Shane Bauer, Mother Jones

Shane Bauer is a senior reporter for Mother Jones. Last year, he spent four months undercover as a correctional officer at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The resulting story, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” was published in June 2016 and in the July/August 2016 magazine issue of Mother Jones. In August, the United States Justice Department announced its plans to phase out private prisons in a report that acknowledged their failure to maintain safety and security standards. While journalists have covered issues in private prisons and the Department of Justice has been aware of the problems, Mother Jones’ decision to send Bauer undercover gave readers an unparalleled glimpse into the realities of for-profit prisons, ultimately exposing the many failures of the system including limited access to suitable medical care, unchecked violence and subpar training for new correctional officers. “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” has garnered immense media attention including coverage by NPR, The Washington Post and ProPublica. What follows is an edited interview with Shane Bauer about what it took to produce “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.”

CPCJ: What originally sparked your interest in the criminal justice system?

Shane Bauer: I spent a couple years in prison myself as a political hostage in Iran between 2009 and 2011. The majority of my reporting was focused on the Middle East before my arrest, and when I got out and came back home, I heard about the California prison hunger strikes. Inmates were protesting conditions of solitary confinement, and having been in solitary confinement myself as well as having participated in a hunger strike, I was naturally drawn to this event. I eventually started looking at it more closely, which turned into a six-month investigation about the use of long-term solitary confinement in the US. I never intended to stick with writing about prisons, but once you step inside of it, it’s a huge world.

CPCJ: What about the subject compelled you to move to Winnfield, Louisiana in order to conduct the investigation for “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard”?

SB: At this point, I had been reporting on criminal justice for a few years and had always been interested in private prisons. In the past, I had prodded at the subject, but private prisons are really hard to get information about and even more difficult to get access to. A lot of them don’t comply with public record laws, so they do whatever they can to keep journalists out. I had this idea of trying to get a job in the system, since Ted Conover had done so at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining New York back in the early 2000s and wrote a book about it. I thought about doing that with a private prison because in the 30 years that these prisons have existed, we haven’t really ever had a good look inside of them. I talked to my editors about the idea, then ended up filling out an application. We were skeptical that this was even going to go anywhere, but within a couple of weeks, I started getting calls back about my application.

CPCJ: In light of the Justice Department’s decision to phase-out private prisons, how do you think your article impacted the national conversation surrounding the private prison system and, more generally, mass incarceration in the United States?

SB: I think that it has given people an up-close look at what’s going on inside of private prisons. Before this, what people had were news bits coming out of private prisons but only when there was a riot or when something dramatic happened. I was aiming to really give people a granular look that was more complex—to show a whole world [of private prisons] and not just produce another news story. I got many different responses from doing this, but I largely think that people who read the story felt that it brought the subject matter to life for them. I don’t think there has been sympathy for private prisons in the US for quite a long time. I’ve gone to corrections conventions and even people inside the world of the prison system are generally skeptical about private prisons. At the same time, a lot of people just don’t know about them, or they know very little. The article made it more real, and I think people were outraged by that.

CPCJ: There are quite a few visceral, brutal scenes within your article. When you were writing, did you ever question whether you should expose your own vulnerability? Were you concerned at all with how the public would receive this level of graphic detail?

SB: I think journalists themselves have different ideas about what the rules of the game are, but what’s most important is to be totally transparent with the reader about what you are doing as a reporter. That is a rule of mine in writing these types of pieces, especially when I’m in the story, because sometimes I can’t help feeling like I want to hide this thing or the other. You have to push yourself to write what you are uncomfortable with because, ultimately, it is important. One of the hardest things to do, as far as writing, was being honest about how the job was affecting me. There are things that I’m not proud of, but I felt that it was important to be transparent about those things because it helps make the story more three-dimensional. I had to try to get a sense of what people who work in these places go through on a day-to-day basis and how it affects them. The only way I could really get deep into that is by experiencing those things myself.

CPCJ: Do you think it is the duty of journalists to expose the truth? Do you ever grapple with how much you should reveal within your writing?

SB: I think that sometimes there is dishonesty in journalism. You have an idea of what is acceptable and what isn’t, but nobody is abiding by all of those conventions. I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that people bend the rules all the time, but they hide the fact that they do. I think that is an ethical issue. Reporters need to be telling their readers what they’re doing. I remember Robert Fisk wrote a piece years ago about reporting in Iraq. He said that there was a stage in the war when people couldn’t actually go out and report anymore, so they were in their bureaus, which were in big hotels, and had Iraqi stringers that went out and came back with quotes. Robert Fisk said, “Look it’s fine—if you have to do that, do it that way, but you need to be writing in your article that you are not reporting from the streets of Baghdad. You are reporting from a hotel in Baghdad because it’s too dangerous.” When readers know these things, it helps us read the stories better.

CPCJ: “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” is split into multiple chapters, and features an array of bonus content like videos and graphics. Where do you think longform journalism stands today?

SB: I think it’s coming back, actually. There’s clickbait, but you also see organizations like Buzzfeed News doing longform pieces now. There’s a hunger for it, and that’s something that Mother Jones learned from this project in particular. My editors took a risk in dedicating a whole magazine to one article, and it worked. We had 1.5 million people read that story online. I hear people getting frustrated about the way news is going at a hyper speed, but it’s not to say that breaking news shouldn’t exist either—I like to know what’s going on when it happens, but I also think a lot of people want longform journalism. The big question is how to pay for it.

CPCJ: Has Mother Jones found a funding model that can help support these investigative, lengthy pieces?

SB: My editors published a piece about my prison story, which discussed how it cost $350,000 to produce and how we only got $5,000 of ad revenue from it—so there needs to be a different model. Ad revenue drives clickbait because, well, people just want to click—but it’s a losing game because online ads don’t really pay anything. Mother Jones is nonprofit, which means we get most of our money from reader donations and a small amount from ads. Basically, what Mother Jones started doing is telling our readers that it takes money to produce these kinds of stories. We don’t put up paywalls either—I don’t think that works. I think everybody at Mother Jones was surprised when the story came out, at how many people on social media were saying things like, “I love this story, I’m donating to Mother Jones” or “I’m subscribing.” We got a significant amount of money from people donating before we even asked for it. I think that a good number of people are trying to pitch in.

CPCJ: You recently came out with another undercover piece on right-wing militia. What do you think the importance is of this sort of investigative work? Do you intend to keep working on these types of pieces?

SB: I just want to write good stories. I think that the undercover approach works for some things, and I like doing it because I’m able to get into places that I can’t otherwise get to. I also like the kind of material this sort of journalism produces because you can really immerse yourself in the work and get so many details that you just can’t from being there with only a notebook. I’m interested in doing other undercover projects but that’s not to say that my next story has to be undercover. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.