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Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing

by Ted Conover

Library Journal Having already documented the lives of illegal aliens (Coyotes) and hoboes (Rolling Nowhere), journalist Conover gives a compelling firsthand account of life as a corrections officer. The site is Sing Sing, once widely known for housing the electric chair that killed 614 inmates but now unremarkable among New York State's prisons. Refused entry as a journalist, Conover actually attended the training academy and became a bona fide officer for a year. Once on the job, he appears to have identified completely with the persona of a prison guard: He feels his head swim as he tries to enforce rules that are routinely ignored to avoid confrontations. He braces himself to walk the galleries amid catcalls and threats of violence and tries to keep on top of the games inmates play. Given the monotony, dehumanization, and imminent dangers, why would anyone choose this profession? A good accompanying volume is Lucien X. Lombardo's Guards Imprisoned (1981. o.p.), which points out that, in areas of high unemployment, these are the most lucrative jobs requiring a minimal amount of education. Furthermore, some officersDnot allDcan wield a kind of power hard to emulate in the outside world. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. [Excerpted in the New Yorker.DEd.]DFrances Sandiford, Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Book list Journalist Conover wanted to follow the life of a rookie prison guard for a year. Denied access as a reporter, he enrolled in the guard training program to see "America's incarceration crisis" close up. He immersed himself in the dehumanization and mindless bureaucracy of one of the largest, best-known U.S. prisons. There he struggled with the pressure on guards to be loyal to one another, even in the face of the brutal egoism of some and their inherently unequal relations with prisoners. He limns the guile and manipulativeness of prisoners and conjures the constant undercurrent of violence in the prison. He tells of strip searches, cell searches, lockdowns, and the daily tension and frustration of guarding hostile prisoners. He notes the racial imbalance in the larger penal system, with one out of three black men being incarcerated at some time in his life. He makes an engaging report on the prison system and the strategy of responding to get-tough posturing on crime by building more prisons in which fewer training programs are provided. --Vanessa Bush

From Booklist, Copyright American Library Association. Used with permission.

Choice The literature on prisons, including accounts by inmates, is large. Conover, a journalist, observes that most of that writing focuses on the experience of inmates, not on prison guards (or correctional officers); and when prison guards are portrayed in films, they are often stereotyped as brutal. Unable to obtain permission as a journalist for access to the famous old New York prison Sing Sing, Conover applied successfully for a position as a prison guard. This book provides a detailed, unsentimental account of his experiences during the course of a year as a prison guard, beginning with his training at the academy for correctional officers. The world of the prison is complex, dreary, and dangerous, and Conover has the journalistic skills to produce a vivid and nuanced portrayal of this world. In a chapter in the middle of the book Conover includes a brief but informative history of Sing Sing. Altogether, this book makes a worthwhile (and eminently readable) contribution to the literature on prisons. In view of the immense growth of prisons in recent years, readers have good reason to want to understand what they are really like. Selected bibliography. General, undergraduate, and faculty readers. D. O. Friedrichs; University of Scranton

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

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 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.