The prison system is set up to degrade inmates and their guards. Just ask the journalist who’s been both.

Prison cells.
Prison cells. Thinkstock

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones whose new book is American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment. It’s the story of Bauer’s own experience, undercover, in a private Louisiana prison, and it is a harrowing look at one slice of our criminal justice system.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss what being a prison guard did to Bauer’s psyche, why the system is explicitly designed to have guards dehumanize prisoners, and how his prior experience in solitary confinement shaped his thinking about being a guard.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

Isaac Chotiner: So, you had already been in prison—as a prisoner—in a foreign country, before this job. Can you talk about that?

Shane Bauer: I started my career as a journalist in the Middle East. I speak Arabic. I was living in the Middle East, living in Syria in 2009, and took a trip to Iraq with my partner and friends, and we got arrested on the border between Iran and Iraq. I spent two years in prison in Iran, came home, assumed I would go back to reporting in the Middle East, but got pulled into American prisons. There was a large hunger strike happening at that time, where tens of thousands of prisoners, especially in California, were protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement. I had been in solitary myself and so was drawn to this.

You were drawn to it because it’s really terrible and so you wanted to investigate it?

Yeah, I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a form of torture. The U.N. now says it’s also a form of torture after two weeks. And I had no idea how much we used it here. We generally have about 80,000 people in solitary confinement at any given time. But what really drew me into it was how egregious our use of it was. In California, at the time I did this investigation, we had hundreds of people who had been in solitary for over 10 years. We had people who had been in for 20, 30, 40 years who had not even committed violent crimes. A lot of them were kind of troublemakers in one way or another in prisons. They were maybe trying to organize around conditions, or they were jailhouse lawyers, or they were more outspoken than other prisoners and would end up getting basically deemed to be associates of gang members, whether they were or weren’t, and would get just locked away indefinitely in solitary confinement. I had been in solitary for months, which is just an extraordinary amount of time to be in a cell by yourself, and we’re talking decades in this country.

What aspect of it, for you, was the most tortuous?

I think it’s different for every person. But you are essentially just trapped with yourself. You realize very quickly what kind of social beings we are. And I noticed that even my thoughts kind of slowed and stopped at some points. So much of what happens inside of our minds is dependent on that interaction with other people. I started to wish that my interrogators would come and interrogate me so that I would have some relief from that kind of just oppressive loneliness and that feeling that time is my enemy. Just try sitting in a room for one day with nothing. And the hours just feel like your enemy.

OK. So let’s jump forward now to 2014.

I’d been interested in private prisons. I’d kind of poked at them before, and private prisons in particular are more difficult to get information from than public prisons. Public-records laws often don’t apply because these are companies—they’re not necessarily state institutions. And since these corporations had started in the 1980s, we hadn’t really had a kind of inside look at the day-to-day operations of these prisons. So I had the idea to apply for a job, see if I could get inside. I didn’t think it was going to work at all. It was just kind of a whim. I filled out an application online. And I very quickly started getting calls for interviews. And I’d also like to point out that I filled out the application truthfully.

I was going to ask about the ethical issues of this. So there were some things you were thinking about, certain lines you shouldn’t cross?

Yeah. One rule from the very beginning was that I will never lie. I’m not necessarily going to be putting forward information. I wasn’t going around telling people I was a journalist. But if somebody asked me, then I would answer truthfully. So I was interviewed by several prisons around the country and was offered jobs, and even the interview process was interesting because I was asked kind of just boilerplate questions that you would imagine being asked if you’re applying for a job at Walmart. Like, “How do you work with others?” “What do you do if your boss wants to do something you don’t want to do?” They didn’t ask me about my background. They didn’t ask me about working in a prison. And this is a $9-an-hour job, so there was kind of a feeling to these interviews that they were almost trying to sell me the job.

Some of the most interesting scenes in the book early on depict the training that you go through.

We went through four weeks of training. The other cadets with me were mostly young people from the town. Some of them had just recently come out of high school. There were a couple of single moms, and we would go through these kind of lessons, a lot of which were about protecting our liability.

So on one of my first days of training, the man leading the training class asked us what we do if we see two inmates stabbing each other, and somebody says, “Break it up or tell them to stop.” And he says, “We’re not going to pay you enough to get in the middle of those people.” He says, “Your job is to tell them, ‘Stop fighting.’ ” And I remember exactly what he said. He said, “If those fools want to cut each other, then happy cutting.” So essentially our role is to do the bare minimum to protect our liability in case there’s a lawsuit or something like that. It’s not necessarily to protect the prisoners in our care.

There were also many lessons based on the idea of manipulation. This isn’t something that’s limited to private prisons; this is common in trainings for prison guards throughout the country. This idea is that inmates are constantly trying to manipulate you. If they’re being nice to you, that’s a sign of manipulation. If they’re telling you something that another inmate’s doing, that’s a sign of manipulation. Also, if they’re complimenting your job, complaining about another guard. There’s this early effort to get us to kind of dehumanize the prisoners in a certain sense and justify to ourselves what we’re doing every day: locking these people up.

Did you get a sense that the company wanted you to get to a place where you dehumanized the inmates because that would make you more efficient at your job?

Oh absolutely. I think the people whom I was in class with were not there because they dreamed of one day being prison guards or because they were sadistic. They just were poor people and needed jobs. And I noticed going in with other people and with myself that people want to be kind of decent. Most of them, when they go in, they want to treat prisoners well. But then you have to face the fact that you’re doing something that is not really within your normal realm of what it means to be a decent human being. You’re locking these people up day after day and they’re getting angry about it, and some of them are trying to push your buttons or get you to overextend yourself and give them favors so that they pile up and they become exhausting. And you start to have to set limits. And once you start setting limits you start having problems with people, and then you inevitably kind of enter into a battle, and it’s very difficult to do that job unless you kind of turn off something inside.

What’s a specific example of this?

Something that’s very common that seemed innocuous at first: I worked in a unit of about 350 prisoners. And it was me and one other guard who were working the floor. These prisoners are in dorms of about 45 inmates. There are eight dorms of 45 inmates. And they would often ask to get out of one dorm [by saying], “I need to go give something to this other guy in another dorm.” “I want to trade my honeybun for some ramen.” Or something like that. So I would let them out one at a time: “OK. Go do your thing. Come back.” And then people start to understand that you’re somebody who is willing to do that, and you end up for 12 hours kind of running from one place to the other letting this person out, making sure this person gets back in.

And so one time I let this guy out whom I’d been letting out for a while and I said, “OK, you get to go there and come right back.” And he didn’t. So at that point I decided, OK, I need to put my foot down, and I wrote him up. It was like a disciplinary report. Because I felt that, if I didn’t, he would kind of start to think he could take advantage of me. And I had realized that in a prison, whether you’re a prisoner or a guard, you have to kind of draw a line somewhere and you have to hold it. And if you don’t, people think you’re soft and people try to walk all over you.

So that was the first time that I kind of disciplined somebody. And when I went home I was worried: Is this guy going to get sent to solitary confinement for a week or two for this? What’s going to happen? Is it worth it? And I had to stop having those conversations with myself and just do the job and not think about it.

Was there any sense of camaraderie between you and the other guards that developed?

Sure, yeah.

And what’s that based around? Especially for someone like yourself, who I imagine does not believe much in the cause of what you’re doing, what is the camaraderie based on?

The first time that I remember having a sense of camaraderie during training was when we had to be tear-gassed. The idea was that there might be a time when tear gas is used in the prison and they want us to know what it feels like so we don’t freak out. So we essentially all stood out in a patch of grass and linked arms and just stood there as tear gas washed over us. It was awful. I mean, you’d think you were choking, you’re gagging, and we came out of it and felt like we had made it through this kind of horrible experience. There was definitely a stronger sense that we’re kind of in this together.

And then in the prison that became much more extreme because the other guards, whether you like them or not, there’s a sense that they’re the ones who are on your team. If you get in trouble, they’re the ones who you have to rely on to help you and to get you out of the situation that you might be in.

How many prisoners were there total?

I think 1,300.

And what were most of them in for?

It was a range. It was a medium-security prison, so there were people who were there for having too many DUIs. There were people who had been convicted of murder but had been in the system long enough, and had good behavior, that they were taken down from maximum security to medium security. Rape.

What was the racial makeup?

It was majority-black. If I remember, I think it was about 75 percent, and almost all the rest was white.

Were most of the guards white?

No, actually. Most of the guards were black, and most of the guards were women. It was a really high number of single moms. I think it was kind of—it was really just the most desperate people in the town who needed to get a job for insurance, or the people who were willing to do this job for $9 an hour, which was a fairly small pool.

You can’t tell the history of criminal justice in Louisiana without talking a lot about race. And I’m wondering how you thought that history kind of manifested itself or was played out over your experience at this particular prison where three-fourths of the inmates are black?

At least since slavery, the majority of prisoners have been black. The criminal justice system has been racialized since the very beginning. This really is not even a question of the prison so much, it’s a question of policing, of what kind of sentences black Americans are getting as opposed to whites. I think that has more to do with the legacy of racism in the country than the prisons themselves.

You have these two experiences, one of which is being a prison guard. But the other is your solitary confinement. And both are presented as rather dehumanizing experiences, but dehumanizing in very different ways. We use a word like dehumanize for both of them. How would you distinguish them in terms of what they did to you as a person?

The two experiences are very difficult to compare, honestly. I was a prison guard by choice. It was part of a larger project. I wasn’t there for the same reasons everyone else was, forced into it because of poverty or lack of other options. I could leave at any moment. Prisoners can’t.

As a prisoner I had no idea when I was going to get out. I was cut off from the world. I was in a political prison where people were physically tortured. But as a prisoner I feel like in some ways there were ways to kind of … I don’t know, for a lack of a better way to put it, kind of keep my dignity intact. I was always trying to figure out ways to stand up to guards, to push the system to allow me some more privileges. There was always something that I was struggling over, by hunger striking or other forms of protest.

As a guard I’m on the other side of things. I think that many of the guards felt that they were being exploited by the company. They talked about this often. They often sympathized with the prisoners. I would see guards and prisoners having a sense of camaraderie at times over their disdain for the company. But for me I could take off at any point, and when I finished the job I went on vacation to Thailand.

How did you try to maintain or restore your dignity in Iran?

I was there with two others, and when we were in solitary confinement we figured out a way to send messages to each other and decided to go on a hunger strike to essentially demand that we be allowed to see each other. And that worked. I refused things that they had asked me to do for propaganda reasons, like they wanted to film us at times. I essentially pressured them to give me more food. These are things that, on the outside, many of them seem tiny. Or trying to get more books. But in prison these are huge. It changes everything.

Did you ever find a situation when you were working in the prison where prisoners were trying to restore their dignity in some way? And did you find yourself having the opposite response, or were you able to feel that you understood what this person was doing?

No, this is what was the most startling on a personal level to being a guard: to see how easily and quickly I could change inside the prison. I happened to be there at a time that it was really reaching a point of crisis. It was very violent. There were almost weekly stabbings. It was severely understaffed and the state came and kind of briefly took it over. The company sent in a kind of tactical team and the prison was put on lockdown, so prisoners were not allowed to leave their dorms for days. So rather than going to the cafeteria we brought them food, and when we would go into a dorm they would sometimes kind of rush the cart and try to take a bunch of food.

One day I was passing out food and one prisoner took two trays rather than one. And I saw him do it. And I just kind of stood over him and shouted at him and made him give it back. And there was a moment where I realized, I kind of flashed to this moment where I was in prison and I had taken an extra food tray and a guard flipped out and separated me from my friend and cellmate Josh. So that kind of hit me hard, because I was like, here I am being the same person whom I was fighting against not too long ago. And I was regularly having experiences like this, where I would essentially leave the prison, go home, which was the time that I’m taking notes, trying to get down everything that I thought was important from the day for the journalistic project that I was there for. And I would be kind of almost ashamed of the person I was when I was inside the prison. And the longer I was there, I felt like these were kind of two different people.