When officials at the New York State Department of Correctional Services turned down Ted Conover’s request to profile a new recruit in the Albany Training Academy, they did not suspect that the author would apply himself. If they had, Conover’s application to become a CO – correctional officer – probably would not have gone through.
In March 1997, three years after he put in his application, Conover reported to the Academy and began his training, and subsequent career, as a CO. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing recounts the author’s experiences and observations, beginning with the drill instructors at the Academy, continuing with becoming an OJT – On the Job [Trainee], and ending with the completion of his one-year stint as a newjack in the infamous Sing Sing prison.
Conover is a keen journalist. I first learned about him through The New New Journalism by Robert Boynton. Then I read his March 2006 article in The Atlantic, “The Checkpoint.” Ever since, I yearned to read something by the author, who, it seemed, could objectively place himself in situations and relate extraordinary situations through an informative perspective.
Newjack shows the extent of Conover’s skills as a journalist, as well as his soft, humane composure. He describes the Academy with grave seriousness and in great detail. By the time Conover graduates, the reader is familiar with the army-like drills involved in a CO’s training: tightly made beds, impeccable uniforms, roll calls, shooting practice, the painful tear gas training, and the brainwashing. All to break down the soon-to-be COs and to make sure they do not go soft guarding a prison.
Next comes adjusting to prison. Conover dispels some of the popular myths surrounding COs. They are not “prison guards” for one, they work in correctional facilities, i.e., they are part of an inmate’s rehabilitation. Most of them do not continually resort to violence or rape inmates, as The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke will have you believe. And, maybe most striking among all the myths, a CO’s life sucks; it is almost as hard as an inmate’s. Conover quotes one CO as describing his work as “serving a life sentence in eight-hour shifts.”
Conover is not supposed to be friendly with inmates – at least those are the instructions. But he discovers that rules, as in many places, are frequently broken in Sing Sing. He talks with some inmates and he is constantly harassed by others. Conover is a newjack, after all. But then again, inmates sometimes prove more friendly, helpful, and philosophical than fellow COs. Conover is quick to learn that attitude matters, both among COs and inmates. A CO cannot be indebted to an inmate, but being straightforward and accommodating helps, occasionally more so than adhering to official procedures.
Newjack also discusses the development of American prisons at length and provides a good historical insight to the U.S. penal system. Some moments, such as the birth of electrocution, are terrifying. Life in Sing Sing eventually affects Conover’s, and other COs’, emotional well being. The pressures of working in a maximum-security prison apparently makes it impossible to “leave work behind” after passing through the gates to go home.
One of the most interesting parts of Newjack is the Afterword of the paperback edition, where Conover discusses reactions to the book. He goes to a Q&A-book signing event in Ossining, N.Y., where the prison is located (interestingly enough the town used to be called Sing Sing. But because items manufactured at the prison bore the tag “Made in Sing Sing,” and had an adverse effect on the town’s trade, they changed the name to Ossining). A bunch of his CO friends – and adversaries – show up at the event. The library calls the local police, because they are afraid the COs will beat Conover for the bad publicity his book has caused.
Read the rest yourself, I am positive that you will fly through the pages and get to the end to discover what happened in two to three days, tops. That was my experience, in spite of, and at the expense of, all the work I had to do for school (I know, school doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, it’s more difficult than my military service).
Bonus Link: The New New Journalists