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REVIEW OF TED CONOVER'S NEWJACK: GUARDING SING SING


By ANN CHIH LIN



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Some months after I had finished five months of prison research, I had dinner with friends -- an educated, generous, warm-hearted couple. They listened to my stories of the prisoners with empathy. But when I started telling them about the staff that I had interviewed, their faces got hard. "I've always thought," one spat, Îthat people who do that kind of work are brutal. I don't understand anyone who would be willing to take that job. They must have no moral sense at all."

Challenging that kind of reflexive viciousness is one of the motives behind Ted Conover's troubling new book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (New York: Random House 2000; $24.95). Unable to get official permission to interview and write about corrections officers, Conover "got in" by applying for a corrections officer post. After training, he and his fellow rookies, known as "newjacks," were randomly assigned to Sing Sing, one of the country's most famous -- and infamous -- prisons. Sing Sing, a maximum-security male prison, was built in 1828 by prisoners themselves, kept at their task by frequent use of the whip. New York State's electric chair operated at Sing Sing from 1891-1963. Today, the chaos, the backbiting, the antiquated building and equipment, the scorn and the relentless stress that Conover experienced in his year at Sing Sing show, vividly, how the explosion of prisons in the U.S. brutalizes more than just the prisoners.

Some of the people in Conover's entering "class" of corrections trainees had always wanted to work in law enforcement. Others were ex-military, looking for a civilian job that they thought would reward structure and discipline. But most came looking for a steady job with good benefits. To get it, they were desperate enough to commute hours each way, or even to live apart from their families during the work week.

Their job consists of long days locking and unlocking cells, moving prisoners to and from various locations while the prisoners beg, hassle and abuse them. Sometimes, the prisoners' requests are simple but against the rules: an extra shower, some contraband cigarettes. Other times, they are appropriate but unbelievably complicated: it can take months to get information about property lost in the transfer from one prison to another. Meanwhile, the orders officers give are ignored. Discipline -- even among the officers themselves -- is non-existent. And with the money and benefits of this "good" job come nightmares and family stress, daily uncertainty about one's post and duties, and pent-up frustration that, every so often, explodes in violence -- instigated by staff as well as by prisoners.

The picture Conover paints will no doubt bother corrections professionals in prisons where prisoner-staff relationships and officer solidarity are more developed. In training, Conover is told that "the most important thing you can learn here is to communicate with inmates." And the Sing Sing staff who enjoy the most success and fulfillment in their jobs are those who communicate: who make clear what privileges they will bestow and what orders the prisoners must follow, and who respect the prisoners' ability to behave accordingly. But the few officers who manage to build this wary cooperation with inmates are swamped by those who distribute favors and punishments inconsistently and who isolate themselves, as much as possible, from the prisoners. Experienced corrections professionals would have no trouble seeing this as a recipe for disaster.

Similarly, solidarity among officers -- essential when staff are drastically outnumbered by inmates -- is nearly non-existent in Conover's Sing Sing. Supervisors do not mentor new officers; officers on one shift push problems off onto the next; and most staff are too busy trying to handle their families, their commuting and their daily eight hours to get to know their co-workers. The result is inconsistency in the treatment of prisoners and a job with almost no psychic rewards for staff. No wonder the turnover rate is so high: one out of three depart within the first year.

Many of these problems apply less to prisons in general than to Sing Sing in particular. As Conover points out, the physical plant at Sing Sing works against the possibility of staff getting to know prisoners; the complications of staffing such a large facility mean that neither officers nor prisoners know who will be at any post from day to day; and the high turnover likely discourages staff from investing in relationships with each other. Further, since Sing Sing itself is located in an area too pricey for officers to live in, they have no chance to create community outside of work. But there are also problems that prison administrators clearly could solve but do not. In particular, incentives for better supervision and more support for effective staff are clearly needed.

Conover's immersion in the world of Sing Sing sometimes leads him to miss this larger context. He gives the reader little sense of how typical a prison Sing Sing might be, or where Sing Sing's problems might have originated. More surprisingly, he also omits details about the officers that could create a fuller picture of their humanity and the struggles they face. Conover tells us there was almost no personal talk among officers. Plainly, he would have stood out had he tried to elicit his colleagues' feelings about their work during his own time as an officer. But he does not seem to have gone back to his former colleagues, after he left, to seek their understanding of their inner lives as a complement to his own assessment of their outward actions.

Reading Newjack, one clearly appreciates the difficulty, the chaos and the stress of the officers' job. One is less sure how they manage to do it, and at what cost to their sense of self. By contrast, with a few well-chosen stories, Conover humanizes individual prisoners: one who has lines from Anne Frank's diary tattooed on his back; a prisoner on the serving line who tries to sneak extra food to his friends; a young, emotionally needy prisoner grasping for attention from anyone, even an officer. As a result, the prisoners are often drawn with more color than the staff.

But if Ted Conover does not give us as full a picture as he might have, his book is a rough, unsparing, passionate warning that the heedless rush to imprison hurts the guardians as well as the guarded. He reminds us that when we treat prisoners like the garbage of society, we are bound to treat prison staff as garbage men -- best out of sight, their own dirt surpassed only by the dirt they handle. Both prisoners and officers deserve better.


Ann Chih Lin is the author of Reform in the Making: The Implementation of Social Policy in Prison. She teaches public policy at the University of Michigan.

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