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Reporter Found Lack Of Medical Care As Undercover Prison Guard At For-Profit Facility


For-profit prisons have become a big business. And investigative reporter Shane Bauer wanted to get into one, so he went undercover as a guard. Bauer was hired by the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, which is run by the nation's second-largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. Bauer joins us now to talk about this experience. Good have you with us.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Now, Shane, you're an investigative reporter for Mother Jones. And I think we should also mention you were one of the hostages held by Iran for two years, and you actually wrote a book about that experience. I am assuming that you didn't mention either one of these experiences on your application. And I'm wondering, did you have to lie to get this job?

BAUER: A ground rule going into this is that I didn't necessarily have to offer up information at every turn, but I would never lie. When I filled out the application, I wrote that my current employer was the Foundation for National Progress, which is the parent company of Mother Jones and, you know, used my real name, Social Security number and personal information.

NEARY: Now, I know one of the reasons you wanted to go, or needed to go, undercover in order to do this reporting was because private prisons are dealt with differently, I guess, in terms of public records. They don't have to release their records. Can you explain that to me?

BAUER: You know, a company that is traded on Wall Street is not under any obligation to divulge its records or means of doing business. So it's even harder for us to get information about what goes on in these prisons.

NEARY: So is there any oversight going on with private prison systems? I mean, are local governments holding them accountable or responsible in any way?

BAUER: You know, it really varies from state to state. At Louisiana, there ended up being quite a bit of violence at the prison while I was there, a lot of understaffing, medical issues. And at one point, the state stepped in and actually took over the prison. So they kind of tried to bring it under control for a while.

NEARY: Why was it so violent? Wasn't this a medium-security prison?

BAUER: It was a medium-security prison. There were days that I showed up for work when there were 24 or 25 guards showing up for work for a prison of 1,500 inmates. So it's very hard to keep a prison secure with that level of staff. So there did end up being a lot of stabbings. And I learned, after I left, through records requests with the Department of Corrections that in just a two-month period, there were 200 weapons found at Winn, which - it's actually 23 times more weapons than were found at the maximum-security prison in that same time period.

NEARY: One of the really difficult things that you reported on was the lack of medical care at this facility, which had some really horrible consequences for some of these inmates. I wonder if you can just give us an example of what happened to one of the inmates.

BAUER: Sure. One of the first inmates I met was a man named Robert Scott. He was in a wheelchair. He had no legs and fingers. And he explained to me that he had lost them less than a year ago. And he told me, and I later verified by looking at his medical records, that he had made many visits to the infirmary over several months complaining of intense pain in his legs, later complaining of pus dripping out of his feet. And he would be given Motrin and, you know, sent back. He says that sometimes the nurses would suggest he was faking it and send him back. And it wasn't until it was too late that he got sent to the hospital and his legs were amputated.

There's, you know, a fundamental issue with private prisons, and this prison in Louisiana in particular, was that the Corrections Corporation of America would have to bear the expense of sending a prisoner to a hospital. And, you know, if they're making $34 per inmate per day, a hospital bill is a major expense.

NEARY: And the same thing went for mental health care as well, right? Very lacking.

BAUER: Yeah. There was - for 1,500 inmates, there was one full-time social worker, one part-time psychiatrist and one part-time psychologist at Winn. And some prisoners who had severe mental health issues, you know, would become suicidal. And the way that that was dealt with is they would be sent to solitary confinement. They would be put in a cell alone, stripped of their clothing and given a tearproof blanket.

And there's no mental health staff there. There's just a guard watching them. I sat on that post a couple of times. And there was an inmate who was telling me he was having mental health emergencies, that he was threatening to jump off his bed and break his neck. And I reported this, and it wasn't for about six hours that a psychiatrist showed up to talk to him.

NEARY: That man actually ended up killing himself eventually. Is that right?

BAUER: Yes, he did. I learned after I left, when the mother of a man, Damien Costly, contacted me and, you know, told me that her son had committed suicide. And it so happened that I had watched Damien on suicide watch myself. Damien Costly was somebody who was on suicide watch a lot, and he also was protesting the mental health services, or lack thereof. He would write grievances. He would go on hunger strike quite a bit.

And he was on suicide watch and was taken off suicide watch without the consultation of mental health staff. And he hung himself in his cell. His autopsy report showed that when he died he weighed 71 pounds.

NEARY: What happened after CCA found out that you were not really a prison guard, that you were a reporter and that you had gone undercover?

BAUER: Well, CCA found out about that after I left and two or three weeks later announced that they were going to be revoking their contract with the state of Louisiana. It ended up being taken over by another private prison company called LaSalle, which is a Louisiana-based company.

NEARY: Shane Bauer is a reporter for Mother Jones. He spent four months undercover as a guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. Thanks for being with us, Shane.

BAUER: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.