By the Book
Newjack: Guarding Sing Singby Ted Conover
Random House, 309 pp., $24.95
On his first day as a correction officer inside the infamous Sing Sing Prison, Ted Conover is asked to stand before a camera, holding a piece of paper showing his name and Social Security number. When he asks why, he is told that the pictures are "hostage shots," and are kept on file in case a guard is injured or taken hostage, at which time the photographs are released to the press. Conover's immediate reaction is to laugh, but he soon realizes that "hostage shots" aren't all that funny. It's the first of many moments when Conover's instincts are proven dead wrong.
Within prison walls, it seems, it is difficult to differentiate between right and wrong. Friends often look like enemies. Lurking behind the excruciating tedium of waiting for minutes to pass inside a prison is the constant threat of attack. Conover, an acclaimed journalist, had wanted to report on the prison system for years. When he was repeatedly denied access, he finally resorted to the only way he knew he could get inside prison walls: He applied to be a correction officer. Disguising his background, Conover enrolled in the Albany Training Academy for Correction Officers and signed on for a year "up the river" at the most dreaded maximum security prison in New York state: Sing Sing. And each night, Conover planned to go home to his wife and children, his literary friends, and glasses of wine. He thought that he could check his prison-guard persona at the door, "leave it at the gate," and return home to be a loving husband and father. He thought that he could remain a visitor, and "keep one foot in and the other out."
Conover writes that "Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it seeped into your soul." Conover's year provides a fascinating window into the complex machinations of America's prison systems. As a narrator, Conover is unflinching and self-reflective. His feelings toward the prisoners -- a beefy Bensonhurst native who keeps a cat, quipping, "It's the only pussy I'll ever get," a transsexual nicknamed "Baywatch" who drives other inmates into a frenzy with her flirtations, and Delacruz, a tattooed behemoth who secretly reads Anne Frank -- run the gamut from bemused affection to violent hatred. Conover's depiction of his fellow guards is equally unflinching. While some of his colleagues are hard-working and sincere, others are brutal and vicious. Most chilling is Conover's examination of his own changes.
Late in his year at Sing Sing, when another guard brags that at upstate prisons, unruly inmates "get the fucking shit beat out of them," Conover notes, "The possibility no longer bothered me as it once had." At one point, he pleads with his wife, "Can we just hang on for four more months and it will be over. Can you deal with it for that long?" One can't forget while reading Newjack that for countless guards and prisoners, there's no choice. Their minutes drag on, becoming hours, years, lifetimes.