Mother Jones Journalist Shane Bauer Speaks at Narrative Medicine Rounds

Shane Bauer, a senior reporter at Mother Jones, spoke to a capacity crowd in early September in the first edition of Narrative Medicine Rounds for the 2016-2017 school year.

Bauer had made the news for his blockbuster piece of immersive journalism, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” which ran in the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine. A searing 35,000 word indictment on the cruelty of the private prison system on its prisoners and its employees, it is a must-read work about America in 2016.

His talk made this narrative even more vivid, tragic, and urgent. His first experience with prison took place across the world: he was held hostage in Iran for two years, from 2009 - 2011. After his release, he took an interest in the U.S. prison system. For an early assignment, he looked into a hunger strike at a prison in Pelican Bay, California. The prisoners were protesting solitary confinement — some had been in solitary for over 40 years, and they hadn’t committed violent crimes. Any time in solitary was enough to break a human being. Bauer saw “a situation that is antithetical to what it means to be human.”

Yet even with this work, Bauer noticed that he had limited access to prisons. It would end up being a two hour tour, at most. “We give powerful institutions the last say,” he said. “As journalists, it’s our job not to let them have the last world.” He concluded that the way to understand prison was to be inside it. “When you get up close with people, you start to see what are the systems that create these situations.”

For Bauer, the route to getting a job as a guard in a rural Louisiana town was frighteningly simple. None of his fellow guards wanted to be there; they needed the money. They were understaffed, and some days there would be 24 guards working for 1000 inmates. According to Bauer, “being a guard was partially about enforcing the rules and more about getting through the day safely.”

The economic collapse of journalism means that narratives such as Bauer’s are becoming endangered, even though his work will stand the test of time as a groundbreaking piece of journalism. It has already had an effect in the U.S. — in August, the Justice Department announced that it was going to phase out the use of private prisons.

Listen to Bauer’s talk in full at the Narrative Medicine Rounds podcast, and learn more about the Narrative Medicine graduate program.