Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Long Read: Hell In A Cell

This week's long read is Shane Bauer's outstanding, heartbreaking piece on his four months undercover as a prison guard in the nation's oldest private federal correctional facility in Louisiana, making $9 an hour working for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and seeing every kind of hell imaginable.

At the end of one morning of doing nothing, the training coordinator tells us we can go to the gym to watch inmates graduate from trade classes. Prisoners and their families are milling around with plates of cake and cups of fruit punch. An inmate offers a piece of red velvet to Miss Stirling.

I stand around with Collinsworth, an 18-year-old cadet with a chubby white baby face hidden behind a brown beard and a wisp of bangs. Before CCA, Collinsworth worked at a Starbucks. When he came to Winnfield to help out with family, this was the first job he could get. Once, Collinsworth was nearly kicked out of class after he jokingly threatened to stab Mr. Tucker with a plastic training knife. He's boasted to me about inmate management tactics he's learned from seasoned officers. "You just pit 'em against each other and that's the easiest way to get your job done," he tells me. He says one guard told him that inmates should tell troublemakers, "'I'm gonna rape you if you try that shit again.' Or something; whatever it takes."

As Collinsworth and I stand around, inmates gather to look at our watches. One, wearing a cocked gray beanie, asks to buy them. I refuse outright. Collinsworth dithers. "How old you is?" the inmate asks him.

"You never know," Collinsworth says.

"Man, all these fake-ass signals," the inmate says. "The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place."

"I understand it's your home," Collinsworth says. "But I'm at work right now."

"It's your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin'. You 'bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?"

"It's probably true."

"It ain't no 'probably true.' If you go' be at this bitch, you go' do 12 hours a day." He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: "They ain't payin' you enough for that." Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.

"Drugs?! Don't worry 'bout the drugs." The inmate says he was caught recently with two ounces of "mojo," or synthetic marijuana, which is the drug of choice at Winn. The inmate says guards turn a blind eye to it. They "ain't trippin' on that shit," he says. "I'm telling you, it ain't that type of camp. You can't come change things by yourself. You might as well go with the flow. Get this free-ass, easy-ass money, and go home."

"I'm just here to do my job and take care of my family," Collinsworth says. "I'm not gonna bring stuff in 'cuz even if I don't get caught, there's always the chance that I will."

"Nah. Ain't no chance," the inmate says. "I ain't never heard of nobody movin' good and low-key gettin' caught. Nah. I know a dude still rolling. He been doin' it six years." He looks at Collinsworth. "Easy."

The inmates' families file out the side entrance. A couple of minutes after the last visitors leave, the coach shouts, "All inmates on the bleachers!" A prisoner tosses his graduation certificate dramatically into the trash. Another lifts the podium over his head and runs with it across the gym. The coach shouts, exasperated, as prisoners scramble around.

"You see this chaos?" the inmate in the beanie says to Collinsworth. "If you'd been to other camps, you'd see the order they got. Ain't no order here. Inmates run this bitch, son."

"None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me."

Our mass incarceration system is awful.  Our corporations are awful.  Putting the two together was arguably the worst idea America has had over the last 20 years.

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