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Newjack - Guarding Sing Sing

Ted Conover

3,337 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0375501770 / ISBN 13: 9780375501777
Published by Random House, New York, 2000
Used Condition: Very Good Hardcover
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Signed by author on title page. Not price clipped jacket. First Edition, 7th printing. Bookseller Inventory # 000002

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Newjack - Guarding Sing Sing

Publisher: Random House, New York

Publication Date: 2000

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:Very Good

Dust Jacket Condition: Very Good

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: First Edition

About this title

Synopsis:


Ted Conover, the intrepid author of Coyotes, about the world of illegal Mexican immigrants, spent a year as a prison guard at Sing Sing. Newjack, his account of that experience, is a milestone in American journalism: a book that casts new and unexpected light on this nation's prison crisis and sets a new standard for courageous, in-depth reporting.
        
At the infamous Sing Sing, once a model prison but now New York State's most troubled maximum-security facility, Conover goes to work as a gallery officer, working shifts in which he alone must supervise scores of violent inner-city felons. He soon learns the impossibility of doing his job by the book. What should he do when he feels the hair-raising tingle that tells him a fight is about to break out? When he loses a key in a tussle? When a prisoner punches him in the head? Little by little, he learns to walk the fine line between leniency and tyranny that distinguishes a good guard.
        
Along the way, we meet a cast of characters that includes a tough but appealing supervisor named Mama Cradle; a range of mentally ill prisoners, or "bugs"; some of the jail's more flamboyant transvestites; and a philosophical, charismatic inmate who points out to Conover that the United States is building new prisons for future felons who are now only four and five years old. Conover also gives us a history of Sing Sing (it was built by inmates, and for decades was the nation's capital of capital punishment) in a chapter that serves as a brilliant short course in America's penal system.
        
With empathy and insight, Newjack tells the story of a harsh, hidden world and dramatizes the conflict between the necessity to isolate criminals and the dehumanization—of guards as well as inmates—that almost inevitably takes place behind bars.

Review:

Most people know it's easier to get into prison than it is to get out. But for a journalist, just getting into Sing Sing, New York's notorious maximum-security prison, isn't easy. In fact, Ted Conover was so stymied by official channels that he took the only way in--other than crime--and became a New York State corrections officer: "I wanted to hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of guards--those on the front lines of our prison policies, the society's proxies." Newjack is Conover's account of nearly a year at ground zero of the criminal justice system. What it reveals is a mix of the obvious and the absurd, with hypocrisies not unexpected considering that the land of the free shares with Russia the distinction of having the world's largest prison population. As of December 1999, it was projected that the number of people incarcerated in the United States would reach 2 million in 2000.

This is the world Conover enters when he, along with other new recruits, undergoes seven weeks of pseudomilitary preparation at the Albany Training Academy. Then it's off to Sing Sing for the daily grind of prison life. Conover correctly and vividly captures the essence of that life, its tedium interspersed with the adrenaline rush of an "incident" and the edge of fear that accompanies every action. He also details how the guards experience their own feelings of confinement, often at the hands of the inmates:

A consequence of putting men in cells and controlling their movements is that they can do almost nothing for themselves. For their various needs they are dependent on one person, their gallery officer. Instead of feeling like a big, tough guard, the gallery officer at the end of the day often feels like a waiter serving a hundred tables or like the mother of a nightmarishly large brood of sullen, dangerous, and demanding children. When grown men are infantilized, most don't take to it too nicely.
And not taking to it nicely often involves violence. Indeed, the constant potential for violence on any scale makes even humdrum assignments dangerous. It's astonishing that more doesn't happen, given that the majority of the 1,800 inmates have been convicted of violent felonies: murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson. But beneath the simmering rage rests an unexpected sensitivity that Conover captures brilliantly. After encountering a Hispanic inmate with a tattoo of a heartbreaking passage from The Diary of Anne Frank on his back, he writes: "It was easier to stay incurious as an officer. Under the inmates' surface bluster, their cruelty and selfishness, was almost always something ineffably sad." Ultimately, the emphasis of Conover's work is on the toll prison exacts--most immediately on the jailed and their jailers, but also on a society that puts both there in increasing numbers. --Gwen Bloomsburg

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