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  • American Prison

  • A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment
  • By: Shane Bauer
  • Narrated by: James Fouhey, Shane Bauer
  • Length: 10 hrs and 25 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (1,039 ratings)

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American Prison  By  cover art

American Prison

By: Shane Bauer
Narrated by: James Fouhey, Shane Bauer
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Publisher's summary

"An enraging, necessary look at the private prison system, and a convincing clarion call for prison reform.” (NPR.org)

New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018

One of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018

Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism

Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award

A New York Times Notable Book

A groundbreaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country's history.

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for nine dollars an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones.

Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can't understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.

The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison's sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone.

A blistering indictment of the private prison system, and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.

©2018 Shane Bauer (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic reviews

American Prison reprises [Bauer’s] page-turning narrative [as reported in Mother Jones], and adds not only the fascinating back story of CCA, the nation’s first private prison company, but also an eye-opening examination of the history of corrections as a profit-making enterprise.... Bauer is a generous narrator with a nice ear for detail, and his colleagues come across as sympathetic characters, with a few notable exceptions.... The sheer number of forehead-slapping quotes from Bauer’s superiors and fellow guards alone are worth the price of admission." (The New York Times Book Review)

American Prison is both the remarkable story of a journalist who spent four months working as a corrections officer, and a horrifying exposé of how prisoners were treated by a corporation that profited from them.... It’s Bauer’s investigative chops, though, that make American Prison so essential. He dedicated his time at Winn to talking with prisoners and guards, who were unaware that he was a journalist.... Based on his firsthand experience and these conversations, he paints a damning picture of prisoner mistreatment and under-staffing at the prison, where morale among the incarcerated and the employees was poor. The stories he tells are deeply sad and consistently infuriating... An enraging, necessary look at the private prison system, and a convincing clarion call for prison reform.” (NPR.org)

“A relentless and uncompromising book, one that takes a crowbar to the private prison industry and yanks hard, letting just enough daylight slip inside to illuminate the contours of the beast.... The private prison industry is booming once again. To find out what that means for real people - both those who guard and those who are guarded - American Prison is the place to begin.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

  • One of Boston Globe’s Best Books of 2018
  • One of San Francisco Chronicle’s 10 Best Books of 2018
  • One of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2018
  • Featured in Mother Jones’ Favorite Nonfiction of 2018

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