On the Business of Incarceration

Craig Gilmore

The real problem with prisons is prisons, not profit.

American Prison
Shane Bauer
Penguin Press | $28.00 | 368 pages

Publishing interest in prisons has followed increased political activity both inside the walls and out. In the early 1970s, it was unremarkable to find bookstores displaying copies of Soledad Brother alongside Kind and Usual Punishment. But as the number of people locked in US prisons began to climb in the late seventies, interest in what was happening in prison faded, at least among general free-world readers. For twenty years, publishing about prisons seemed limited to a handful of left-leaning writers, like Angela Davis, Barbara Harlow, and Bruce Franklin. The revival in general interest might be traced back to the 1998 Critical Resistance conference, along with the linked activism and media projects that grew out of it. There are numerous reasons that US publishing largely ignored prisons for more than two decades but one of them certainly was that the prison system itself, having learned about the dangers of too much communication between inside and out, severely limited free-world access to prisons, both across the board and more severely for those inside known to be organizers. It was in response to that de facto media ban that Ted Conover produced one of the most remarkable pieces of the twenty-first century’s flowering of prison-related writing, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), in which he documented his time undercover as a guard in one of the country’s oldest and most decrepit prisons.

In November 2014, Shane Bauer, reporting for Mother Jones, went undercover as a guard at Winn Correctional Center, near the Louisiana birthplace of populist governor Huey Long. His motivation was similar to Conover’s: “It’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system,” a violent and racist apparatus he judges to be “a national disgrace.” Bauer’s award-winning article has now been expanded into a book. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, named among the New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2018” and praised by Barack Obama, is a pale rehash of Conover. The widespread enthusiasm for the book in liberal circles tells us something about contemporary prison politics very different from what Bauer intended.

He claims in the introduction that “private prisons do not drive mass incarceration today; they merely profit from it.” But it is impossible to read Bauer’s book, or understand the reception it has enjoyed, without seeing that it makes precisely the opposite case: that profiteering is the blood at the root of mass incarceration. “Commercial interests have been guiding penal practices since before the American Revolution,” he writes. His claim is indefensible.

American Prison sits in a sweet spot of US penal reformism linked to the call to close private prisons emanating from large parts of the Democratic Party, to the private-prison divestment campaigns of Color of Change and Enlace, and to Ava DuVernay’s film The 13th. All of these propagate the mistaken idea that the racist phenomenon of US mass incarceration is driven primarily by profit and that we can therefore demolish it by removing the profiteers, starting with the privately owned and operated prisons and detention centers.

The constant focus on profit and corporations gives such campaigners a modestly leftist glow, but their simplistic reduction of racial capitalist relations to profit offers little more than what Stuart Hall called “a low-flying economism” inadequate to understanding, much less overthrowing, the current carceral regime. That their political economy of punishment owes more to James Carville than to Marx or Luxemburg is a major source of their message’s popularity.

“A better-paid prison guard is not a step towards decarceration.”

Alternating between first-person chapters detailing his time at Winn and third-person, secondhand historical vignettes that display the connections between unfreedom and profit in the US through a discussion of chain gangs, convict leasing, and prison plantations, American Prison offers a distorted view of how we might understand, and therefore change, US prisons. The picture of life inside as a combination of rarely relieved boredom and ever-present tension will be news only to those new to prison life. Winn is a prison that offers very little educational or vocational programming. It has grossly inadequate medical services. It is dehumanizing to those locked inside (and to those who work there, if less so). It is racist and violent. It saves money by cutting corners on almost anything that might benefit those locked inside. Bauer attributes most of those ills to decisions by the prison’s owner, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, recently renamed CoreCivic). Could it be that his research didn’t reveal that such issues are endemic to the US prison system as a whole, private or public? If we are to understand the terrible medical care at Winn as CCA squeezing another dollar from the lives of those it incarcerates, how do we understand the weekly occurrence of preventable deaths in California public prisons documented in the Plata lawsuit?

In a rare critique of Bauer, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs writes that Bauer’s insistence on privatization and profit as explanations for “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” leaves Bauer and his readers unable to “account for the numerous examples of brutality by much higher paid guards in publicly run prisons in states such as California, Illinois.

Since profiteering cannot provide an explanation for either the prevailing conditions within or the anomalous size of the US prison system (92 percent of which is noncommercial), why is the narrow critique of profiteering so popular in the growing anti-prison movement?

The campaign against private prisons is almost as old as prison corporations themselves, dating to the early 1990s. Concern that privatization would threaten public-prison jobs led to the creation of a think tank called Private Corrections Institute (now Private Corrections Working Group) that came out of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, “the largest collective bargaining agent for law enforcement, correctional and correctional probation officers in Florida.” The messaging that they developed twenty-five years ago argued that incarceration was a public service that shouldn’t be contracted out, and that privatization led to increased escapes, poor medical and rehabilitative services, and increased violence in the prisons, much of which it attributed to poorly paid and trained staff. These would become the central themes of Bauer’s first-person reporting.

In the dynamic between public and private incarceration, the most suggestive fact about private prisons may be that the number of people locked inside them is declining. In parallel, county jails across the country are expanding, many in hopes of landing contracts to imprison people for state or federal crimes, as detailed by Jack Norton’s “In Our Backyards” series at the Vera Institute. Pelot-Hobbs writes of Louisiana: “Today it is not private prisons that hold the majority of people incarcerated in Louisiana but parish jails.”

Against this, the critique of privatization offers up an easy-to-understand story with comic book villains in the form of inarguably horrid companies. In so doing, it presents easy targets whose vanquishing would have minimal impact on the size of or the damages caused by the US prison system. It is a reformist gambit, promising significant changes while maintaining the status quo. A few years ago, Color of Change launched a petition “to immediately stop supporting an industry that profits off the exploitation and racism of the criminal justice system.” The petition explains that the huge and racist US prison system is the work of an industry that is “raking in billions from longer and harsher terms of confinement that disproportionately locks up Black folks and immigrants.” Five states, they note triumphantly, had recently cut ties with private-prison firms. What they neglected to add was that in four of the five, incarceration rates increased—at a time when the US prison population was dropping.

The embrace of campaigns against private prisons by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stems from the fact that they hope to insulate themselves from the sorts of Black Lives Matter interventions that placed prison-reform politics on the agenda in 2016. Conveniently, such campaigns do not threaten AFSCME’s eighty-five thousand public-prison jobs nor require significant changes in who is locked up. The political base of anti-privatization efforts consists of public-sector unions and benevolent associations representing prison guards, probation and parole officers, police and sheriffs. As the largely abolitionist-driven movement against mass incarceration has grown over the past twenty years, some of its language has been cynically leveraged to legitimate anti-privatization campaigns. Reading the petitions calling for divestment from private prisons, you might imagine that you’re dismantling the prison-industrial complex; in fact, such campaigns prop up the most powerful players in the current carceral system.


Bauer ends his book with a classic scene of speaking truth to power in which he takes on not the governor or legislature, not the district attorneys or police, but the CoreCivic board. He confronts them about violence, contraband, and staff morale, and concludes by pushing for “increases in staff pay [that] would raise staffing levels, cut down on contraband, and boost morale and security. How do you justify paying a fast-food wage to people who risk their lives on a daily basis?” A better-paid prison guard is not a step towards decarceration.

Bauer’s follow-the-profit economism isn’t just bad analysis. Orisanmi Burton argues that a liberal account obscuring “the prison as a site of normalized racial violence” provides cover for the system as a whole. Bauer, by suggesting that prison violence stems from profit, legitimizes the public-prison system, obscures the daily racial, gender, and sexual violence that defines all prisons, and offers reformers, bipartisan or not, a convenient and inconsequential campaign target. Violence, not profit, is the bedrock of US prisons.