Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
By Ted Conover
New York: Random House, 2000
Popular culture is a curious thing. In a society where writers spend vast amounts of time and energy exploring the character complexities of criminals, portrayals of correctional officers are almost consistently unflattering and one-dimensional. Correctional officers are almost always portrayed as bad guys. They are depicted as inherently sadistic and mindlessly authoritarian, as one-dimensional characters without redeeming qualities.
This inaccurate and unsympathetic image of the guard is a staple of both popular fiction and many firsthand accounts of prison life. It can be found in the writings of Jack Abbot, Brendan Behan, and Eldridge Cleaver, and in films like "Cool Hand Luke", "Brubaker", and "Shawshank Redemption." There are, of course, exceptions. One of these is Ted Conover's new book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. It is one of a very few recent books to get beyond the stereotype of the brutal guard to explore the complex nature of correctional work.
Conover is now well-known for a series of books recounting in-depth, firsthand experiences of some of American society's more obscure subcultures. He spent a year hopping freight trains with homeless men, traveled with illegal Mexican immigrants, and took a job driving a cab in Aspen in order to have an opportunity to observe the city's wealthy winter visitors. His work has been described as "experiential journalism." In fact, Conover's writing often seems to blur the boundaries between journalism and the observational methods of the social sciences. He typically offers readers the kind of thoughtful and meticulous research characteristic of good scholarship while demonstrating the storyteller's gift for compelling narrative. This is certainly the case in Newjack, a beautifully written book that most readers will find moving and informative, if sometimes controversial.
Conover spent a year working as a "newjack"—the inmate term for a newly minted New York state correctional officer. Upon leaving the training academy he was assigned to work in Sing Sing, the state's maximum security prison in Ossining, where most new officers spend their first months on the job. Newjack tells the story of Conover's introduction to correctional work. After a short time at the academy and a brief period of on-the-job training, Conover found himself working, often alone and always unarmed, in galleries housing sixty or more inmates. As a newjack, he was responsible for the care and custody of scared young first-timers, drug addicts, gang members, violent predators, physically debilitated inmates suffering from diseases like AIDS and TB, and an assortment of "bugs"— prison slang for the mentally ill.
Conover sought out a work assignment that would maximize his opportunity to observe prison life. Most of his time at Sing Sing was spent in close contact with the inmates, in dining halls and housing galleries, doing strip searches, searching cells, writing disciplinary infraction reports, and confiscating inmate contraband. Because they live in an enforced state of near helplessness, responding to inmates who required assistance with an apparently endless array of personal problems filled much of Conover's time.
Conover's description of the correctional officer's role is largely consistent with that offered by others who have firsthand experience of prison life. It brings to mind Lucien Lombardo's work on Auburn Prison, Barbara Owen's on San Quentin, and even Gresham Sykes' classic, Society of Captives. In brief, virtually all serious, firsthand accounts of correctional work describe a gap between the training and the reality of the job, official policies and procedures that require routine circumvention, poor relations between line officers and administrators, and the corrosive influence of stress on professional conduct and personal life.
Conover also covers all of this, describing the overwhelming confusion of a new officer's first days in a crowded housing unit, illustrating the newjack's dependence on the goodwill of inmates, depicting the apparent hostility and indifference of senior colleagues, and demonstrating the inevitability of making serious and even life-threatening mistakes in the chaotic world of the prison. In doing that, Conover helps readers get beyond the stereotype of the brutal guard to see correctional officers as individuals, offering us a chance to understand how the prison experience shapes their professional lives and inevitably influences their personal relationships.
Newjack is not a puff piece for the profession, as Conover's crisp and unsparing description of fellow officers and their attitudes makes clear. The language of angry officers, and their apocryphal stories of inmate abuse, which he relates, may be interpreted by some readers as evidence of sadism and brutality in American prisons. Inmates are described as the "lowest of the low" and officers describe themselves as "warehousers" and "baby-sitters." One officer claims he "wouldn't piss them [inmates] if they were on fire" while others reminisce about the good old days and describe up-state institutions where a correctional officer can still simply "beat the shit out of" disrespectful or uncooperative inmates. These and other remarks will probably leave some officers wishing that they had never met Conover; but on the whole, this is a balanced work that could never have been written by someone who lacked respect for correctional officers.
Perhaps Conover's most important achievement in Newjack is found in his description of the fundamental moral ambiguity that characterizes correctional work. He succeeds in portraying correctional officers as people who are forced by the circumstances of their work to continually struggle with contradictory impulses. Conover himself clearly struggled as much with his fundamental inclination to reach out to people in trouble as with the anger and frustration he sometimes felt toward those he helped to hold captive. Early on we find him fantasizing about beating inmates and burning their cell house. At one point, not long after coming to Sing Sing, Conover heard a story about an inmate who was beaten by correctional officers after striking an officer in the head with a broom handle. According to Conover:
A month earlier I would have reacted negatively to a story like that. But now, seeing how outnumbered officers were and feeling more like prey than predator, I found in the tale a grain of comfort.
Later Conover comes to ignore many minor inmate rule violations and eventually violates prison regulations by bringing inmates contraband cigarettes and literature during the Christmas holidays.
Cigarettes packs that lacked a New York State revenue stamp… were not allowed to be distributed to inmates, and were apparently thrown away. I thought of the inmates I know whom nobody was likely to remember at Christmas. There were lots of them. My heart went out to the most pathetic. When no one was looking I stuffed about a dozen of the cigarette packs into my jacket.
Conover's interest in the theme of dangerous and almost uncontrollable sympathy for those we punish is conveyed in a quotation from Amos Squire, a New York prison doctor who supervised 138 executions—some in Sing Sing's electric chair.
I had given the signal for the current to be turned on—while the man in the chair was straining against the straps as the load of 2200 volts shot through his body—I felt for the first time a wild desire to extend my hand and touch him.... At each subsequent execution, the impulse became stronger. It finally got so compelling that I was forced to grip my fingernails into my palm to control it. Each time I had to stand farther and farther from the chair.
Conover sees correctional workers as multidimensional characters, neither good nor bad, but as people struggling as we all do to behave well in difficult circumstances. In Newjack, Conover leaves his readers with the sense that for most officers success is more a matter of controlling the contradictions of genuine empathy and justified anger than conquering the kind of sadism portrayed in popular films like "Cool Hand Luke," or "Shawshank Redemption." Conover must be congratulated for his able exploration of the tensions inherent in these contradictions.
If Conover's overall effort to offer a realistic picture of the correctional officer is largely successful, his account of prison sexuality will undoubtedly generate some criticism. His claim that non-consensual sex is now rare in Sing Sing does not ring true. It raises troubling questions about the efficacy of Sing Sing's staff and may well constitute a denial of responsibility for the protection of vulnerable inmates. Given a long-standing convict code that discourages inmates from reporting victimization, it is hard to know how much rape occurs in prison. Even so, Conover's discussion of disciplinary infractions and openly transsexual inmates suggests that homosexual relations were clearly commonplace during his time at Sing Sing. Considering the extraordinary power differentials that separate young, weak and unconnected inmates from older, stronger, gang-affiliated convicts, it is hard to know how anyone can establish that what sometimes passes for consent in prison is freely given and truly uncoerced.
Some readers will also be troubled by Conover's assertion that voluntary sexual encounters between female staff and inmates may be more common than prison rape at Sing Sing. Is Conover buying into the macho ideology of male guards? There are many opportunities for male officers to engage in sexual misconduct on duty, after all, and Conover himself was solicited at least once. In the end, it's hard to know because he does not delve deeply into this issue. And while some readers may fault him for this, others will doubtless find themselves still learning more about the topic than they really wanted to know.
Correctional officers play a critical role in the administration of justice by making the sentence of the court a reality. Even so, it is not often that we look beyond popular stereotypes to give them the kind of serious consideration that they deserve. In Newjack, Conover invites us to do just that. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity.
John Riley is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.