I recently read Shane Bauer’s six-part series of articles for Mother Jones titled, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” As the name would imply, Bauer applied to be a guard at a local private prison and then chronicled his experiences from the inside. This bold strategy was prompted by the private prison industry’s notoriously tight lips when speaking with journalists about their inmates’ welfare, the prison’s operation, profit margins, and other details.
A cell block not unlike what Shane Bauer patrolled during his four months as a prison guard in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Steve Mays on Flickr.
Each of the six sections of prose are accompanied by a video segment. The videos are comprised of footage taken by a camera hidden in Bauer’s watch face, audio recorded with a microphone disguised as a pen, and interviews with former Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) guards. Slightly blurred and shaky, the footage taken from Bauer’s watch provides the sense of ‘being there,’ like a found-footage movie creates. The interviews also provide a welcome break from this film technique, which may turn off viewers when overused. While some viewers may be incredulous to learn that a single guard monitors 30 cameras, or that the guard towers have been empty since 2010, the interviews with former guards only confirm these claims.
The series of articles features stark, black and white photographs taken inside Winn Correctional Center interspersed between paragraphs. The monochromatic scheme gives the photos a feel that they were taken in a past era, with the inmates’ destitute conditions supporting this assumption. Readers are almost immediately greeted by Bauer grimacing at the camera in his uniform issued by CCA (below), his employer and one of the largest private prison companies in the United States. Other images depict inmates milling around rows of cots, as well as a red-brick guard tower with flanking barbed wire.
The series’ text was also accompanied by maps, graphs, and charts to contextualize the statistics included in Bauer’s story. One bar graph presents data from the Department of Justice on the increase in the number of inmates housed in private and public prisons between 1990 and 2014. Instead of using a handful of bullet-points, the authors elected to use a graph to quickly convey the relative quantities of inmates. Specifically, the number of inmates in the U.S. doubled during this time frame, jumping from 676,466 to 1,259,768.
Bauer’s writing style is conversational and casual, while still providing all the sensory detail needed to imagine you are walking down the cell block alongside him. The article switches from dialogue or narration to a historical breakdown of CCA’s corporate activities, for example. Bauer’s audio recordings also allowed him to translate his coworkers’ midwestern accents into text, providing more subtle details that flesh out each character.
In order for a long-form journalistic article to be effective with its audience, there needs to be a story to rein in the ideas. The article’s obvious protagonist is Bauer, who readers place themselves into the shoes of as he ventures further into the private prison’s culture. Readers are also able to share in his disgust, and later acceptance, of the callous treatment afforded to inmates.
The other guards, prison administrators, and inmates serve as the peripheral characters in the article, all of whom Bauer became well acquainted with during his four-month career with CCA. During this period, Bauer meets a guard he refers to as Miss Sterling. I found her to be one of the more compelling characters in the piece, as we later learn that she had previous issues with the law and struggles with dehumanizing a crowd of people she may have once fit right into. Bauer struggles with a similar conflict as he became more accustomed to the violence and indifference surrounding him.
“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” gives the reader exactly that, in a well-orchestrated multimedia package. The use of photographs, audio, video, and infographic in concert with Bauer’s longform prose provide a depth that would not be possible in text alone. I found myself in disbelief of the veracity of the guards’ survival strategies when dealing with inmates, however, that just illustrates that value of this piece. Bauer was able to capture the private prison industry when it did not realize it was being observed, and thus revealed the indifferent nature of the beast.