In an age when hard-hitting news is often reduced to 140-character headlines, award-winning journalist Shane Bauer proves the power of deeply embedded, long-term investigative reporting: his widely read stories about acute systemic injustices—particularly in the American criminal justice system—have prompted public outrage and, ultimately, policy change.

In 2015, Shane took a job as a prison guard in Louisiana to investigate corporation-run prisons. The resulting 35,000-word exposé, "My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard," published in Mother Jones magazine, as well as accompanying images, audio, and radio documentary series, had enormous impact, garnering more than one million readers and a National Magazine Award for Best Reporting.

We sat down with Shane to talk about the intricacies of investigative journalism, the emotional and physical experience of reporting, and getting proximate. 

Q

What would the public be surprised to know about the kind of long-term investigative journalism work that you do?

A

There's a kind of mystique around undercover reporting. It's romanticized in a certain way. The work itself is very stressful and can also be very isolating, even if you're just sitting behind a desk. Some investigative reporters are just going through spreadsheets all the time. It can be very unsexy. Even this story, I worked in a prison for four months, which was very exciting in a lot of ways. Then I worked another 14 months on the story doing really painstaking work—getting court records and doing public records requests.

Investigative reporting also costs a lot of money because it takes a lot longer. I'm physically moving across the country. We have lawyers that are making sure that I'm not breaking any laws. The company's threatening to sue us. Since investigative reporting tends to confront power, there's a lot more risk involved in it, especially risk of costly lawsuits. It can be stressful.

Shane's 35,000-word exposé took 18 months to produce.

Q

How did your prison story come about?

A

I had this idea to apply for a job in a private prison and my editor pretty much said, "Try it. Fill out an application but don't lie on it." I think that she didn't think that it was going to go anywhere, and I didn't really either. It seemed like it was a shot in the dark. So I applied. I filled out an application without lying. Within a week or two, I had several interviews.

Then suddenly the ball was moving fast. We had have a lot of these conversations about, what are the legal risks? Is what I'm doing legal? I had job offers in different states. Would my insurance cover me if I got stabbed on the job or something? How am I going to find a place to live? How am I going to stay in touch? It was an intensive week or two of just talking through that stuff.

We also reiterated that I was never going to lie throughout this process. If somebody asked me if I was a journalist, I would say, "Yes." My editors repeatedly stressed that if at any point I decided I didn't want to do this, I'd just stop, for any reason. Then I flew to Louisiana, found a place to live, bought a truck, and started training.

I couldn't believe that it was happening. I was really, really nervous. When I first drove into that prison, my heart was pounding. I thought I would be caught at any moment. I didn't know what would happen. But over time I became more comfortable with being there.

After a month of training I started on the job and there was a new type of stress—less about me being found out and more about being a guard in a private prison. I was spending more energy on figuring out how to manage the job as a guard than how to be a journalist in there.

Storytelling is its own type of data. There are a lot of contradictions in stories, and those contradictions are important. That's a part of reality. Data often doesn't show those contradictions.
Q

Was it difficult to assimilate back after it was over?

A

I remember when we got to Dallas and we sat down and had a drink, I had this feeling like, "This must be what it's like to leave an abusive relationship,” where you're in it and you don't feel good, but it's really hard to leave. Then once you're out it feels great.

Undercover work naturally makes you empathize with the people that you're reporting on. It's a human thing that when we spend a lot of time around people, we start to understand them more. You empathize with them and their situation. It can feel like you're getting sucked in. You have to be able to maintain perspective while you're doing that, but also allow it to happen to a certain degree. Psychologically, it can be confusing. 

Q

Empathy and the idea of getting proximate is very important to us at Emerson Collective. Is there an example that stands out in your work where you became especially empathetic when you weren't expecting to?

A

I did not expect to empathize with the guards. I spent two years in prison in Iran. When you're a prisoner, guards are the worst. They become your enemy. It's not that black and white though. There were also guards who helped me and that I really appreciated. But in the end, they're locking you up every day.

I became a guard to understand what life was like for prisoners, not what life was like for guards. But it didn't take long for me to see that everybody in this system was being exploited by it in some way. The guards are making $9 an hour. They were desperate people. Nobody wanted to work there. They're working there because they have no other option. A lot of them are single moms that just need work and insurance for their kids. They're caught in this system too.

I'm glad that I had that experience. It was really eye-opening to me. When you're not immersed it's easy to caricaturize people. Had I been just visiting that prison for a week, I imagine I might have been drawn to the loose-cannon types of guards, the stereotype of a guard. I would have been naturally looking for those people and missing the real story.

Undercover work naturally makes you empathize with the people you're reporting on. It's a human thing that when we spend a lot of time around people, we start to understand them more.

Shane Bauer spoke to an audience about the importance of investigative journalism in today's media landscape.

Q

What advice do you have for aspiring storytellers in today's media landscape?

A

Storytelling is maybe the most important part of journalism. You can have groundbreaking reporting that nobody sees because there's no story in it. But it’s also not just a way to deliver data. Storytelling is its own type of data. There are a lot of contradictions in stories, and those contradictions are important. That's a part of reality. Data often doesn't show those contradictions.

When I'm immersed in a situation, I'm trying to think in terms of scenes. I'm trying to identify them as they're happening. A good scene to me is something that is loaded with meaning. It doesn't always have to show the impact of cost-saving on the prison. It can show some other thing that is not explicitly stated. Maybe people read it in different ways, but it's rich with meaning and interesting to read. It's helping you understand the complexity of this world that you're painting.

Learn More

Read more from Mother Jones, including Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery's piece, "Why We Sent a Reporter to Work as a Private Prison Guard."