It is often said that one measure of a society’s morality is how it treats its least favored citizens. My nomination for America’s least favored…our bottom one-half of one percent …are the 1.6 million Americans in corrective custody. And for many of them, there is an even lower status, a distinct form of second-class prisoner-ship. Take, for example, the lives of inmates at the privately-run prison in Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, LA.
Winn was part of an empire of more than 60 prisons and jails run by the Corrections Corporation of America – CCA when our guest today, investigative reporter Shane Bauer of Mother Jones Magazine worked there as a Corrections Officer. CCA and GEO Corporation are the GM and Ford of the private prison industry. Together they house the lion’s share of the 131,000 prisoners in private facilities.
The business is good enough that CCA paid its CEO, Damon Hininger, $3.4 million in 2015, nearly 19 times the salary of the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to CCA’s 2016 Annual report, revenues climbed by almost 9% in 2015, to 1.8 Billion….with net income climbing almost 14% to $221 million. That’s $3300 in profit for every prisoner in their care.
What’s driving the growth in the private prison industry is the claim that it saves public money, by running cheaper than public prisons. Obviously, to do this, and pay multi-million dollar salaries and post hundreds of millions in profits, they have to cut somewhere, and if the CCA operation at Winn is any example, they do – they cut on wages and benefits and training and equipment for their frequently short-staffed employees – they cut on food and care, recreation and education for their prisoners.
What that meant at Winn, Shane Bauer will tell us. He spent four months there, working undercover as a CO, Corrections Officer, surreptitiously taking pictures, recording sound and taking notes, and turned all that into a breath-taking investigative report for Mother Jones.
Before we get to that reality let’s reveal some things Shane can’t tell us.
- Do cities, counties, states and the Federal government save money by licensing private prisons? There have been a few studies. Some say yes. Some say no. None seems to make a definitive argument.
- Are most prisoners in privately-run facilities worse off than those in publically-run lock-ups? There are a lot of statistics and reports that suggest the answer could be yes, but, truthfully, no one can say for sure. That’s because the last national study of the question by the Federal department of Justice was done in 2001.
So how does America treat its lowliest citizens? Could there be a worse answer than the obvious one – we don’t want to know.
Now, thanks to Shane Bauer and Mother Jones, we do know…at least about one private prison, Winn Correctional Center.
Shane Bauer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones and recipient of numerous awards, including the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism. He is also the co-author, with Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, of A Sliver of Light, a memoir of his two years as a prisoner in Iran. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.