Summary and book reviews of American Prison by Shane Bauer

American Prison

A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

by Shane Bauer

American Prison by Shane Bauer X
American Prison by Shane Bauer
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  • Published:
    Sep 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin

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Book Summary

A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history.

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Still, there was much more that he needed to say.

In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can't understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.

The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly-trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison's sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone.

A blistering indictment of the private prison system, and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.

You can read an extensive excerpt of American Prison at Mother Jones

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Shane Bauer chose to go undercover as a corrections officer at a for-profit prison in Louisiana, and the result is a damning portrait of the business of incarcerating Americans, and the legacy of racism in the criminal justice system. The juxtaposition of Bauer's experience with the historical chapters provides a rich context, helping the reader to understand how the present system came to be.   (Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Full Review Members Only (751 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bauer vividly depicts Winn's poisonous culture as he finds himself succumbing to its mind-set of paranoid authoritarianism ...In addition, he sets his reportage in the context of a history of for-profit incarceration in the South that is rife with racism and torture. The result is a gripping indictment of a bad business.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S.

Author Blurb Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
Sometimes the only way to get the full story is to put yourself into it as an 'immersion journalist.' Shane Bauer wanted to know more about for-profit prisons so he got a job in one as a correction officer, or guard, and reports his experiences grippingly while weaving in the social and economic factors that give rise to these horrors. His book reveals much that that we didn't want to know about but, having learned about, can never forget.

Author Blurb Ted Conover, Pulitzer Prize finalist and director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University
American Prison is a searing, page-turning indictment of America's practice of corporate incarceration. Shane Bauer reports in the best way a journalist can: by going into a prison himself. But then he connects the dots, drawing a persuasive through-line from plantations worked by slaves, to Southern prison farms, to corporate prisons. With this braid of history and reportage Bauer reveals the criminal nature of private prisons, a world of pain that is also a business. His is a beautiful rage.

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Beyond the Book

The Legacy of Slavery and Prison Labor

Four men in a convict leasing chain in 1915With the Justice Department currently pushing for harsher sentences after a brief period of relative leniency during the Obama Administration, the explosion of the prison population has become an increasingly relevant social and political issue. America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (with 2.3 million people currently living in its prisons, jails, and other detention centers), and one in five criminal offenses is related to drugs. It is common to see this as a recent phenomenon—a change due to "tough on crime" policies such as three strikes and mandatory minimum sentences. These laws undoubtedly contributed to the recent increase in rates of incarceration, but they are also part of a long-running ...

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