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What we're reading and thinking about: American Prison by Shane Bauer

Sharon Goens-Bradley Midwest ARD
Sharon Goens-Bradley is the Associate Regional Director of AFSC's Midwest Region. Photo: / AFSC

By Sharon Goens-Bradley
AFSC Midwest Associate Regional Director, Twin Cities

American Prison is Shane Bauer’s blistering indictment of the private prison system, detailing the atrocious ways in which prison profiteering results in an appalling lack of regard for staff and those incarcerated. Bauer is a senior reporter for Mother Jones.

Originally from Minnesota, he was one of three Americans imprisoned for over two years in Iran after inadvertently crossing the border during a hike. Upon his release and return to the US, he wrote, “American prisons helped me to anchor myself.” Bauer tracked local prison news, supported prisoner rights and corresponded with imprisoned men, many of those in solitary confinement.  

In order to better understand the inner workings of for-profit prisons, Bauer worked for four months as an entry-level guard at a private prison in Winnfield, LA. The book alternates between his lived experience as a guard and a rendering of the history of America’s prison system.

I appreciated Bauer’s ability to consistently connect the greed, racism and corruption that founded our carceral system to the greed, racism and corruption of today. Whether private or public, there has always been a profit motive to incarcerating people. The book details the myriad ways in which prison labor has been and continues to be intricately woven into our economic system and central to our wealth as a country.

Of particular interest to me was Bauer’s detailing his physical, dietary, spiritual and emotional decline from just a few months of working in the facility. He became more angry, aggressive and mean while he worked as a guard. Similarly to how Bauer described himself prior to his stint at Winnfield, I identify as a peaceful person who looks for restoration and is dedicated to non-violence. I found myself reflecting again and again on how immersion in a brutal and power-based system taints everyone in that environment, leading most people to become the worst versions of themselves.

I found American Prison informative and engrossing. It’s worth noting that Bauer’s critiques in American Prison are almost solely focused on the for-profit prison system. And while these prisons may be more heartless and dysfunctional than their public counterparts, I assert that all prisons primarily serve the purpose of maintaining social control and exploiting those “inside.” Furthermore, it is my stance and the stance of many in AFSC that no human belongs in a cage.

In fact, I’m proud to work for an organization that has long recognized the injustice and inhumanity of incarceration. In 1971 AFSC authored a book entitled The Struggle for Justice: A Report on Crime and Punishment in America. In 1978, AFSC’s Board of Directors adopted three minutes (a written summary or statement of a decision made by a Quaker business meeting) committing to support a moratorium on prison construction, the eventual abolition of the prison system, and an amendment to the constitution that would prohibit all forms of involuntary servitude. Click here to read the minutes in their entirety.

Approximately two million people are currently incarcerated in the US - it remains a critical humanitarian and public health issue. Due to its longevity and credibility, AFSC continues to be a recognized leader on issues of mass incarceration. From our youth program’s efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline (click here for the St. Louis program’s “Pipe Dreams” video) to the AFSC Healing Justice network’s work around mass incarceration and solitary confinement, AFSC proudly continues its mission of speaking truth to power and standing in solidarity with those who are some of our nation’s most surveilled and exploited.