rather than closing prisons, this does not necessarily signal a retrenchment in penal power. Draconian laws continue to shape the criminal justice system at the municipal and state level, paroles and pardons are still hard to come by, and the Louisiana Department of Corrections budget continues to hold above $500 million dollars.

[11] http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-pol-abuse-california-prison-20151216-story.html; http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/03/20/3636918/correctional-unit-beat-sexually-abused-inmates-throughout-illinois/; http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/14/nyregion/clinton-correctional-facility-inmate-brutality.html.

[12] This implicit argument of “My Four Months” is more explicitly made in Bauer’s Democracy Now! Interview where he states that the problem with Winn was that such understaffing allowed a prisoner to escape.

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  1. Pingback: What I’m Reading – February 19, 2017 – ASK Musings


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