New Jack Gaurding Sing Sing

Topics: Prison, Penology, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing Pages: 5 (1655 words) Published: November 15, 2005
Popular culture is a curious thing. In a society where writers spend vast amounts of time and energy exploring the character complexities of criminals, portrayals of correctional officers are almost consistently unflattering and one-dimensional. Correctional officers are almost always portrayed as bad guys. They are depicted as inherently sadistic and mindlessly authoritarian, as one-dimensional characters without redeeming qualities. This inaccurate and unsympathetic image of the guard is a staple of both popular fiction and many firsthand accounts of prison life. It can be found in the writings of Jack Abbot, Brendan Behan, and Eldridge Cleaver, and in films like "Cool Hand Luke", "Brubaker", and "Shawshank Redemption." There are, of course, exceptions. One of these is Ted Conover's new book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. It is one of a very few recent books to get beyond the stereotype of the brutal guard to explore the complex nature of correctional work. Conover is now well-known for a series of books recounting in-depth, firsthand experiences of some of American society's more obscure subcultures. He spent a year hopping freight trains with homeless men, traveled with illegal Mexican immigrants, and took a job driving a cab in Aspen in order to have an opportunity to observe the city's wealthy winter visitors. His work has been described as "experiential journalism." In fact, Conover's writing often seems to blur the boundaries between journalism and the observational methods of the social sciences. He typically offers readers the kind of thoughtful and meticulous research characteristic of good scholarship while demonstrating the storyteller's gift for compelling narrative. This is certainly the case in Newjack, a beautifully written book that most readers will find moving and informative, if sometimes controversial. Conover spent a year working as a "newjack"—the inmate term for a newly minted New York state correctional officer. Upon leaving the training academy he was assigned to work in Sing Sing, the state's maximum security prison in Ossining, where most new officers spend their first months on the job. Newjack tells the story of Conover's introduction to correctional work. After a short time at the academy and a brief period of on-the-job training, Conover found himself working, often alone and always unarmed, 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, physically debilitated inmates suffering from diseases like AIDS and TB, and an assortment of "bugs"— prison slang for the mentally ill. Conover sought out a work assignment that would maximize his opportunity to observe prison life. Most of his time at Sing Sing was spent 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. Because they live in an enforced state of near helplessness, responding to inmates who required assistance with an apparently endless array of personal problems filled much of Conover's time. Conover's description of the correctional officer's role is largely consistent with that offered by others who have firsthand experience of prison life. It brings to mind Lucien Lombardo's work on Auburn Prison, Barbara Owen's on San Quentin, and even Gresham Sykes' classic, Society of Captives. In brief, virtually all serious, firsthand accounts of correctional work describe a gap between the training and the reality of the job, official policies and procedures that require routine circumvention, poor relations between line officers and administrators, and the corrosive influence 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...
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