News & Blogs My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard


Chasing the Darkness
Jan 4, 2009
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Montreal, Canada
Interesting but long read. I only put the first chapter on here, follow link for the whole thing.

Chapter 1: "Inmates Run This Bitch"
Have you ever had a riot?" I ask a recruiter from a prison run by theCorrections Corporation of America (CCA). "The last riot we had was two years ago," he says over the phone. "Yeah, but that was with the Puerto Ricans!" says a woman's voice, cutting in.
"We got rid of them."
"When can you start?" the man asks.
I tell him I need to think it over.

I take a breath. Am I really going to become a prison guard? Now that it might actually happen, it feels scary and a bit extreme.

From the editor: Why we sent a reporter to work as a private prison guard

I started applying for jobs in private prisons because I wanted to see the inner workings of an industry that holds 131,000 of the nation's 1.6 million prisoners. As a journalist, it's nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system. When prisons do let reporters in, it's usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates. Private prisons are especially secretive. Their records often aren't subject to public access laws; CCA has fought to defeat legislation that would make private prisons subject to the same disclosure rules as their public counterparts. And even if I could get uncensored information from private prison inmates, how would I verify their claims? I keep coming back to this question: Is there any other way to see what really happens inside a private prison?

CCA certainly seemed eager to give me a chance to join its team. Within two weeks of filling out its online application, using my real name and personal information, several CCA prisons contacted me, some multiple times.

They weren't interested in the details of my résumé. They didn't ask about my job history, my current employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones, or why someone who writes about criminal justice in California would want to move across the country to work in a prison. They didn't even ask about the time I was arrested for shoplifting when I was 19.

When I call Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, the HR lady who answers is chipper and has a smoky Southern voice. "I should tell you upfront that the job only pays $9 an hour, but the prison is in the middle of a national forest. Do you like to hunt and fish?"

"I like fishing."

"Well, there is plenty of fishing, and people around here like to hunt squirrels. You ever squirrel hunt?"


"Well, I think you'll like Louisiana. I know it's not a lot of money, but they say you can go from a CO to a warden in just seven years! The CEO of the company started out as a CO"—a corrections officer.

Ultimately, I choose Winn. Not only does Louisiana have the highestincarceration rate in the world—more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents—but Winn is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country.

I phone HR and tell her I'll take the job.

"Well, poop can stick!" she says.

I pass the background check within 24 hours.

Two weeks later, in November 2014, having grown a goatee, pulled the plugs from my earlobes, and bought a beat-up Dodge Ram pickup, I pull into Winnfield, a hardscrabble town of 4,600 people three hours north of Baton Rouge. I drive past the former Mexican restaurant that now serves drive-thru daiquiris to people heading home from work, and down a street of collapsed wooden houses, empty except for a tethered dog. About 38 percent of households here live below the poverty line; the median household income is $25,000. Residents are proud of the fact that three governors came from Winnfield. They are less proud that the last sheriff was locked up for dealing meth.

Thirteen miles away, Winn Correctional Center lies in the middle of the Kisatchie National Forest, 600,000 acres of Southern yellow pines crosshatched with dirt roads. As I drive through the thick forest, the prison emerges from the fog. You might mistake the dull expanse of cement buildings and corrugated metal sheds for an oddly placed factory were it not for the office-park-style sign displaying CCA's corporate logo, with the head of a bald eagle inside the "A."

At the entrance, a guard who looks about 60, a gun on her hip, asks me to turn off my truck, open the doors, and step out. A tall, stern-faced man leads a German shepherd into the cab of my truck. My heart hammers. I tell the woman I'm a new cadet, here to start my four weeks of training. She directs me to a building just outside the prison fence.

"Have a good one, baby," she says as I pull through the gate. I exhale.


Mother Jones Senior Reporter Shane Bauer (pictured above in his prison uniform) has previously reported on solitary confinement, police militarization, and the Middle East. He is the co-author, with Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, of A Sliver of Light, an account of his two years as a prisoner in Iran. James West
I park, find the classroom, and sit down with five other students.

"You nervous?" a 19-year-old black guy asks me. I'll call him Reynolds. (I've changed the names and nicknames of the people I met in prison unless noted otherwise.)

"A little," I say. "You?"

  • These include 34 state prisons,14 federal prisons, 9immigration detention centers, and 4 jails.
  • It owns 50 of these sites.
  • 38 hold men, 2 hold women,20 hold both sexes, and 1holds women and children.**
  • 17 are in Texas, 7 are in Tennessee, and 6 are in Arizona.
"Nah, I been around," he says. "I seen killin'. My uncle killed three people. My brother been in jail, and my cousin." He has scars on his arms. One, he says, is from a shootout in Baton Rouge. The other is from a street fight in Winnfield. He elbowed someone in the face, and the next thing he knew he got knifed from behind. "It was some gang shit." He says he just needs a job until he starts college in a few months. He has a baby to feed. He also wants to put speakers in his truck. They told him he could work on his days off, so he'll probably come in every day. "That will be a fat paycheck." He puts his head down on the table and falls asleep.

The human resources director comes in and scolds Reynolds for napping. He perks up when she tells us that if we recruit a friend to work here, we'll get 500 bucks. She gives us an assortment of other tips: Don't eat the food given to inmates; don't have sex with them or you could be fined $10,000 or get 10 years at hard labor; try not to get sick because we don't get paid sick time. If we have friends or relatives incarcerated here, we need to report it. She hands out fridge magnets with the number of a hotline to use if we feel suicidal or start fighting with our families. We get three counseling sessions for free.

I studiously jot down notes as the HR director fires up a video of the company's CEO, Damon Hininger, who tells us what a great opportunity it is to be a corrections officer at CCA. Once a guard himself, he made $3.4 million in 2015, nearly 19 times the salary of the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "You may be brand new to CCA," Hininger says, "but we need you. We need your enthusiasm. We need your bright ideas. During the academy, I felt camaraderie. I felt a little anxiety too. That is completely normal. The other thing I felt was tremendous excitement."

I look around the room. Not one person—not the recent high school graduate, not the former Walmart manager, not the nurse, not the mother of twins who's come back to Winn after 10 years of McDonald's and a stint in the military—looks excited.

"I don't think this is for me," a postal worker says.

"Do not run!"
The next day, I wake up at 6 a.m. in my apartment in the nearby town where I decided to live to minimize my chances of running into off-duty guards. I feel a shaky, electric nervousness as I put a pen that doubles as an audio recorder into my shirt pocket.

Listen here to Shane Bauer's story on the current episode of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I'll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He's the head of Winn's Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison's SWAT-like tactical unit. "If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?" he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, "I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit."

Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. "If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him," he says, pacing slowly. "If a inmate hit me, I'm go' hit his ass right back. I don't care if the camera's rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he's gonna have a very bad day." Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. "If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don't supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I'll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him."

He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.

"I'd probably call somebody," a cadet offers.

"I'd sit there and holler 'stop,'" says a veteran guard.

Mr. Tucker points at her. "Damn right. That's it. If they don't pay attention to you, hey, there ain't nothing else you can do."

He cups his hands around his mouth. "Stop fighting," he says to some invisible prisoners. "I said, 'Stop fighting.'" His voice is nonchalant. "Y'all ain't go' to stop, huh?" He makes like he's backing out of a door and slams it shut. "Leave your ass in there!"

"Somebody's go' win. Somebody's go' lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!" The classroom erupts in laughter.

We could try to break up a fight if we wanted, he says, but since we won't have pepper spray or a nightstick, he wouldn't recommend it. "We are not going to pay you that much," he says emphatically. "The next raise you get is not going to be much more than the one you got last time. The only thing that's important to us is that we go home at the end of the day. Period. So if them fools want to cut each other, well, happy cutting."

When we return from break, Mr. Tucker sets a tear gas launcher and canisters on the table. "On any given day, they can take this facility," he says. "At chow time, there are 800 inmates and just two COs. But with just this class, we could take it back." He passes out sheets for us to sign, stating that we volunteer to be tear-gassed. If we do not sign, he says, our training is over, which means our jobs end right here. (When I later ask CCA if its staff members are required to be exposed to tear gas, spokesman Steven Owen says no.) "Anybody have asthma?" Mr. Tucker says. "Two people had asthma in the last class and I said, 'Okay, well, I'ma spray 'em anyway.' Can we spray an inmate? The answer is yes."

Five of us walk outside and stand in a row, arms linked. Mr. Tucker tests the wind with a finger and drops a tear gas cartridge. A white cloud of gas washes over us. The object is to avoid panicking, staying in the same place until the gas dissipates. My throat is suddenly on fire and my eyes seal shut. I try desperately to breathe, but I can only choke. "Do not run!" Mr. Tucker shouts at a cadet who is stumbling off blindly. I double over. I want to throw up. I hear a woman crying. My upper lip is thick with snot. When our breath starts coming back, the two women linked to me hug each other. I want to hug them too. The three of us laugh a little as tears keep pouring down our cheeks.


Map of Winn Correctional Center Jon Stich
"Don't ever say thank you"
Our instructors advise us to carry a notebook to keep track of everything prisoners will ask us for. I keep one in my breast pocket and jet into the bathroom periodically to jot things down. They also encourage us to invest in a watch because when we document rule infractions it is important that we record the time precisely. A few days into training, a wristwatch arrives in the mail. One of the little knobs on its side activates a recorder. On its face there is a tiny camera lens.

On the eighth day, we are pulled from CPR class and sent inside the compound to Elm—one of five single-story brick buildings where the prison's roughly 1,500 inmates live. When we go through security, we are told to empty our pockets and remove our shoes and belts. This is intensely nerve-racking: I send my watch, pen, employee ID, and pocket change through the X-ray machine. I walk through the metal detector and a CO runs a wand up and down my body and pats down my chest, back, arms, and legs.

The other cadets and I gather at a barred gate and an officer, looking at us through thick glass, turns a switch that opens it slowly. We pass through, and after the gate closes behind us, another opens ahead. On the other side, the CCA logo is emblazoned on the wall along with the words "Respect" and "Integrity" and a mural of two anchors inexplicably floating at sea. Another gate clangs open and our small group steps onto the main outdoor artery of the prison: "the walk."

From above, the walk is shaped like a "T." It is fenced in with chain-link and covered with corrugated steel. Yellow lines divide the pavement into three lanes. Clustered and nervous, we cadets travel up the middle lane from the administration building as prisoners move down their designated side lanes. I greet inmates as they pass, trying hard to appear loose and unafraid. Some say good morning. Others stop in their tracks and make a point of looking the female cadets up and down.

We walk past the squat, dull buildings that house visitation, programming, the infirmary, and a church with a wrought-iron gate shaped into the words "Freedom Chapel." Beyond it there is a mural of a fighter jet dropping a bomb into a mountain lake, water blasting skyward, and a giant bald eagle soaring overhead, backgrounded by an American flag. At the top of the T we take a left, past the chow hall and the canteen, where inmates can buy snacks, toiletries, tobacco, music players, and batteries.

The units sit along the top of the walk. Each is shaped like an "X" and connected to the main walk by its own short, covered walk. Every unit is named after a type of tree. Most are general population units, where inmates mingle in dorm-style halls and can leave for programs and chow. Cypress is the high-security segregation unit, the only one where inmates are confined to cells.

In Dogwood, reserved for the best-behaved inmates, prisoners get special privileges like extra television time, and many work outside the unit in places like the metal shop, the garment factory, or the chow hall. Some "trusties" even get to work in the front office, or beyond the fence washing employees' personal cars. Birch holds most of the elderly, infirm, and mentally ill inmates, though it doesn't offer any special services. Then there are Ash and Elm, which inmates call "the projects." The more troublesome prisoners live here.

  • Inmate population: About 1,500
  • 75% black, 25% white or other
  • Average inmate age: 36
  • Average sentence: 19 years
  • Average time served: 5.7 years
  • Daily rate charged to state per inmate (2015): $34
  • Violent crimes: 55%
  • Drug crimes: 19%
  • Property crimes: 13%
  • Other: 13%
We enter Elm and walk onto an open, shiny cement floor. The air is slightly sweet and musty, like the clothes of a heavy smoker. Elm can house up to 352 inmates. At the center is an enclosed octagonal control room called "the key." Inside, a "key officer," invariably a woman, watches the feeds of the unit's 27-odd surveillance cameras, keeps a log of significant occurrences, and writes passes that give inmates permission to go to locations outside the unit, like school or the gym. Also in the key is the office of the unit manager, the "mini-warden" of the unit.

The key stands in the middle of "the floor." Branching out from the floor are the four legs of the X; two tiers run down the length of each leg. Separated from the floor by a locked gate, every tier is an open dormitory that houses up to 44 men, each with his own narrow bed, thin mattress, and metal locker.

Toward the front of each tier, there are two toilets, a trough-style urinal, and two sinks. There are two showers, open except for a three-foot wall separating them from the common area. Nearby are a microwave, a telephone, and a Jpay machine, where inmates pay to download songs onto their portable players and send short, monitored emails for about 30 cents each. Each tier also has a TV room, which fills up every weekday at 12:30 p.m. for the prison's most popular show, The Young and the Restless.

At Winn, staff and inmates alike refer to guards as "free people." Like the prisoners, the majority of the COs at Winn are African American. More than half are women, many of them single moms. But in Ash and Elm, the floor officers—who more than anyone else deal with the inmates face-to-face—are exclusively men. Floor officers are both enforcers and a prisoner's first point of contact if he needs something. It is their job to conduct security checks every 30 minutes, walking up and down each tier to make sure nothing is awry. Three times per 12-hour shift, all movement in the prison stops and the floor officers count the inmates. There are almost never more than two floor officers per general population unit. That's one per 176 inmates. (CCA later tells me that the Louisiana Department of Corrections, or DOC, considered the "staffing pattern" at Winn "appropriate.")

In Elm, a tall white CO named Christian is waiting for us with a leashed German shepherd. He tells the female cadets to go to the key and the male cadets to line up along the showers and toilets at the front of the tier. We put on latex gloves. The inmates are sitting on their beds. Two ceiling fans turn slowly. The room is filled with fluorescent light. Almost every prisoner is black.

A small group of inmates get up from their beds and file into the shower area. One, his body covered with tattoos, gets in the shower in front of me, pulls off his shirt and shorts, and hands them to me to inspect. "Do a one-finger lift, turn around, bend, squat, cough," Christian orders. In one fluid motion, the man lifts his penis, opens his mouth, lifts his tongue, spins around with his ass facing me, squats, and coughs. He hands me his sandals and shows me the soles of his feet. I hand him his clothes and he puts his shorts on, walks past me, and nods respectfully.

Like a human assembly line, the inmates file in. "Beyend, squawt, cough," Christian drawls. He tells one inmate to open his hand. The inmate uncurls his finger and reveals a SIM card. Christian takes it but does nothing.

Eventually, the TV room is full of prisoners. A guard looks at them and smiles. "Tear 'em up!" he says, gesturing down the tier. Each of us, women included, stops at a bed. Christian tells one cadet to "shake down bed eight real good—just because he pissed me off." He tells us to search everything. I follow the other guards' lead, opening bottles of toothpaste and lotion. Inside a container of Vaseline, I find a one-hitter pipe made out of a pen and ask Christian what to do with it. He takes it from me, mutters "eh," and tosses it on the floor. I go through the mattress, pillow, dirty socks, and underwear. I flip through photos of kids, and of women posing seductively. I move on to new lockers: ramen, chips, dentures, hygiene products, peanut butter, cocoa powder, cookies, candy, salt, moldy bread, a dirty coffee cup. I find the draft of a novel, dedicated to "all the hustlers, bastards, strugglers, and hoodlum childs who are chasing their dreams."


Related: Read Shane Bauer's story about solitary confinement.
One instructor notices that I am carefully putting each object back where I found it and tells me to pull everything out of the lockers and leave it on the beds. I look down the tier and see mattresses lying on the floor, papers and food dumped across beds. The middle of the floor is strewn with contraband: USB cables refashioned as phone chargers, tubs of butter, slices of cheese, and pills. I find some hamburger patties taken from the cafeteria. A guard tells me to throw them into the pile.

Inmates are glued up against the TV room window, watching a young white cadet named Miss Stirling pick through their stuff. She's pretty and petite, with long, jet-black hair. The attention makes her uncomfortable; she thinks the inmates are gross. Earlier this week, she said she would refuse to give an inmate CPR and won't try the cafeteria food because she doesn't want to "eat AIDS." The more she is around prisoners, though, the more I notice her grapple with an inner conflict. "I don't want to treat everyone like a criminal because I've done things myself," she says.

Miss Stirling says she sometimes wonders if her baby's dad will end up here. She doesn't like doing chokehold escapes in class because they bring back memories of him. He cooked meth in their toolshed and once beat her so badly he dislocated her shoulder and knee. "You know that bone at the bottom of your neck? He pushed it up into my head," she says.

Senior Reporter Shane Bauer can be reached by email
Have a scoop for Mother Jones?Send it here.

If he ends up in this prison, another cadet assures her, "We could make his life hell."

As we shake down the tier, a prisoner comes out of the TV room to get a better look at Miss Stirling, and she yells at him to go back in. He does.

"Thank you," she says.

"Did she just say thank you?" Christian asks. A bunch of COs scoff.

"Don't ever say thank you," a woman CO tells her. "That takes the power away from it."


Inmates gather in Ash unit’s yard.
"Ain't no order here"
Most of our training is uneventful. Some days there are no more than two hours of classes, and then we have to sit and run the clock to 4:15 p.m. We pass the time discussing each other's lives. I try mostly to stay quiet, but when I slip into describing a backpacking trip I recently took in California, a cadet throws her arms in the air and shouts, "Why are you here?!" I am careful to never lie, instead backing out with generalities like, "I came here for work," or "You never know where life will take you," and no one pries further.

Few of my fellow cadets have traveled farther than nearby Oklahoma. They compare towns by debating the size and quality of their Walmarts. Most are young. They eat candy during break time, write their names on the whiteboard in cutesy lettering, and talk about different ways to get high.

Miss Doucet, a stocky redheaded cadet in her late 50s, thinks that if kids were made to read the Bible in school, fewer would be in prison, but she also sticks pins in a voodoo doll to mete out vengeance. "I swing both ways," she says. She lives in a camper with her daughter and grandkids. With this job, she's hoping to save up for a double-wide trailer.

She worked at the lumber mill in Winnfield for years, but worsening asthma put an end to that. She's been hospitalized several times this year and says she almost died once. "They don't even want me to bring this in," she whispers, leaning in, pulling her inhaler out of her pocket. "I'm not supposed to, but I do. They ain't takin' it away from me." She takes a long drag from her cigarette.

Miss Doucet and others from the class ahead of mine go to the front office to get their paychecks for their first two weeks of work. When they return, the shoulders of a young cadet are slumping. He says his check was for $577, after they took $121 in taxes.

"Dang. That hurts," he says.

Miss Doucet says they withheld $114 from her check.

"They held less for you?!" the young cadet says.

"I'm may-ried!" she says in a singsong voice. "I got a chi-ild!"

Outwardly, Miss Doucet is jovial and cocky, but she is already making mental adjustments to her dreams. The double-wide trailer she imagines her grandkids spreading out in becomes a single-wide. She figures she can get $5,000 for the RV.

CCA Facilities


Related: The Corrections Corporation of America, by the numbers
At the end of one morning of doing nothing, the training coordinator tells us we can go to the gym to watch inmates graduate from trade classes. Prisoners and their families are milling around with plates of cake and cups of fruit punch. An inmate offers a piece of red velvet to Miss Stirling.

I stand around with Collinsworth, an 18-year-old cadet with a chubby white baby face hidden behind a brown beard and a wisp of bangs. Before CCA, Collinsworth worked at a Starbucks. When he came to Winnfield to help out with family, this was the first job he could get. Once, Collinsworth was nearly kicked out of class after he jokingly threatened to stab Mr. Tucker with a plastic training knife. He's boasted to me about inmate management tactics he's learned from seasoned officers. "You just pit 'em against each other and that's the easiest way to get your job done," he tells me. He says one guard told him that inmates should tell troublemakers, "'I'm gonna rape you if you try that shit again.' Or something; whatever it takes."

As Collinsworth and I stand around, inmates gather to look at our watches. One, wearing a cocked gray beanie, asks to buy them. I refuse outright. Collinsworth dithers. "How old you is?" the inmate asks him.

"You never know," Collinsworth says.

"Man, all these fake-ass signals," the inmate says. "The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place."

"I understand it's your home," Collinsworth says. "But I'm at work right now."

"It's your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin'. You 'bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?"

"It's probably true."

"It ain't no 'probably true.' If you go' be at this bitch, you go' do 12 hours a day." He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: "They ain't payin' you enough for that." Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.

"Drugs?! Don't worry 'bout the drugs." The inmate says he was caught recently with two ounces of "mojo," or synthetic marijuana, which is the drug of choice at Winn. The inmate says guards turn a blind eye to it. They "ain't trippin' on that shit," he says. "I'm telling you, it ain't that type of camp. You can't come change things by yourself. You might as well go with the flow. Get this free-ass, easy-ass money, and go home."

"I'm just here to do my job and take care of my family," Collinsworth says. "I'm not gonna bring stuff in 'cuz even if I don't get caught, there's always the chance that I will."

"Nah. Ain't no chance," the inmate says. "I ain't never heard of nobody movin' good and low-key gettin' caught. Nah. I know a dude still rolling. He been doin' it six years." He looks at Collinsworth. "Easy."

The inmates' families file out the side entrance. A couple of minutes after the last visitors leave, the coach shouts, "All inmates on the bleachers!" A prisoner tosses his graduation certificate dramatically into the trash. Another lifts the podium over his head and runs with it across the gym. The coach shouts, exasperated, as prisoners scramble around.

"You see this chaos?" the inmate in the beanie says to Collinsworth. "If you'd been to other camps, you'd see the order they got. Ain't no order here. Inmates run this bitch, son."

A week later, Mr. Tucker tells us to come in early to do shakedowns. The sky is barely lit as I stand on the walk at 6:30 with the other cadets. Collinsworth tells us another prisoner offered to buy his watch. He said he'd sell it for $600. The inmate declined.

"Don't sell it to him anyway," Miss Stirling admonishes him. "You might get $600, but if they find out, you ain't go' get no more paychecks."

"Nah, I wouldn't actually do it. I just said $600 because I know they don't got $600 to give me."

"Shit," a heavyset black cadet named Willis says. He's our main authority on prison life. He says he served seven and a half years in the Texas State Penitentiary; he won't say what for. (CCA hires former felons whom it deems not to be a security risk; it says all Winn guards' background checks were also reviewed by the DOC.) "Dudes was showing me pictures," says Willis. "They got money in here. One dude in here, don't say nothin', but he got like six to eight thousand dollars. They got it on cards. Little money cards and shit."

Collinsworth jumps up and down. "Dude, I'ma find me one of them damn cards! Hell yeah. And I will not report it."

Officially, inmates are only allowed to keep money in special prison-operated accounts that can be used at the canteen. In these accounts, prisoners with jobs receive their wages, which may be as little as 2 cents an hour for a dishwasher and as much as 20 cents for a sewing-machine operator at Winn's garment factory. Their families can also deposit money in the accounts.

The prepaid cash cards Willis is referring to are called Green Dots, and they are the currency of the illicit prison economy. Connections on the outside buy them online, then pass on the account numbers in encoded messages through the mail or during visits. Inmates with contraband cellphones can do all these transactions themselves, buying the cards and handing out strips of paper as payments for drugs or phones or whatever else.

Miss Stirling divulges that an inmate gave her the digits of a money card as a Christmas gift. "I'm like, damn! I need a new MK watch. I need a new purse. I need some new jeans."

"There was this one dude in Dogwood," she continues. "He came up to the bars and showed me a stack of hundred-dollar bills folded up, and it was like this—" She makes like she's holding a wad of cash four inches thick. "And I was like, 'I'm not go' say anything.'"

"Dude! I'ma shake him the fuck down!" Collinsworth says. "I don't care if he's cool."

"He had a phone," Miss Stirling says, "and he's like, 'I don't have the time of day to hide it. I just keep it in the open. I really don't give a fuck.'"

Mr. Tucker tells us to follow him. We shake down tiers all morning. By the time we finish at 11, everyone is exhausted. "I'm not mad we had to do shakedowns. I'm just mad we didn't find anything," Collinsworth says. Christian pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and reads off a string of numbers in a show-offy way. "A Green Dot," he says. Christian hands the slip of paper to one of the cadets, a middle-aged white woman. "You can have this one," he says. "I have plenty already." She smiles coyly.

"We are going to win this unit back"
"Welcome to the hellhole," a female CO greeted me the first time I visited the segregation unit. A few days later I'm back at Cypress with Collinsworth and Reynolds to shadow some guards. The metal door clicks open and we enter to a cacophony of shouting and pounding on metal. An alarm is sounding and the air smells strongly of smoke.

On one wall is a mural of a prison nestled among dark mountains and shrouded in storm clouds, lightning striking the guard towers and an enormous, screeching bald eagle descending with a giant pair of handcuffs in its talons. Toward the end of a long hall of cells, an officer in a black SWAT-style uniform stands ready with a pepper-ball gun. Another man in black is pulling burnt parts of a mattress out of a cell. Cypress can hold up to 200 inmates; most of the eight-by-eight-foot cells have two prisoners in them. The cells look like tombs; men lie in their bunks, wrapped in blankets, staring at the walls. Many are lit only by the light from the hallway. In one, an inmate is washing his clothes in his toilet.

"How are you doing?" says a smiling white man dressed business casual. He grips my hand. "Thank you for being here." Assistant Warden Parker is new to CCA, but he was once the associate warden of a federal prison. "I know it seems crazy back here now, but you'll learn the ropes," he assures me. "We are going to win this unit back. It's not going to happen in an hour. It's gonna take time, but it will happen." Apparently the segregation unit has been in a state of upheaval for a while, so corporate headquarters has sent in SORT officers from out of state to bring it back under control. SORT teams are trained to suppress riots, rescue hostages, extract inmates from their cells, and neutralize violent prisoners. They deploy an array of "less lethal" weapons like plastic buckshot, electrified shields, and chili-pepper-filled projectiles that burst on contact.

I get a whiff of feces that quickly becomes overpowering. On one of the tiers, a brown liquid oozes out of a bottle on the floor. Food, wads of paper, and garbage are all over the ground. I spot a Coke can, charred black, with a piece of cloth sticking out of it like a fuse. "I use my political voice!" an inmate shouts. "I stand up for my rights. Hahaha! Ain't nowhere like this camp. Shit, y'all's disorganized as fuck up in here."

"That's why we are here," a SORT member says. "We are going to change all that."

"Y'all can't change shit," the prisoner yells back. "They ain't got shit for us here. We ain't got no jobs. No rec time. We just sit in our cells all day. What you think gonna happen when a man got nuttin' to do? That's why we throw shit out on the tier. What else are we going to do? You know how we get these officers to respect us? We throw piss on 'em. That's the only way. Either that or throw them to the floor. Then they respect us."

I ask one of the regular white-shirted COs what an average day in seg looks like. "To be honest with you, normally we just sit here at this table all day long," he tells me. They are supposed to walk up and down the eight tiers every 30 minutes to check on the inmates, but he says they never do that. (CCA says it had no knowledge of guards at Winn skipping security checks before I inquired about it.)

Collinsworth is walking around with a big smile on his face. He's learning how to take inmates out of their cells for disciplinary court, which is inside Cypress. He's supposed to cuff them through the slot in the bars, then tell the CO at the end of the tier to open the gate remotely. "Fuck nah, I ain't coming out of this cell!" an inmate shouts at him. "You go' have to get SORT to bring me up out of here. That's how we do early in the morning. I'll fuck y'all up." The prisoner climbs up on the bars and pounds on the metal above the cell door. The sound explodes down the cement hallway.

Collinsworth and the CO he is shadowing move another inmate from his cell. The inmate tries to walk ahead as the CO holds him. "If that motherfucker starts pulling away from me like that again, I'm gonna make him eat concrete," the CO says to Collinsworth.

"I kind of hope he does mess around again," Collinsworth says, beaming. "That would be fun!"

I take a few inmates out of their cells, too, walking each one a hundred feet or so to disciplinary court with my hand around one of his elbows. One pulls against my grip. "Why you pulling on me, man?" he shouts, spinning around to stand face-to-face with me. A SORT officer rushes over and grabs him. My heart races.


One of the white-shirted officers takes me aside. "Hey, don't let these guys push you around," he says. "If he is pulling away from you, you tell him, 'Stop resisting.' If he doesn't, you stop. If he keeps going, we are authorized to knee him in the back of the leg and drop him to the concrete."

Inmates shout at me as I walk back down the tier. "He has a little twist in his walk. I like them holes in your ears, CO. Come in here with me. Give me that booty!"

At lunchtime, Collinsworth, Reynolds, and I go back to the training room. "I love it here," Collinsworth says dreamily. "It's like a community."


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