† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Notes on the Perils of Prison Reporting
by nancy a heitzeg
Much media attention has been garnered over a recent Mother Jone’s undercover investigation into a private prison operated by Correctional Corporation of America (CCA). Shane Bauer spent 4 months working as a guard in Winn Correctional Facility in Louisiana. The result is a harrowing look at the myriad of troubles that plague Winn and CCA — under-staffing, guard and prisoner violence, abysmal medical care , the bottom-line of profit – and, in fact, prisons in general and private prisons in particular.
The report is both a compelling read and a resounding indictment of CCA, but much is also missing and what is there, often unsettling. As you read (or re-read) Special Investigation: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard ,consider the following questions:
Ethical Issues and the Journalistic Gaze
There are always deep questions to be raised by visiting prisons – even prison museums. How can one be there – even with a critical eye – without being complicit? How can one be there without furthering the already extreme objectification of prisoners?
If these are dilemmas – and they are — for short-term visitors , then what are the implications of accepting a paying job as a prison guard?
Mother Jones claims they have addressed the ethics of investigative journalism here in an accompanying piece, Why We Sent a Reporter to Work as a Private Prison Guard.
“…there’s a real concern over ethics. When is it okay for reporters to not announce themselves as such? There’s no governing body of journalism, but a checklist written by Poynter ethicist Bob Steele provides guidelines for assessing when this kind of reporting is acceptable. I’ll paraphrase:
- When the information obtained is of vital public interest.
- When other efforts to gain that information have been exhausted.
- When the journalist is willing to disclose the reason and nature of any deception.
- When the news organization applies the skill, time, and funding needed to fully pursue the story.
- When the harm prevented outweighs any harm caused.
- After meaningful deliberation of the ethical and legal issues…
We took these extraordinary steps because press access to prisons and jails has been vastly curtailed in recent decades, even as inmates have seen their ability to sue prisons—often the only way potential abuses would pop up on the radar of news organizations or advocates—dramatically reduced. There is no other way to know what truly happens inside but to go there.”
You can decide for yourself whether you think they have cleared the ethical bar ( I personally don’t believe they have), but notice where the concern is centered. It is on public right to know, the rights of those investigated, and ultimately, the legal protections for the whistle-blowers. At no point — at least in the print discussion — is there any grappling with the potential harm done to prisoners.
To be fair, Bauer does address his slippery slide into the well-documented Zimbardo-esque world of guard mentality – the suspicion, obsession with authority and control, the de-personalization, and cavalier view of staff violence. He alludes also to the risks his blown cover may bring to current and newly freed prisoners, but this is in passing. He fails to fully contend with the impact his piles of disciplinary slips may have on present and the future of prisoners. Ultimately, they are non-consensual objects just along for the ride of the investigation — their stories told through a detached filter, their letters revealed, their crimes judged.
In the end, we must ask: Whose story is really being told here? And at whose expense?
Interrogating the Role of Race
Criminal InJustice has contended from the outset that there is no understanding of the prison industrial complex without centering race. This is not the approach taken by the Mother Jones piece. It is noted that 75% of the prisoners and the majority of the guards are African American. But beyond using these statistics to fashion an overly simplistic theory about the lack of prison gangs at Winn, race recedes from the story line.
This absence leaves many unasked and unanswered questions: How does white male privilege shape the view of the reporter? How does that too impact his interactions with both guards and prisoners? How does that contribute to his “successful” employment — so successful in fact he is about to be offered a promotion? What role does race play in the relatively easy escape his videographer faces after being arrested for photographing the prison? In his own easy exit once his cover is blown?
Who is there and who is not, who rises or falls, lives or dies, none of these questions – especially in the context of the prison industrial complex -can be understood without a deep exploration of race.
Context, Profit and the Prison Industrial Complex
Winn is in Louisiana — incarceration capital of the world – and in the shadow of LSP Angola too, both figuratively and literally as Angola staff make appearances in an attempt to establish “order”. There is a lot to be said that contextualizes Winn — the unquestioned acceptance of prison as a way of life here, the uninterrupted practice of profiting from captive peoples, the corruption — that is left as distant backdrop.
Winn is part of the larger landscape of a prison nation too, where private prisons are the exception but profiteering is not. There is danger in zeroing in on the horrors of private prisons. Too often they are misunderstood as the epicenter of the prison industrial complex when they just a small egregious branch. As Peter Wagner of Prison Policy Initiative notes in Are Private Prisons Driving Mass Incarceration?:
“In a word: No…
Now, of course, the influence of private prisons will vary from state to state and they have in fact lobbied to keep mass incarceration going; but far more influential are political benefits that elected officials of both political parties harvested over the decades by being tough on crime as well as the billions of dollars earned by government-run prisons’ employees and private contractors and vendors.
The beneficiaries of public prison largess love it when private prisons get all of the attention. The more the public stays focused on the owners of private prisons, the less the public is questioning what would happen if the government nationalized the private prisons and ran every facility itself: Either way, we’d still have the largest prison system in the world.”
We know too (and have widely chronicled this in the Smoke and Mirrors series) that the real profiteering plans of private correctional companies like CCA lies not with the hellholes like Winn but in the expanding privatized community corrections, court services, and surveillance.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Well, we are in the age of the sensationalized hot-take and selfie culture, Here, movements are reduced to celebrities and social issues become stories about the teller. A cynical view might suggest that this sort of reporting is designed for page-clicks, for brave white savior journalism awards, or to meet the voyeuristic needs of an audience now accustomed to prison as “reality” entertainment be it Lockdown or Orange is the New Black.
The hope is that discerning readers will connect the dots from CCA and Winn to the pains of the prison industrial complex in general. What happens at Winn is not a privatized anomaly that can be fixed by its’ closing or by abolishing private prisons. In varying degrees, this is the story of Prison, Anywhere, USA.
Take it farther. Then shut it down.