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Sheriff: Mother Jones had undercover ‘operative’ in Louisiana prison

Mother Jones magazine has some issues surrounding a Louisiana prison.

On Friday night, sheriff’s deputies from Winn Parish, La., arrested reporter James West for trespassing at an area prison and discovered a camera-equipped drone among the reporter’s belongings. And early this week, an employee of the prison resigned his position in the aftermath of the arrest and was called an “operative” of Mother Jones by Winn Parish Sheriff Cranford Jordan in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. “He was working as as guard,” said Jordan.

Jordan identified the now-former prison employee as Shane Bauer, who is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, according to the magazine’s Web site. Bauer has a compelling background: In 2009, he was detained while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border and went on to spend 26 months in the isolation ward of Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. “We were held incommunicado,” Bauer wrote in the November/December 2012 issue of Mother Jones. “We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn’t go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage.” That piece pivoted toward solitary-confinement conditions for inmates in U.S. prisons.

The revelation about Bauer comes after a shadowy incident on March 13, outside the Winn Correctional Center, a state-owned prison managed by Corrections Corporation of America. As Jordan describes the events, his office received a call from the facility around 9:30 p.m. that someone was spotted on prison grounds via a light from a cell phone, and the person left in a rental car when pursued by prison guards. A deputy from Jordan’s shop was able to track down the vehicle and identified the driver as James West, based on his Australian driver’s license.

Those biographical details line up with the James West who works as a senior producer for Mother Jones. According to the Winn Parish Enterprise, “it is believed that he was here on assignment from New York.” West was released on a $10,000 appearance bond.

Jordan said he and his deputies had no idea what West was doing near the prison. “If I was doing a story, I wouldn’t want to be out there at night. Those guards out there have guns,” says Jordan, noting that interlopers may well be attempting to assist in an escape or to get contraband across prison walls. Nor was West carrying any media credentials, according to the sheriff. “My policy is we extend courtesies to the press,” says the sheriff, who cites his own past in low-power television. Jordan was unsure what West had done with the drone.

The sheriff’s office, says Jordan, has it on “good authority” that Bauer was working as an “operative inside the prison” for Mother Jones. Bauer resigned his position early this week, according to Jordan.

“Journalists have a right to do stories, but you can’t violate the law while you’re doing it,” says Jordan.

Mother Jones just issued a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog about all this:

James West was stopped by police while news gathering in a public place and arrested when he refused to show the contents of his camera. Shane Bauer is an award-winning criminal justice reporter. He did not conceal his identity or employment history from CCA. If and when he chooses to write about his experiences, we’ll be happy to discuss it further.

(Disclosure: The wife of the Erik Wemple Blog is a staff writer for Mother Jones)

Steve Owen, a spokesman for the Corrections Corporation of America, didn’t deny any of the details stemming from Jordan’s account. He said he was “not aware” of any untoward conduct by Bauer but did take issue with the conduct of Mother Jones. The magazine, he says, has not contacted CCA regarding any story that it may be producing on the company or the Louisiana facility. “You would think that tactics like this would be a last resort if you’ve exhausted all appropriate measures,” says Owen. “We’ve always been responsive in the past to media.” He cites a 2012 story in the magazine that carries an ample response from the company.