The Perverted Worth Ethic

Robin’s Book Report #53
A newsletter by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

– A special book review of Shane Bauer’s American Prison

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of Shane Bauer’s excellent book American Prison earlier this year. For unknown reasons, the essay was not published. But the issues at hand are important, so I wanted to share with you what I wrote about it. Enjoy:
The Perverted Work Ethic
The investigative journalist Shane Bauer has written a book ostensibly about American for-profit prisons –– it’s called American Prison –– that is really two braided tales of work. The first is a 250-year history of forced penal labor. The second is about working at a contemporary for-profit prison. Both stories will shock the reader; they are thick with pathos, sadism, and bottom-of-the-barrel human depravity, all fueled by the relentless drive for profit.Bauer is an investigative reporter who once spent 14 months locked up in an Iranian prison. His recent book, American Prison, springs from his incredible full-issue exposé for Mother Jones, called “My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard.”

The history of for-profit imprisonment in America begins in the 18th century with indentured servitude. Scores of felons were shipped over from England to the colonies. Planters bought these convicts, whose labor was preferable because they were cheaper than slaves. And if they died, it wasn’t a big deal.

Thomas Jefferson advocated for penal slavery. He believed that it was a profitable, humane alternative to the death penalty. His advocacy and the history of penal slavery sprang from the Protestant idea that crime was the result a deficient work ethic. Bauer notes that this is because, at the time, 90 percent of all convicts were thieves. Laziness created thieves.

Early attempts to put convicts to work emerged in places like Philadelphia. Anyone who wasn’t put to death, was put to work on infrastructure projects like roads, highways, forts, and mines. Commenters like Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, worried that this public show of forced labor was dangerous for the burgeoning capitalist state: it made work look bad. He said that “employing criminals in public labor will render labour of every kind disreputable.” Punishment and forced labor would never be so public again.

The solution was to corral convicts into closed workhouses, known as penitentiaries. Prisoners made nails, shoes, rifles, or whatever new industrialists needed. It was the 1820s and slavery was being outlawed in Northeastern America; penitentiaries filled the new gap in the exploited labor market and were profitable. Bauer explains that this isn’t surprising: “forced labor [is] undeniably productive. An enslaved person in an antebellum cotton field picked around 75 percent more cotton per hour than a free farmer. Similarly, Texas prison farms into the 1960s produced a higher yield than farms worked by free laborers in the surrounding areas.”

As the penitentiary model spread to the South, it facilitated the transition from an agrarian to industrial economy. Especially after the calamity of the Civil War, the South needed something to help it remold its economy. Luckily for owners of capital, they wouldn’t have to stray too far from the forced labor of slavery.

But Southerners would augment and permanently pervert the Northern penal model. The penitentiary was associated with the reformist anti-slavery cause. Advocates for the workhouse thought, in true Protestant fashion, that work lead to eventual emancipation. This rankled many in the South, who believed forced labor needn’t be coupled with eventual freedom. And they were uncomfortable with white convicts doing labor that was previously done exclusively by blacks. So laws that forbid unemployment and over-penalized petty crimes like farm animal theft were invented to target and isolate blacks for incarceration. Southerners modified the ideological foundation of the Protestant prison: it would be all of the work, none of the emancipation. In other words, it would be slavery.

Some in the South had reservations. In 1820 one commenter noted that “the community should never derive benefit from crime because that makes it directly interested in their continuance and increase.” This prescient observation would go unheeded for almost 200 years.

The idea that a good prison reformed inmates was dead. Writer George Washington Cable in a critical analysis of the prison system in 1885 said that, “the penitentiary whose annual report shows the largest case balance paid into the State’s treasury is the best penitentiary.” If a prison was profitable for the state, it was a good prison. Convict leasing was big business for states. Between 1880 and 1904 a full 10 percent of the Alabama state budget came from convict leasing.

Convicts were leased to private interests who enforced order with sadistic brutality. Anonymous testimony to the National Conference of Charities and Correction explains that “before the war, we owned negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him… But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.” The profit motive had created a system of labor similar to slavery.

The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad company (TCI) was one of the most brutal leasees. Convicts put to work in their mines regularly contracted dysentery, drank water from polluted streams, and crawled around in dimly-lit caverns. When they died, their bodies were unceremoniously tossed along with the other mine refuse.


Leased convicts were a weapon TCI used to assault organized labor. Convicts couldn’t strike and could be pushed harder than free miners. These miners struck in Tennessee in 1890 over dangerous conditions and payment that could only be redeemed at the company store. Then the miners tried to free the leased convicts. It was the clash of two economic systems based on two opposed systems of labor.


Convict leasing fell apart only because states discovered they could open their own plantations and put convicts to work themselves. Working conditions at state plantations were so bad that convicts, almost exclusively black men, often tried to remove limbs in order to avoid the fields.

In 1956, convicts were still employed to pick cotton on state plantations. And conditions were still the same or worse than enslaved labor. A judge, in analyzing a plantation run by Terrance Don Hutto in Texas, called it “sub-human,” condemning “use of various forms of torture,” total lack of rehabilitative programs, overcrowding, racial discrimination, abuse of solitary confinement, continuing use of trusty guards, and lack of adequate medical care. Plantations fell out of favor, in the late 1960s, not because they were unconscionable hellscapes, but because profits began to decline.

Don Hutto would go on to found Correction Corporation of America, a private prison management company where Shane Bauer worked in 2014. Bauer explains that there is no other way to figure out what is going inside of these facilities: they are secretive and almost impossible for the public to access their records. After he passes a background check completes a superficial interview, Bauer heads to work at a facility in Winnfield, Louisiana. Instead of creating a persona, Bauer, a well known investigative journalist who frequently writes about prisons for Mother Jones, applies with his real name. It does not matter. The prison is desperate for people who are willing to work for $9 an hour. As one of his coworkers puts it, “someone asked me if we were pretty picky about who we hire. I said, Well I’d love to tell you yes, but we take ‘em six-legged and lazy. We take whatever we can get!”

The prison is chronically understaffed. There are no guards in the towers anymore, and most wings of the prison don’t have enough staff to do the checks of inmates every half-hour. There is essentially no order or schedule at the prison. Corrections officers (COs) send inmates to chow whenever they can: sometimes it’s noon, sometimes it’s three. The hobby shop is now used for storage, and the yard is almost always empty. Prisoners spend their days indoors, stewing and restless. By the end of Bauer’s four months working in the prison, stabbings are frequent. CCA’s paramilitary squad is brought in to randomly pepper-spray and terrorize inmates. It is chaos.

In Winn, the prison continues to run because there are just enough desperate people who will work this dangerous job for what Bauer calls “fast-food wages.” But the prison is so short-staffed that Bauer often works multiple twelve hour shifts in a row without any time off, only getting off enough time to go home, shower, sleep, and return to work.

Bauer grows angry, anxious, and mean working as a CO. A vindictive sadism erupts out of him in an attempt to manage and control prisoners. His own behavior appalls him.

Inmates are no longer being put to work, so private prisons make their money with prisoner guarantees. As Bauer explains, “roughly two-thirds of private prison contracts include ‘occupancy guarantees’ that require states to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Under CCA’s contract with Louisiana’s Department of Corrections, Winn was guaranteed to be 96 percent full.” If private prisons make money, it’s because they have sweet contracts that guarantee it. It is essentially a welfare check doled out to CCA.

Winn also provides little to no medical care. One inmate that Bauer meets lost his legs to gangrene because the medical staff refused to send him to hospital, an expense that the prison would have to cover.

Everyone in the prison –– guards, prisoners, family members –– knows the problem is under-funding. CCA official’s call it a “cookie-cutter complaint.” And CCA is probably right, it is an often repeated gripe. But that doesn’t mean it’s an any way inaccurate. All the problems with the prison in Winnfield are caused by cost-cutting measures: low wages and high staff turn over, lack of guards, myriad broken equipment, lack of mental health staff, and lack of educational and rehabilitative programs.

The focus on the bottom line is the reason prisons are privately run at all. They are supposed to be saving the state money. But they don’t even do that. Bauer shows that, “private prisons ‘do not save substantially on costs,’ according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study. What savings do exist are achieved mostly through ‘moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs,’ read another DOJ report.” In other words, if private prisons save any money at all, it is by treating their staff as poorly as possible.

We privatize services the state normally performs because we assume that the profit-motive of private enterprise will come up with a better, cheaper solution. So if privatization doesn’t work, if there are problems with private prisons –– which Bauer shows us there undoubtedly is –– then the focus on the bottom-line is the fundamental issue with private prisons.

Neoliberal economists, like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, theorized that all realms of life would better refashioned as businesses. But incarceration is not an enterprise. Imprisonment, when it comes down to it, is an ethical issue. You can’t treat crime like a renewable commodity because, as that citizen noted in the 1820s, it will only create a situation in which someone has a vested interest in the production of crime and in lieu of that, punishment.

We quickly lost sight of why for-profit prisons came into existence in the first place: as a more humane way to reform criminals. Instead, the side effect of the reformation (that is, cheap, forced labor) became the sole reason for prisons to exist. Prisons, if they should exist at all, are a cost of society, not a cash-producing benefit. They are a deficit we run, an invest in the betterment of people.

The tragedy Bauer’s book expertly demonstrates is that America in many ways, has tried and often failed for 200 years to modernize its economy. It has failed to create an economic system that wouldn’t need any exploited labor to function: whether it was the labor of prisoners or desperate people of rural America, willing to work a dangerous job for fast food wages.

Reading list

All Over the MapJared Diamond struggles to understand a connected world. by Daniel Immerwahr

“Rather than ground his pronouncements in the scholarship he’s read, he repeatedly invokes “my own first-hand experiences and those of my long-term friends.” His “friends” tell him that a coup against Chile’s elected leftist President Salvador Allende was “inevitable,” that Japanese teenagers text too much to date, and that U.S. venture capitalism succeeds because it takes bold risks.”


Special Journey to Our Bottom Line” by Elizabeth Schambelan (n+1)

Excellent essay on hazing: how it’s torture and how torture has been woven into the history of the United States and the United States military.

The Art of Critique” By Corey Robin (Jacobin)

This article is Corey Robin’s reply to the New York Review of Books review of his book by Mark Lilla. The whole dust-up was prime-time, high-end scholastic brawl.

The question for Corey Robin is, how do we account for right-wing populism. How do we account for it when his thesis is that conservative ideology is a counterrevolutionary defense of power. And do we need to be so angry about it? How will we convert conservatives if we are so angry? Robin seems to believe that conservatives are not stupid, they’re evil. I might agree. Robin also makes the point that conservative thinkers have brilliantly absorbed the energy and tactics of the revolutionary political movements that they then set out to counter. What better expresses Milton Friedman and Friedriech Hayek’s appeals to the liberty and freedom? And what better example, because they are two thinkers that could easily be credited with creating the world we live in with such staggering economic inequality.

How Sovereign Citizens Helped Swindle $1 Billion From the Government They Disavow” By Ashley Powers (New York Times)

Libertarianism is a bad faith argument. It’s not a belief in liberty, but in closing the door to other

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