Sunday, March 15, 2015

Newjack: guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover

Newjack: guarding Sing Sing
by Ted Conover
5 stars - sad and important
ALR Green

Thwarted in his attempts to get meaningful information about prison life in the US through normal channels, writer and anthropologist Ted Conover decides to become a Corrections Officer (CO) and find out for himself what's going on.

A year after applying to CO school, Mr. Conover received his acceptance notice and was told to report to CO boot camp. There he trained to become a CO and upon graduation was assigned duty in New York City's Sing Sing prison.

This book chronicles his year as a Sing Sing CO and provides a sad, but important, view into the realities of life in prison for both the guarded and the guards.

Prison, my friends, is a horrible place. Can any of us really imagine the impact on the soul of a total loss of liberty? Having others tell you where to go, when and what to eat, when to shower, who to talk to, and even who to bunk with should send chills up the spine of any person. Even a prison environment recreated in the comfort of one's own home would cause severe distress to the average person. Add to that the tension of being side by side with potentially volatile inmates and the inevitable politics and turf battles that will draw you in and it paints a truly daunting picture.

Then there is the life of those who guard. Even if everything goes like clockwork, the logistics of running a crowded prison with limited personal is difficult to comprehend. Thousands of men who need to be moved about according to a schedule, guided by one or two unarmed individuals. It's amazing that prison riots don't happen more often.

This is my second reading of Newjack (which is in my personal collection of "keeper" books). It's very well written and as relevant today (sadly) as it was when it was published, fifteen years ago. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any other developed country and yet it hasn't touched crime or, more importantly, drug use. Mandatory drug sentencing has crammed our prisons to bursting and forced the housing of non-violent offenders side by side with sociopaths. 

And to what end? While there have been some reforms since the book was published in 2000, our default status of dealing with things is still to "lock 'em up." Even worse, I see more and more instances of children being tried as adults, forcing a teenager into an upbringing by inmates, only to be released  some 20+ years later with no knowledge of the outside world. 

Am I preaching? Allow me one more point. That being the automatic denial of employment at so many companies to any person who has served any time whatsoever in prison. Yes, some people are dangerous sociopaths whose mental state makes them dangerous around some or all of the citizen population. However there are many folks leaving prison having been incarcerated for nothing more than getting caught at being foolish youngsters. Are we really such a punitive people that we hold people accountable for every misstep for the rest of their lives? Do we really believe that people can't change? Imagine if every indiscretion you committed in your teens or twenties was put on your resume for decades to come. Smoke some dope when you were 18 and maybe sell a bit on the side? Uh oh. Now you're fifty and can't even get a job interview despite being clean for 30 years. 

Well, you can draw your own conclusions, but regardless of whether you agree with my views or not, I highly recommend this book. The prose flows easily and there are stories, both good and bad, of inmates and COs and how the very fact of prison affects their lives.

1 comment:

  1. We have hired men fresh out of prison (including some bikers who did hard time at the state pen in CT, who were very loyal to Boss Man and protective of Mrs. Boss Man). Since they are not working with money, we don't see the harm. And maybe it is helpful to society. (We also always look for a veteran or farmer before anyone else, because they are always hardest working among applicants, but that's another story.) I recently discovered through the fascinating time waster called Ancestry com that my great grandfather was in San Quentin in 1909-1910. Of course, back then, you could simply move, change your ways (or not) and start over. Progress? Maybe not. Your book sounds thought provoking.