2017 Feature, Medium Newsroom winner

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard

Shane Bauer, Dave Gilson, James West

Mother Jones

Feature, Medium Newsroom


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In December 2014, Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer applied for a job as a prison guard for Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s second-largest private prison company. He was quickly hired for a $9-an-hour job at a medium-security prison in Louisiana. That began a four-month odyssey during which Bauer witnessed stabbings, an escape, lockdowns — and his own transformation into a prison guard, with reactions and feelings he barely recognized as his own. “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” is a raw, gripping chronicle of both a company’s struggle to maintain control of a facility stretched to the limit by cost-cutting and mismanagement, and Bauer’s own fight to maintain his humanity in a system that is equally destructive of both inmates and guards.

Published in June 2016, Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” — accompanied by gripping undercover footage, data, primary documents and a radio documentary—sparked a dramatic media response and earned praise from readers, journalists, celebrities, prison reform organizations and even former Corrections Corporation of America employees and inmates. A federal investigator reached out to Bauer, noting that the investigation had resonated with his auditing team. Within a few weeks, the Department of Justice announced it would end its use of private prisons and the Department of Homeland Security said it would consider doing the same.

Numerous media outlets — including NPR’s Weekend Edition, Vox, and KQED’s Forum — interviewed Bauer, as did Longform, Columbia Journalism Review and Nieman Storyboard. Discussing the ethical considerations in immersive journalism, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote that Bauer’s investigation showed that “the best journalism must peel back layers to reveal the truth.”

Writer and journalism professor Jay Rosen commended Mother Jones for “just a phenomenal work of reportage,” while The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote that Bauer’s investigation “is literally why journalism exists & why we have to pay for it.”

The conversation and heightened awareness of what happens inside private prisons created a ripple effect that was apparent not only in the DOJ’s decision, but also the plummeting of CCA stocks, shareholder lawsuits and CCA’s corporate rebranding as CoreCivic.

“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” continues to receive accolades and has ranked among numerous lists for the best reporting of 2016. More than 2 million people have read the 35,000-word exposé, and others continue to dive in and discuss it. And with the Trump administration preparing to ramp up the use of private prisons, Bauer’s investigation proves to be more relevant than ever.