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
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.