I’m combining Cannonball Read with another reading challenge, and have decided on this book as my true crime read. I want to address the fact that I chose this as my true crime pick. While technically it is a true book about criminals, it’s not what we think about when we think of true crime. I am familiar with true crime: I used to watch Most Wanted, I’ve seen many serial killer documentaries, and I regularly listen to My Favorite Murder. True crime tends to focus on individual criminals because it find the crimes they commit interesting—not the criminals. When we read true crime, we’re not really interested in them as complete human beings. We’re only interested in what got them to the point of committing the crime that got us interested in the first place. True crime is an indulgence of that instinct that makes us rubberneck at car crashes. While other women will argue that their interest in true crime is largely tied up in the violence they face as women, for me it’s always and only been about morbid curiosity.
I don’t disbelieve that it’s also about anxiety for a good amount of people, particularly women—I just think people that deny there’s anything morbid about their fascination are being disingenuous. What I can’t help but notice is that something kind of ugly results from that mixture of morbidity and anxiety. I hear it when true crime pundits decry a short prison sentence, or bemoan the fact that police let a culprit go despite evidence that looks obvious in hindsight, or thoughtlessly dismiss the European reform-centered approach to criminal justice. This is a kind of thinking that favors punishment over rehabilitation, lacks consideration of the epistemological limitations of criminal investigation, and when considering forms of criminal redress, engages in narratives about how the redress is supposed to operate rather than evidence based studies about the consequences of that redress.
Terrible decisions come from these kinds of attitudes. The tough-on-crime tendency of ordinary Americans has led to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, and a general removal of the role of context in addressing crime. The hysteria of Americans about crime leads to them being easily manipulated by politicians who know that being tough on crime with garner them votes. I would wager that there are more innocent people in American prisons now than criminals that have been let go despite evidence of their crime. And laws like FOSTA-SESTA do very little to protect victims of trafficking while doing quite a lot to endanger sex workers, because we like telling ourselves the story that we can protect people from violence by legislation. And fuck the criminal-adjacent or criminal sex workers, right? We don’t care about them, only the crimes they commit.
Because of this attitude, I decided to choose instead a book that looks at the human impact of how we choose to deal with crime in this country. American Prison by Shane Bauer is a book the resulted from an undercover investigation the author carried out in a for-profit prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer posed as an entry-level guard for several months, offering insight into the processes and attitudes in a for-profit prison that would otherwise be unavailable, due to the private prison industry’s general lack of transparency (there are many footnote documenting the ways Bauer’s inquiries are rejected or how things he has documented have been denied or contradicted). The book alternates between Bauer’s viewpoint and interludes outlining the history of for-profit prison in the United States.
It seems as though for-profit prison is a uniquely American institution, arising in direct response to the fall of chattel slavery in the Northeast, justified as a more humane alternative to brutal English punishment. Enshrined in the constitution, for-profit criminal interment evolved from convict servitude, to the leasing of convict labor from private prisons, to chain gangs. Contracts with private prisons take place on both a state and federal level, but Bauer’s reporting was influential in an DOJ investigation that led the Obama administration to cease contracting with private prisons, although state-level contracts were still permitted. In the concluding chapter, Bauer notes that He Who Shall Not be Named overturned this decision, and private prisons are more profitable than ever. Bauer tracks the rise of the CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, under whose umbrella Winnfield operates.
Although Bauer focuses on the human conditions within Winnfield on both the prisoners and the corrections officers, the thing that strikes me is just how much labor in America is basically slave labor. So many Braille books are produced by prisoners that Bauer notes that it is deceptive to say that the prisoners have learned a useful skill—where will they find similar work outside of prison? A huge amount of military equipment is produced by prison labor, and companies like Victoria’s Secret, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Target have contracts with private prisons. It just makes you realize that when slavery disappeared, something else rushed in to fill the vacuum, and this is probably true on a world-wide scale. After all, if it’s not prison labor here, then it’s child labor or sweatshops or literal slavery there. Although Bauer’s book focuses on for-profit prisons, public state and federal prisons also rely on prison labor.
True crime junkies are interested in the life circumstances and mental problems and methods of people who commit interesting crimes. However, looking at the state of prison in the United States, you get the feeling that a much vaster crime has occurred, but there’s a huge number of culprits and enablers and the responsibility is distant or partial, which allows the whole thing to continue. I’d love to see a re-alignment of our interest from serial killers to capitalist vultures like Don Hutto, or powerful public figures like Thurgood Marshall Jr., who seems happy to cash a check as a diversity hire from a company that has simply moved the goal post on Jim Crow. That level of capitalist sociopathy or internalized racism is definitely something I’d love a criminal psychologist to explain to me—but then, American Prison isn’t a true crime book. While Bauer offers little insight on the psychology of the major players, he does offer insight into the low-level enablers who prop up the for profit prison system. One of the things that Bauer outlines is his own changing attitudes towards the inmates. The low pay, poor staffing practices, lack of maintenance, and culture of breaking and bending prison rules all cause Bauer to lose sight of the inmates’ humanity and do thing he never would have previously considered, having been in an Iranian prison himself. It’s not just the inmates who are being dehumanized, but the corrections officers, and this leads them to dehumanize those they have power over, to seek power they lack by exercising it over their inmates, or to profit by engaging in criminal conspiracy with prisoners. Bauer points to numerous studies that make it clear that paying and treating corrections officers well correlates to improved prison conditions, but for-profit prisons have only a minimal profit margin over public prisons, so the Almighty Dollar dictates all.
I suppose this book made me really confront the difference between being a reformer and a full-fledged prison abolitionist. American Prison has convinced me that the criminal justice system is too complicated and corrupt to be successfully reformed. At every step prison has been entangled in the system of chattel slavery, and has acted to replace it—that’s not even to address the history of white nationalists infiltrating the police force on a national level. We need to take a full mulligan on this one.
I’m also not sure that criminal justice is something that should be decided in a democratic way. We are too emotional and misinformed about crime—the criminal is not human and should be punished, regardless of whether the punishment is effective. Criminal procedure junk TV leads the average person to believe that evidence is high tech and has a high success rate in tracking down and convicting criminals, and unreliable forensic methods are still being utilized in courts because of our overtrust in the technology at hand. The fear and anxiety that crimes provoke will be used regardless of the probability of such a crime occurring. We get sucked into the horror of a crime and want to punish, and sometimes we punish the wrong person, and our hunger for punishment bleeds over onto crimes that aren’t that horrible and maybe shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. We lose sight of what actually tends to cause crime, such as economic instability, and so hobble our ability to lower crime rates in impoverished areas. We have no concept of what proper reform and reintegration looks like.
Criminal justice should concern itself with lowering the crime rate or maintaining an acceptably low rate, rather than making the public happy by performing the punishment ritual the right way or getting the right numbers. Security officers should be there to protect the public interest, rather than political or private interests, and they should not be above the law themselves. We should develop, improve, and make accessible scientific methods for investigating crime. The reformation of criminal behavior should be of equal consideration to the investigation and prosecution of crime. The problem is that system will not sate the anger of people who have been affected by crimes, or allay the anxieties of people who are afraid of things unlikely to happen to them, but most of all such a system wouldn’t make anyone any money, although it might cost a hell of a lot less than the system we have in the U.S. right now.