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Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing [Paperback]

by Ted Conover
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 12, 2001 0375726624 978-0375726620 Vintage Books ed
Acclaimed journalist Ted Conover sets a new standard for bold, in-depth reporting in this first-hand account of life inside the penal system.

When Conover’s request to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Officer Academy was denied, he decided to apply for a job as a prison officer. So begins his odyssey at Sing Sing, once a model prison but now the state’s most troubled maximum-security facility. The result of his year there is this remarkable look at one of America’s most dangerous prisons, where drugs, gang wars, and sex are rampant, and where the line between violator and violated is often unclear. As sobering as it is suspenseful, Newjack is an indispensable contribution to the urgent debate about our country’s criminal justice system, and a consistently fascinating read.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Most people know it's easier to get into prison than it is to get out. But for a journalist, just getting into Sing Sing, New York's notorious maximum-security prison, isn't easy. In fact, Ted Conover was so stymied by official channels that he took the only way in--other than crime--and became a New York State corrections officer: "I wanted to hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of guards--those on the front lines of our prison policies, the society's proxies." Newjack is Conover's account of nearly a year at ground zero of the criminal justice system. What it reveals is a mix of the obvious and the absurd, with hypocrisies not unexpected considering that the land of the free shares with Russia the distinction of having the world's largest prison population. As of December 1999, it was projected that the number of people incarcerated in the United States would reach 2 million in 2000.

This is the world Conover enters when he, along with other new recruits, undergoes seven weeks of pseudomilitary preparation at the Albany Training Academy. Then it's off to Sing Sing for the daily grind of prison life. Conover correctly and vividly captures the essence of that life, its tedium interspersed with the adrenaline rush of an "incident" and the edge of fear that accompanies every action. He also details how the guards experience their own feelings of confinement, often at the hands of the inmates:

A consequence of putting men in cells and controlling their movements is that they can do almost nothing for themselves. For their various needs they are dependent on one person, their gallery officer. Instead of feeling like a big, tough guard, the gallery officer at the end of the day often feels like a waiter serving a hundred tables or like the mother of a nightmarishly large brood of sullen, dangerous, and demanding children. When grown men are infantilized, most don't take to it too nicely.
And not taking to it nicely often involves violence. Indeed, the constant potential for violence on any scale makes even humdrum assignments dangerous. It's astonishing that more doesn't happen, given that the majority of the 1,800 inmates have been convicted of violent felonies: murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson. But beneath the simmering rage rests an unexpected sensitivity that Conover captures brilliantly. After encountering a Hispanic inmate with a tattoo of a heartbreaking passage from The Diary of Anne Frank on his back, he writes: "It was easier to stay incurious as an officer. Under the inmates' surface bluster, their cruelty and selfishness, was almost always something ineffably sad." Ultimately, the emphasis of Conover's work is on the toll prison exacts--most immediately on the jailed and their jailers, but also on a society that puts both there in increasing numbers. --Gwen Bloomsburg --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In books like Rolling Nowhere (about hoboes) and Coyotes (about illegal aliens), Conover distinguished himself with brave, empathetic reporting. This riveting book goes further. Stymied by both the union and prison brass in his effort to report on correctional officers, Conover instead applied for a job, and spent nearly a year in the system, mostly at Sing Sing, the storied prison in the New York City suburbs. Fascinated and fearful, the author in training grasps some troubling truths: "we rule with the inmates' consent," says one instructor, while another acknowledges that "rehabilitation is not our job." As a Sing Sing "newjack" (or new guard), Conover learns the folly of going by the book; the best officers recognize "the inevitability of a kind of relationship" with inmates. Whether working the gallery, the mess hall or transportation detail, the job is both a personal and moral challenge: at the isolation unit ("the Box"), Conover begins to write up his first "use of force" incident when a fellow officer waves him away. He steps back to offer a history of the prison, the "hopelessly compromised" work of prison staff and the unspoken idealism he senses in fellow guards. Stressed by his double life and the demands of the job, caught between the warring impulses of anthropological inquiry and "the incuriosity that made the job easier," Conover struggles but nevertheless captures scenes of horror and grace. With its nuanced portraits of officers and inmates, the book never preaches, yet it conveys that we ignore our prisons--an explosive (and expensive) microcosm of race and class tensions--at our collective peril. Agent, Kathy Robbins. First serial to the New Yorker. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed edition (June 12, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375726624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375726620
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
116 of 118 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Accurate Account June 13, 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
As someone who spent 4 years working in Sing Sing, I believe I knew Mr. Conover while he was at Sing Sing and while I was not an Officer, I think I remember our paths crossing several times. I observed many of the same situations, emotions and observations as the author. In addition to his dead on portrayal of life behind bars, it was good to read about how the environment can have negative emotional effects on those who work there. It's about time someone told the truth about what goes on inside Sing Sing and how it can demoralize those who are simply good people trying to do job and earn a paycheck. The NYS Department of Corrections as a whole is in need of total reformation and Sing Sing is a prime example of why. I was skeptical when I picked up the book, as every account of prison life which I had previously read or seen seemed inaccuarate to me or slanted by inmate or administrative/political bias. After the first couple of chapters it was clear to me that this was a book written by someone with no agenda other then to tell the truth about life behind the walls at Sing Sing.
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44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doing Time at Sing Sing... November 1, 2000
By Caz
Format:Hardcover
A person needs to have a certain determination to do what author Ted Conover did: take a year out from one's life to go undercover and put one's neck on the line, literally.
Investigative journalist Conover took a big risk - his career, his family life, and even his life - to get the scoop on what life is like inside New York State's infamous Sing-Sing Prison... from a Correctional Officer's point of view. It makes for a most fascinating read.
Ted had tried the traditional route to get inside and have a look at life from behind bars, his target being the notorious Sing-Sing Penetentiary. However, he soon discovered that the media is not a welcome bunch and the stalwart institution (like all other max-security prisons throughout the country) makes sure that the press never get inside to have a peek. Not one to give up easily (and smelling a real story), Conover came up with the plan to go in undercover, as it were, as a legitimate, bona-fide, State-trained Correctional Officer.
And that is just what he did.
He went the route of CO training - a boot camp of sorts, a rough ride indeed - finding it very demanding and obtuse. Still, he persevered to the end, graduated, and waited for his call-up. He didn't have to wait long. The turnover rate of COs is high, and the inaugural training ground for almost all COs in the State of New York is the infamous prison he was targeting.
The book, NewJack: Guarding Sing Sing is the chronicle of Conover's year (he dedicated an entire year to experience the fulness of the prison experience) as a CO at the institution. The contents of the book are, in many ways, not surprising. Life is hard behind bars, for inmates and COs alike.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ENTHRALLING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING January 4, 2001
Format:Hardcover
Conover does what few authours would dare try. He becomes the subject of his book and the result in the best nonfiction work I have ever read. There are many authors who try to write prison accounts and fail because of their inability to relate to the subject. There are also correctional officers who think that they can write and publish less than interesting books as a result. Conover is an established author who became a New York State Correctional Officer and worked in Sing Sing for a year. That is the perfect example of in depth reporting.
Newjack not only gives you the typical prison stories, but in it Conover relays the subtle things that escape the attention of those who have never worked inside a prison. Conover address the different assignments given to COs often causing them to be outnumbered in massive amounts. He covers overcrowding, prison violence, dirty guards, and even the emotional tolls of the job.
This book holds interest like no other work of nonfiction before it. Conover should be applauded for this book. It is a hallmark of investigative journalism. As a result I have picked up a copy of his book COYOTES and cant wait to start it. A solid five star book that is a must read for nonfiction and true crime fans.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Newjack guarding Sing Sing June 6, 2000
Format:Hardcover
Having worked in the same capacity for 15 and half years I can say this is a very acurate account of what goes on in SSCF. It brought me back to when i was a 19 year old rookie. But with time and experience i had pleasure sharing that while training new officers.I also know what its like to be on the other side having served 4 months of a six month jail sentence. The accounts of Sgt Wickersham(i know who it really is) were accurate..I look forward to reading Conovers other books, and i would have liked to have worked with you in your short time there..
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sing Sing Tightrope June 9, 2000
Format:Hardcover
Ted Conover1s experience in Sing Sing was nothing if not a courageous demonstration of balance. The potentially perilous strand the author tread was the invisible and frequently oscillating filament that ran between the challenges of delivering fair and humane treatment to often uncaring and violent inmates on one side and the arbitrary, ever shifting demands of his contemptuous supervisors and frequently brutal fellow officers on the other. Likewise, Conover1s last word on his involvement in Sing Sing reflected an appalling balance --- he concluded that prison life, for whatever else is it may be, is very often brutally deleterious to the lives of the keepers as well to the lives of the kept.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Conover tells it like it is!
I worked at Sing Sing for 16 years as a chaplain, including the year that Conover was there. His descriptions are accurate and will hopefully shed some light on the necessity of... Read more
Published 7 days ago by Ronald Lemmert
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting
This is a remarkable work of "Gonzo" reportage. Ted Conover walks the walk to find out what working as a prison guard is like. Read more
Published 27 days ago by MissE
3.0 out of 5 stars Zookeeping 101 …
Most of the books about prison are written by current/former inmates, authors focusing on sensational events (riots) or academia types ripping the US prison system in general. Read more
Published 1 month ago by DACHokie
4.0 out of 5 stars PRETTY DESCRIPTIB
This was well described and researched. One of the claims the guard's union president made at the beginning was correctly discounted by the author at the end. Read more
Published 1 month ago by K. Hulse
5.0 out of 5 stars Spot on!
I'm almost done with this book and I've also read almost all the reviews of this book here on amazon. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Newjack
Used to work in a jail for 11 years but never a prison. Heard the author talking about the book on WPR radio and he tweaked my interest.
What an eye opener. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Carol J Reither
5.0 out of 5 stars Book
Excellent book. I ended up getting it on my kindle because it was hard to read the book at night and my kindle has a light so ill just donate it to the library. Read more
Published 3 months ago by patricia t.
3.0 out of 5 stars Rambling On
I am a committed fan of authentic memoirs and look forward to reading actual life accounts. Ted Conover wanted to write a story about prison life and was willing to spend a year as... Read more
Published 3 months ago by DUVAL
3.0 out of 5 stars Looking for a new job, try corrections
A good story for anyone that wants to learn about what it would be like to work in a correctional institution.
Published 5 months ago by Keith Raphael Towery
5.0 out of 5 stars New Jack book
Ordered New Jack on Amazon and had instant access to reading on my Kindle without delay...immediate gratification is a plus.
Published 5 months ago by Jamie
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