We sat down with Oakland journalist Shane Bauer to discuss his book American Prison, which explores the country’s insidious nexus of prison and profit. Bauer, who was held hostage in Iran from 2009 to 2011, went undercover by posing as a prison guard at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center in 2014, later describing the stint in an award-winning piece for Mother Jones (“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard”).
MM: Are there any moments from your time as a guard that stand out as particularly surreal?
SB: There was a while when the prison was on lockdown. Inmates were angry, and guards were having to do more work than usual because we had to bring the food [to the cells]. There was an inmate who had taken two trays of food and I just started yelling at him. And I kind of flashed to this moment when I was in prison in Iran and I used to take extra meals. And one day a guard just flashed on me about it, and it turned into a pretty scary situation. So, when I did that, I kind of had this moment like, “Whoa, I’m on the other side right now. I’m lashing out at this guy for wanting more food.”
MM: Have you seen or do you anticipate any sort of systemic changes from this sort of exposé writing?
SB: Not under this administration, honestly. When the Mother Jones article came out, the Obama Administration said they were going to stop using private prisons on the federal level, and the company’s stock tanked. And as soon as Trump took office, he reversed the decision.
MM: What are you hoping readers take away from American Prison?
SB: I really tried to not only expose the modern-day prison system, but really help people understand how we’ve gotten to this point … how the legacy of slavery plays into the prison system, how the profit motive has been a major part of our prison system since the very beginning. Our prison system is the largest in the world; it’s an aberration. And I think we need to understand how we got there.
Local Page Turners
Reviews by Book Passage Marketing Manager Zack Ruskin
American Prison by Shane Bauer (Oakland), Penguin Press, $28. In the tradition of great undercover journalism, reporter Shane Bauer got himself a job at a private prison in Louisiana in 2014 with the intent of discovering what actually goes on inside a place most of us would prefer to forget exists. What he found was the dark underbelly of for-profit incarceration. While Bauer left the job after four months — and went on to win a National Magazine Award for his exposé in Mother Jones — the subject never left his mind. In American Prison, Bauer provides a deep dive into the private prison system and the corporate interests that drive it. At times harrowing but vitally important in its message, this work is a clarion call for America to divest itself of a penal system built on indentured servitude and reclaim its commitment to the pursuit of balanced justice. Appearing at Book Passage Corte Madera October 2, 7 p.m.
Twenty Years of Life by Suzanne Bohan (Bay Area), Island Press, $30. In Twenty Years of Life, Suzanne Bohan argues that in the United States, your ZIP code is ultimately a huge factor in your overall health. By contrasting the statistics and stories of people living in impoverished areas with those of residents in more affluent locales, Bohan makes the case that quality of schools, availability of healthy food and access to nature can significantly affect our life spans. Not one to pose a problem without offering a solution, she also describes the work of the California Endowment, a health foundation dedicated to redefining the way charity works by infusing funds directly into poor communities. An inspiring yet somber reflection of our era, this book takes a timely look at how we can better ensure an equal — and longer — life for all. Appearing at Book Passage Sausalito October 2, 6 p.m.
Almost Everything by Anne Lamott (Marin), Riverhead Books, $20. When life gets tough, it’s immensely reassuring to know we have new words of wisdom from Anne Lamott to steer us back into calmer seas. Following a series of short but profound works from Lamott over the last several years (Hallelujah Anyway; Help, Thanks, Wow), Almost Everything is a road map for finding hope and insight within ourselves — even if they’re buried deep. With her trademark blend of humor and shrewd advice, Lamott encourages readers to glean a path forward from these small but profound moments — especially at times when things may feel especially bleak. Appearing at Book Passage Corte Madera October 15, 7 p.m.