Finding Balance as a Prison Guard According to Conover Essay

Finding Balance as a Prison Guard According to Conover

            The harrowing experience of serving as a prison guard in such an infamous penal facility as New York State’s Sing Sing Penitentiary is one that is unlikely to be desired by one not professionally committed to the enforcement of prison order.  However, the remarkable 2000 novel by Tom Conover describes the experiences of a journalist who voluntarily immersed himself into the dark universe of the men and women paid to spend the better part of their lives behind prison walls.  In Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Conover takes an ethnographic plunge similar to others which highlight his unique career as a writer of true life experiences.  Just as he had done with the subject of Mexican Immigration with Coyotes, to name one prominent success, Conover creates a remarkable document echoing personal emotional experiences that nonetheless convey the cultural sensitivity of a true prison guard.  From the perspective of our studies on the concept of imprisonment, this is an extraordinary work, casting the typically oversimplified prison guard as—separate from his reputation for brutality and sadism—a complex figure facing a challenging and internally contradictory role.  At the heart of Conover’s work is the notion that the prison guard must find a way to walk the balance between aggressive authority and consent to participation within the context of a culture established and ruled by the prisoners.

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            Naturally, the Conover text is most effective in its realistic accounting of the experience in conveying a more sympathetic outlook on a figure which we might deduce here is problematically misunderstood by society.  Conover does make an appreciable and tangible point of noting the inherent peril in selecting this line of work.  He laments the failure heretofore of mainstream society to recognize that the men and women choosing to fill these positions experience “the highest rates of divorce, heart disease, and drug and alcohol addiction—and the shortest life spans—of any state civil servants, due to the stress in their lives.  They feared not only injury by inmates but the possibility of contracting AIDS and tuberculosis on the job” (p - Finding Balance as a Prison Guard According to Conover Essay introduction. 20)  These are all contextual issues that have had the impact of molding prison guards into a shape inherently colored by the negative qualities of prison.  The violence, negativity and general presence of dangerous or pitiable characters—these latter sometimes pictures with unflinching humor in the Conover text—all seem to warrant the aggression and brutality that we have come to expect in our prison guards.

            But the Conover text inherently brings nuance to the discourse, with the journalist’s psyche perhaps separating his work from many of the more penal theory-motivated studies on the profession.  To Conover, the ideal guard was one who understood how best to navigate the problematic aspect of prison not as a forcible opposition to these, but as an administrator of their acceptable order.  Thus, in his reverential remarks to Smith, a guard who is of particular influence on his notes, Conover characterizes a man who “melded toughness with an attitude of respect for his inmates.  In turn, he was respected back…At the Academy, this principle had never been mentioned” (p. 92) This is a primary purpose of Conover’s text, to endorse the progressive balance demonstrated therein.  By entering in the prisoner’s world with a sense of himself as an administrator, Smith illustrated the crucial lesson that one must discard the rule book if one is to survive in prison.

            In an important regard, this demonstrates the way in which Conover’s work differs from prior theory on the subject.  A failure to consider the experience and psyche of the prison guard in the general discourse on our penal system has resulted in an absence of the necessary nuance on the subject.  Historically, there has been a sense that the role of the prisoner and the prison guard are diametrically opposed, casting the latter in a directly conflictive role.  In our course material, we have encountered this only partially outdated perspective.

            Donald Clemmer, in particular, takes a perspective on the relationship between guard and inmate that is pointedly oppositional.  The penal theorist “described the inmate culture as being defined by a set of norms that emphasize noncooperation with the staff and solidarity with other inmates.” (Himelson, 1)  To this end, Clemmer would identify the role of the prison guard as an isolated figure deep in enemy territory, essentially working to undermine the culture developed naturally by its inhabitants.  This is an idea which in many ways contributes to the problematic perspective on the prison guard directly targeted by Conover’s ethnographic study.  This is to say that at the very heart of the Conover text is this idea of the prison guard as one who must learn to occupy an acceptable place within the context of this culture.  As is noted inherently throughout his work, Conover intimates an idea otherwise unknown to the general public, that the prison guard must accept that he is enabled to levy authority only according to the consent of prisoners.  An interesting conceptual role reversal, Conover does show each guard to be naturally at the mercy of the men whom he guards.  A rejection of this authority could be nothing short of fatal.  It is for this reason that Conover’s text causes us to reconsider the ideas expressed by Clemmer.  In particular, an assumption of one’s self as the enemy can be precipitous to one’s failure to gain the needed acceptance within a prisoners’ society.   One of the most valuable accomplishments of Conover’s study is this idea that there is an inherent tendency for prisoners to create society of cultural specificities and that this instinct would be obstructed at the peril of over all penal facility order.

            Still, it is important that the intention of Conover’s work is not to refute impressions of the prison guard as a necessarily aggressive and sometimes brutal archetype.  Indeed, this is an aspect of the occupation which also emerges from frequently.  There is no shortness of acknowledgment in the description of gang-related incidences, fights and what is contended as the rare sexual assault, that the life of a prison guard is filled with threats and that said threats invoke a justified paranoia as well as a consent to the personal use of extremely aggressive force.  It is to this extent that “while the importance of the norms and values that inmates bring into the prison is now recognized, Clemmer’s analysis is still relevant.” (Himelson, 1)  This is to say that the most effective of prison guards will find ways to stride the very difficult balance which Conover appears to walk himself.

            Still, there is the problematic notion of prisonization, which Clemmer discusses in relation to the prisoner, but which we may consider here as a threat to those guards which too vigorously embrace the culture defined by the prisoners.  As to the idea of prisonization, herein “became models in the eyes of prison managers, which made it all the more difficult for the prisoner to resist prisonization.” (Manes, 1)  Such is to say that the simplification of the prisoner as an object without distinct characteristics or nuances of action may suggest that the prison guard is incapable of bending the rules to the appropriate and survivable degree.  In contrast, when the guard allows himself to fall into this same pattern, the lines between guard and con become very blurred.  An example of this condition which Conover notes is that relating to drugs, which he notes “could all be found fairly readily inside prison.  Some of the drugs probably slipped in through the Visit Room, but most, it seemed, were helped into prison by officers who were paid off” (Conover,  104).

            This points to a distinct danger in of falling too far to the other side of the balance.  Ultimately, finding a way to center one’s authority within a context that respects prisoner behaviors that do not threaten order or safety, will be the difference between the guard who survives and he who either succumbs to over contributes to the brutality of an already dangerous environment.

Works Cited

Conover, T.  (2000).  New Jack:  Guarding Sing Sing.  Random House.

Himelson, A.  (2008).  Prison Programs That Produce.  World and Home School.  Online at

Manes, M.G.  (2005).  History of Prison Programming in America.  Precious Heart.  Online at

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