Read Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer’s firsthand account of his four months spent working as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.
One of the best parts of my job at Mother Jones is teaming up with colleagues to shoot and produce video for our investigations. In March 2015, I traveled to Louisiana to work with Shane Bauer, a reporter who was in his fourth month as a guard at Winn Correctional Center, a medium-security private prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
It was Friday the 13th, around 7:45 p.m. The night was warm and overcast when I set out to collect “B-roll” of the prison, a 20-minute drive from Winnfield, the nearest town. Between the prison and the Kisatchie National Forest was a wide, unfenced field. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was prison property. I walked into this open field with a telephoto lens, intending to get a shot of Winn from about 1,000 feet away.
Then I stepped deep in mud. I used my iPhone flashlight to check out the muck. About two minutes later I saw searchlights coming from the direction of the prison. I walked back to my rental car parked on the side of the road. A powerful light swept the trees, emanating from a prison patrol vehicle that pulled up about 150 feet behind me. I called out “Hello? Hello?” and waited for an answer. When no one addressed me, I got into my car and drove away.
I wound my SUV back through the dark forest—and straight into several police cars and prison vehicles blocking the road outside Winn. I stepped out of the car and was surrounded by three sheriff’s deputies and five or six men dressed in black from head to toe. I saw their faces as they passed in and out of the light from their headlights and flashers. Shane had told me about them: They were members of the prison’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT), the tactical squad called in to restore order when things got out of hand.
I handed over my Australian driver’s license. In my panic, I told the cops I’d stopped to go to the bathroom beside the road. I quickly realized things were getting serious, and I told them I was a photographer working in the area.
Police body camera footage that I later obtained captured part of my arrest (and gloriously, for a videographer, from two angles). “What kind of pictures you got there?” asked the main arresting officer, Winn Parish deputy Kelly Fannin, a paunchy man with a white mustache.
“They’re my pictures,” I replied. I knew they probably couldn’t look at the images on my cameras or memory cards without a search warrant. I don’t remember acting this defiant at the time, but there it is, on video. Still, I wore a worried grin on my face and I sounded scared.
“Now, wait a minute. Let me explain something: What you took here don’t belong to you,” Fannin said, stabbing the air with his finger. “When you come here in this country, when you get around a prison, you don’t fuck around, okay?”
With my camera gear now strewn on the road by the SORT officers, my profession seemed obvious. But the cops and guards were amped up like I was a big catch. I heard them talking repeatedly about the threat of ISIS and the possibility that I was an actual terrorist. “An Australian with a Texas license plate in Louisiana runs some red flags,” Winn Parish Sheriff Cranford Jordan later joked to CNNMoney.
Fannin demanded my camera’s memory card. His temper was rising: “Let’s have it.”
“No, sir, I’m not going to show you that,” I said.
“I will take everything you’ve got!” he said.
I reached down to grab my camera from the pile of gear, setting off a bout of tussling and yelling. “Whoa, come here!” Fannin grabbed my arm in a stiff grip.
“You can’t take my camera,” I protested. “I know that.” The cops said they would get a search warrant. But, Fannin warned, “If you don’t want to give it to me, I will take it. It’s just that simple.”
“Do you want me to charge you for going on that property?” he continued. “And put you in jail tonight and show you what a jail is?”
“I mean, no sir, I do not want that,” I replied.
Going through my gear, the officers pulled out an aerial drone I’d brought along—a discovery that ratcheted up the tension even more. Never mind that it was broken and I was planning to return it to Amazon.
Deputy Tommy Chandler told me to “go ahead and turn and put your hands behind your back.”
“I’m cooperating,” I said.
“No, you ain’t,” he shot back.
After a Miranda warning, I was put in the back seat of a patrol car next to a police dog in a cage. The door slammed.
The deputies’ body cameras continued to roll after I was taken into custody. “We’ll just book him for trespassing,” one said. “I know what it was: He was out here looking for kangaroos!”
“Apparently they’ve got different laws over there in New South Wales, Australia,” an officer can be heard saying. “Welcome to the Free State of Winn!”
The footage also shows one of the prison’s SORT members scrolling through the contents of my camera, without a warrant, while the deputies looked on. The Winn Parish sheriff later said he was “not aware” of anyone searching my belongings; his office declined to comment further for this article. CCA’s spokesman said that the company was “not aware of the camera footage or what it contains.” Yet months later, Winn’s former assistant chief of security emailed Shane what looked like a photo of a screen showing an image of him. The image’s geolocation data suggested it had been created on the premises of the sheriff’s office. There’s only one place the original image of Shane could have come from: my memory card, which contained a video of him that I’d made shortly before my arrest.
I arrived at the Winnfield jail sometime around 10pm. I was charged with simple criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. (In Louisiana you can be charged with trespassing even if you didn’t know that you were on private land.) The computer system couldn’t compute the address on my Australian drivers’ license, which gave one guy plenty of time to brag about how he once made it with an Aussie girl with hairy armpits.
“Are kangaroos good for hunting?” the old jailer asked me. “Perhaps we’ll all have to go there when Hillary Clinton becomes president.” After I was made to strip and show my asshole (just to make sure I wasn’t carrying any contraband), I was put in handcuffs and leg shackles and made to wait in a small office surrounded by three or four guards.
I mostly observed my right to remain silent. But I also wanted to be a good cultural ambassador, so I told them kangaroos are eaten for meat and sometimes are regarded as pests that need to be shot. They seemed to like that.
Maybe it was the stress, or the adrenaline, or the accents, but I understood only every fourth or fifth word the cops and prison orderlies were saying to me. The bewilderment was mutual. I do know that I was threatened with an FBI investigation, immigration detention, and deportation. I asked to speak to a lawyer, but that never happened. I was allowed to call my editor, who started working like hell to get me out.
A couple of hours later, around midnight, my mugshot was snapped and my fingerprints were taken. My arrest records indicate that CCA said that night that it wanted trespassing charges filed against me. The jailer finally led me to a small cell separated from rest of the prisoners. The sheriff had told me earlier that, “They’d whoop you bad.” A 23-year-old named Alex was put in there with me, but he was too out of it to really talk, apart from telling me everything was gonna be okay. My standard-issue orange jumpsuit swam on me. “I wish I could keep it and wear it out in Brooklyn,” I thought.
The next morning, I felt grateful to be protected by prison bars. “Hey girl, hey girl,” someone shouted from the next cell. “You ever slept with a man? Do you want to?” It wasn’t an invitation; it was a threat.
This went on sporadically for hours. “No one’s letting us rape that girl’s hole.” I was scared I might do something to really out myself—I’m gay. I was hoping that just as being an Aussie threw a curve ball at the cops’ ability to identify a real terrorist, it also might scramble their gaydar.
Sheriff Jordan, a big man with a comb-over who liked to make jokes, came by to tell me the judge had denied me bail. It was Saturday, which meant it would be two days before I could get a hearing. Worse, it meant two nights of threats and snoring and unpredictable meals and gawking. I asked if I could call my parents. “Tell them we didn’t shoot you at dawn,” Jordan said.
I tried to start reading the the third volume of Game of Thrones, taken from the jail bookshelf. I wrote a letter. A prisoner sang a top 40 tune, but in a slow, sad baritone—”So baby now, take me into your loving arms, kiss me under the light of a thousand stars…” The prisoners and guards all began to call me “Australia.”
I started to resign myself to several days in this shithole, even though Jordan told me Mother Jones‘ lawyer had been “hollering” down the phone line, a fact that made him displeased.
Then suddenly, at about 4:30 p.m., I was shackled again and taken to be interrogated by two state police officers, a local deputy, and—you’ve got to be kidding me—a Homeland Security agent. These new guys already knew everything about me, and seemed bored that I was just a journalist. “Write all the exposés about CCA you like,” one told me. After about 45 minutes, I shuffled from the room with promises that the judge would soon set bond.
About five hours later, I heard that I’d made bail—for $10,000. “How cool are drones! I really want one!” said an officer, a professed camera buff, as he took stock of my equipment and processed me out of the jail. “Send me a copy of the article when it’s done.”
The old jailer came down to say good-bye. “I’m so sorry you had to see that,” he said. “Some of these places I wouldn’t put my dog in.” I thought about my cellmate Alex and wondered about the people who would never see the outside of Louisiana’s criminal justice system. I felt good to be walking free, unscathed.
Everyone shook my hand as I left to meet the bail bondsman, who turned out to be the son of the local lawyer hired to kick-start my defense, the fabulously named Bobby Culpepper. (Culpepper died suddenly several months later at age 74. My case was eventually concluded by a criminal defense lawyer named Marty Stroud.) The bondsman drove me to a gas station at the edge of Winnfield where Shane and his wife Sarah were waiting for me, tired yet relieved. We embraced, then we got the hell out of there.
News of my arrest broke not long after we left town, first in the local paper (the Winn Parish Enterprise called me a “renowned international journalist,” which I will treasure forever), then in CNNMoney, the Washington Post, and Gawker. I didn’t comment publicly, but the police account of was over-dramatized: The sheriff claimed I’d run from my vehicle toward the prison’s fence, which never happened. “You don’t go to a prison at night. You don’t violate the law when you’re doing a story,” Sheriff Jordan told CNNMoney. CCA issued a statement about Shane and me. It said that trespassing “is a security threat that we take very seriously” and noted that a drone “could be used to transport contraband or provide detailed imagery in a way that could create a security risk.”
Seven months later, I entered a no contest plea on a criminal trespass charge and paid a $500 fine. The alternative was to face down a maximum sentence of 30 days in prison and a trial that could have potentially compromised our investigation. The court then dismissed the conviction under a state law that allowed me to have my criminal record expunged.
I recall one prisoner yelling out to me during my night in orange: “You’re gonna get Winnfield on the news.”
We did. I’m really proud of our work.