The distressing experience of operating as a prison guard in such a notorious 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 execution of prison uniformity. However, the outstanding novel written by Tom Conover illustrates the encounters of a journalist who voluntarily plunged himself into the obscure universe of the men and women paid to spend the better portion of their lives behind prison barriers.
In Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Conover creates a noteworthy document resonating personal emotional occurrences that nonetheless suggest the cultural sensitivity of a true prison guard. From the standpoint of our studies on the concept of incarceration, this is a remarkable work, shaping the characteristically oversimplified prison guard as – apart from his reputation for viciousness and hostility – a multifaceted figure facing a demanding and internally contradictory role.
At the core of Conover‘s masterpiece is the perception that the prison guard must find a way to tread the balance between assertive authority and consent to involvement within the context of a society founded and controlled by the prisoners. Conover spent a year working as a “newjack”—the inmate term for a new New York state correctional officer. Upon departure from the training academy he was assigned to work in Sing Sing, the state’s maximum security prison in Ossining, where most inexperienced officers spend their first months on the job.
Newjack tells the story of Conover’s initiation into correctional work. After a short time at the academy and a brief period of on-the-job training, Conover found himself working, frequently alone and always weaponless, in galleries housing sixty or more inmates. As a newjack, he was responsible for the care and custody of scared young first-timers, drug addicts, gang members, violent predators, and physically incapacitated prisoners suffering from diseases like AIDS and TB.
Conover pursued a work assignment that would amplify his chance to witness prison life. Most of his time at Sing Sing was consumed being in close contact with the inmates, in dining halls and housing galleries, doing strip searches, searching cells, writing disciplinary infraction reports, and confiscating inmate contraband. In addition, because they live in an enforced state of near powerlessness, answering to inmates who required support with a seemingly endless range of personal complications occupied much of Conover’s time.
Conover’s account of the correctional officer’s role is consistent with those opinions offered by others who have firsthand experience of prison life. Virtually all serious, firsthand interpretations of correctional work define a gap between the training and the realism of the job, official policies and procedures that require routine avoidance, poor associations between line officers and administrators, and the undermining power of stress on professional conduct and personal life.
Conover also covers all of this, describing the overwhelming confusion of a new officer’s first days in a crowded housing unit, illustrating the newjack’s reliance on the helpfulness of prisoners, portraying the obvious unfriendliness and unconcern of higher-ranking coworkers, and exhibiting the unavoidability of making critical and even life-threatening blunders in the tumultuous world of the prison.
In doing that, Conover assists readers in getting beyond the stereotype of the ruthless guard to see correctional officers as individuals, offering us the fortune of understanding how the prison encounter influences their professional lives and inevitably manipulates their personal relationships. He mourns the malfunction of mainstream society to distinguish 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. 20). These are all circumstantial matters that have had the influence of shaping prison guards into a character characteristically colored by the negative traits of prison. The violence, unconstructiveness and general existence of threatening or wretched characters all seem to warrant the aggression and brutality that we have come to expect in our prison guards.
But the Conover text intrinsically brings nuance to the thesis, with the journalist‘s psyche perhaps detaching his work from many of the more penal theory-motivated studies on the career. To Conover, the idyllic guard was one who acknowledged how best to steer the perplexing features of prison not as a forcible contender to these, but as an administrator of their satisfactory order. Conover’s incisive and merciless account of fellow officers and their arrogances makes clear that Newjack is no easy walk. The language of irritated officers, and their
fictional stories of inmate manipulation, which he relates, may be deciphered by some readers as confirmation of sadism and callousness in American institutions. Inmates are described as the “lowest of the low” and officers describe themselves as “warehousers” and “baby-sitters. ” One officer maintains he “wouldn’t piss on [inmates] if they were on fire” while others reminisce about the good old days and describe up-state prisons where a correctional officer can still crudely “beat the shit out of” ill-mannered and disobliging inmates.
These and other statements will undoubtedly leave some officers wishing that they had never met Conover; but on the whole, this is an unbiased effort that could never have been written by someone who lacked admiration for correctional officers. Conover comes to overlook many unimportant inmate rule violations and ultimately violates prison guidelines by passing inmates contraband cigarettes and literature during the Christmas holidays.
His attentiveness in the matter of precarious and almost irrepressible compassion for those we penalize is expressed in a quotation from Amos Squire, a New York prison doctor who oversaw 138 executions—some in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Conover views correctional workers as multidimensional personalities, neither good nor bad, but as people striving, as we all do, to perform well in problematic situations.
In Newjack, Conover leaves his readers with the awareness that for most officers, accomplishment is more a matter of governing the inconsistencies of sincere compassion and reasonable irritation than surmounting the kind of heartlessness depicted in well-liked films such as “Brubaker,” or “Shawshank Redemption. ” Conover should be commended for his talented investigation of the pressures inherent in these illogicalities. If Conover’s overall attempt to provide an accurate depiction of the correctional officer is mostly positive, his version of prison sexuality will unquestionably produce some disapproval.
His assertion that non-consensual sex is now uncommon in Sing Sing does not ring true. It raises disconcerting questions about the effectiveness of Sing Sing’s officers and may well establish a disowning of accountability for the security of defenseless inmates. Given a long-standing prisoner code that disapproves of inmates from reporting abuse, it is difficult to identify how much rape takes place inside prison walls. Nevertheless, Conover’s examination of disciplinary violations and openly transsexual inmates implies that homosexual associations were
evidently ordinary throughout his time at Sing Sing. Reflecting on the remarkable authority discrepancies that separate young, vulnerable and unconnected prisoners from older, stouter, gang-affiliated convicts, it is tough to distinguish how anyone can determine that what occasionally occurs for approval in prison is easily delivered and genuinely uncoerced. Certain readers will also be disturbed by Conover’s contention that voluntary sexual meetings amongst female officers and inmates may be more frequent than prison rape at Sing Sing.
However, there are numerous chances for male staff to engage in sexual misconduct on duty, while Conover himself was besought at least once during his time as a guard. In the end, it’s difficult to identify because he does not explore entirely into this subject. While several readers may fault him for this issue, others will undoubtedly catch themselves still striving to learn more about the matter than they ever wanted to understand. Correctional officers have a significant position in the administration of justice by making the sentence of the courts an actuality.
Be that it may, it is not often that we gaze outside of popular typecasts to provide them the kind of serious consideration that they deserve. In Newjack, Conover invites us to do just that. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity. References Clear, T. , Cole, G. , & Reisig, M. (2011). American corrections. (10th ed. ). Belmont, CA USA: Wadsworth. Conover, T. (2000). Newjack: Guarding sing sing. (1st ed. ). New York: Vintage Books.