on June 13, 2000
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.
on November 1, 2000
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. There is a palpable aggression, a frustration at the procedures, and the interaction between inmate and prison guard (errrr, sorry, correctional officer), inmate and inmate, and CO and CO is perpetually tense and suspicious.
Those who are crime or psychology buffs will dig their teeth into this read and come away satisfied. Conover has done an outstanding job of revealing what everyday life - on the job and in the cell - is all about at Sing Sing. He gives wonderful description of the compound itself and what living conditions are really like inside. His historical account of the raising and implementing of the prision is, in itself, worth buying the book.
As well, he's done a great job on revealing the personality of Sing Sing - from the inception of the place right up to present day. It's an institution that has a rich and varied history, if not pristine and stellar. Sing Sing is a bastion of punishment, not all of it good or right or noble, and Conover has documented and presented such with a pretty fair stroke of the pen.
Though I found his commentary on the prison population a little heavy-handed and hyperbolic on occasion, I'm sure that couldn't be helped when the man was laying his life on the line everyday, going in to control the masses. He did, however, paint a fair picture of the life of a CO on the inside and outside. It's a hard job, and it has hard men and women occupying it.
And Conover made it to the end of the year. He survived the job, in all its quirks, and has given the rest of us on the outside a very rare glimpse at what life is like on the inside. And what a unique perspective it is, too.
I recommend this book to one and all who want to explore penology from a more relaxed, less academic, view and accounting. Great read, start to finish.
on January 4, 2001
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.
on June 6, 2000
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..
on November 5, 2000
As a correctional officer I am always looking for a good book written by someone on the right side of the bars. Ted Conover hit it right on the button. It does not matter what prison you work in, you will find this book fits your institution in some way. Ted Conover went through the ins and outs of being an officer and depicted the stress C/O's go through on a daily basis. He starts out with the stress of being in this awful place where they house the worst of humanity. This is a scary idea for anyone to deal with. Then he realized that they are human and that some of them, even though they are inmates, are not that bad to talk to. After working a year with inmates every day, Conover goes through emotions that most C/O's go through. This would inculde the stress that it puts on the family situation. I am not a book reviewer but I am a correctional officer and I would recommend this book for anyone who is a C/O or thinking of becoming one. This is an excellent read!!
on June 9, 2000
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.
Walter Cronkite once said that the citizens of a country have a right to know what's being done in their name. It's a simple enough premise: public institutions, spending public money, should be subject to public scrutiny. And yet, the nation's prisons and jails remain practically invisible to the public eye, thanks to both their media-shy temperament and a relatively incurious media. Newspapers and television may flock to chronicle shocking crimes and sensational trials, but when the sentences have been handed down and the headlines are fading, the public mentality seems to be "out of sight, out of mind."
Journalist Ted Conover sought to redress this problem, to understand the corrections system in New York State and, in particular, the corrections officers who, on behalf of the public, guard those deemed unfit for society. Towards that end, he wanted to follow a rookie C.O. through training and into an initial posting, but was repeatedly denied permission to do so. Rebuffed by the powers-that-be, stymied by the system, he settled on an even better and more original solution: to become that rookie C.O. himself.
Many journalists aspire to be (or pretend to be) completely objective--dispassionate chroniclers of the world, separate from the people and situations they write about. The brilliance of Conover's book is that he took a completely opposite tack, enmeshing himself in the system rather than trying to observe it at arm's length. And in doing so, he has created an excellent, compelling, and thoroughly informative book, one that dismantles many stereotypes about prisons and guards, stripping away the lumpy old layers of paint and showing the true shape and color of things.
Many of his most insightful observations deal with a very poorly understood subject--the effects of incarceration on the guards. At the outset of his experiences, Conover wonders whether guards truly are the brutal people depicted so often in prison movies and, if so, whether they are drawn to the work because they are insensitive, mean people or whether they become that way because of the work. By the end of his time guarding Sing Sing, he seems convinced that the latter is often the case, that warehousing people can end up dehumanizing both the people being warehoused and the people doing the warehousing. The stress and strain of prison, it seems, seeps into the lives of C.O.s, resulting in higher rates of alcoholism and divorce. (Those who pick this book up expecting an overly-sensitive, "Cool Hand Luke"-ish rant about cruel C.O.s and maltreated prisoners will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the author's fairness and empathy towards his fellow guards.)
Prison sex, too, appears far differently on the inside than it does in popular culture. While prison rape is a staple of movies and shows about incarceration ("The Shawshank Redemption", "Oz"), Conover concludes that most prison sex is, in fact, consensual. Such observations may seem like voyeurism, but they are not; given the lower availability of condoms, the higher rates of infection for sexually transmitted diseases (particularly HIV) and the fact that many of these men will eventually leave prison (possibly to rejoin thier families), prison sex is a factor that fundamentally alters the incarceration equation.
Despite its overall excellence and its willingness to take on such edgy topics, the book isn't a completely thorough or representative picture of New York State's corrections system. The author readily admits that Sing Sing is an atypical prison, with a larger percentage of minority guards and unseasoned officers than the upstate facilities; it would have been interesting if he'd been willing or able to spend longer in the system and get a better look at those institutions.
Still, this complaint is insignificant when compared with the book's overall virtues. "Newjack" is a great public service, a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the consequences of the nation's get-tough-on-crime mentality. While many people affect a cavalier don't-do-the-crime-if-you-can't-do-the-time air, Conover's book shows that this is a very myopic attitude--prisoners will do the time, and they will emerge, and the experiences they face on the inside will help determine whether they will do the crime again or instead find a place in society. Given that fact, society should try to better understand what life is like for them--and for the guards who do the public's thankless bidding.
on May 12, 2000
After reading this book I find it to be an accurate, interesting and at times humorous accounting of what is like to work in Sing Sing prison. I know because I spent a year there myself in the same capacity. If you wondered what is is like to hold this type of job, this is the book to read.
on June 19, 2000
The concept of the book had me hooked instantly. What a unique way of gathering information on one's subject matter. Denied access by the corrections department to study prison guards, Conover actually applies for a job and became a guard, or corrections officer as the political correct would say. His book takes you through the selection and training, right into the block of one of America's most notorious prisons. Fortunatly, Connover was studying guards and not inmates!
Connover does a great job at storytelling. His study reads more like a novel than the sociological study which is his background. At times, the detail can be a bit cumbersome to follow....other times when one's curiosity begins to kick in, Conover can gloss over some of the intersting topics. There is, however, plenty of detailings of the average day in the life of both inmates and officers. This topic seems to lend itself to a voyeristic aspect...just what really does go on in prison? Despite a few lapses, the reader will go away pleased with the details Conover provides.
The draw to the book is that Conover actually lived the life. He completley immersed himself in actually being a corrections officer. Often he questions whether he is a good one or not. Never do we read him feeling or saying that he is unconcerned about whether he is doing his corrections job as opposed to his book research. He is genuinly worried that despite his intelligence and education, he might not be able to be a successfull corrections officer. He makes candid and bold observations about the industry and those who choose it as a career.
on September 3, 2000
"Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing" is a fascinating look at the current state of our jail system & the people who's daily concern it is. Not only do we get to know the guards, but the prisoners emerge in a multi-textured, & very fair account.
Ted Conover, an anthropologist by training, gives a very well-balanced look into "the belly of the beast". He is brutally honest about both his preconceptions & his (sometimes not nice) reactions to what he encounters as a Corrections Officer for the State of New York. He admits that the grinding brutality of daily prison life dehumanizes even those who come in as idealists, & shows how violence & aggression are very understandable reactions to the stresses engendered by the nature of America's overcrowded prison system.
What emerges is an indictment of our current attitudes towards crime & punishment. It is interesting to note that almost every person in authority who daily deals with imprisoned criminals is against the death penalty. As one of the last "civilized" countries that still imposes death, America needs to ask herself some hard questions about it's effectiveness (or lack thereof). In addition, drug sentencing laws mandate that even if states build a new prison yearly, they would simply keep pace with current levels of overcrowding; is it worth the expenditure just to lock up someone for a marijuana plant? Any reader will find his heart pierced by the question posed by a prisoner named Lawson. In a conversation quoted by Conover, Lawson points out that the US is planning prisons to be built in 12 years. Conover says, "Isn't it good to plan ahead?". Lawson answers that by planning that far into the future, the government is planning on imprisoning an individual who is currently a child; instead of spending millions on future prisons, why not spend thousands on education & social services to ensure that child will not be just another statistic? Conover admits his entire outlook is changed by this conversation; I know I was deeply shaken.
If you have ever found yourself voting for the death penalty or a "3 strikes" law, please read "Newjack". You too may find your convictions shaken by the experience.