Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ted Conover's "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing": Book Review

Certified as if a lion tamer shoved in a cage before he's ever faced down a beast, Conover compares his training as a "corrections officer"; a colleague calls it zookeeping; often it's babysitting, or substituting for a substitute teacher. With 150 hostile charges. New York's prison, built by inmates starting in 1825, imposes itself over the guards, who pass "a life sentence in eight-hour shifts."

The narrative takes you through his training, his duties mostly on the gallery patrolling two tiers and dealing with an endless litany of demands from staff and inmates, the areas of the facility, the history of Sing Sing, his relationships with colleagues and prisoners, and his departure. I liked Conover's tale of another immersion, with illegals crossing into El Norte, "Coyotes." "Newjack" similarly blends his story with that of his "tribe" and its customs. The arrangement, in the historical sections two-thirds through, does lose some momentum by this necessary but duller detour into prison history and Sing Sing's story, but most of the book keeps a brisk pace as the author determines to break into prison the only way he can to cover his story.

Conover decides, as a "participant-observer" schooled in anthropology (this remains blurred in his telling), to join the force. His efforts as a journalist to gain access to tell the guards' side of incarceration blocked by bureaucrats have been blocked earlier by the "wall" of silence put up whenever a civilian approaches. So, Conover enters the only way logically open to a law-abiding citizen. He goes "up the river" thirty miles from his New York City home to work at the original "big house."

The inmates naturally resent whomever's keeping them in, and generally the guards despise or at least distrust the inmates they're paid to lock down. Their weakness or affection can, after all, be used against COs in deadly ways. As one retired CO told the chaplain: "I spent thirty-three years of my life depriving men of their freedom." The recruit's starting salary: as of 1997 when this book takes place: about $23,000. They lead the list of "peace officers" in divorce, alcoholism, and family abuse. Their training does not cover moral issues or ethical problem-solving. It's crowd control of Sing Sing's "2,300 sad stories." While the past two hundred years brought a shift from bodily torture to mental punishment by prison reformers, the reality that the environment with nearly no attempt at true "correction" but abundant control exacts instills failure for all concerned.

Observing the visiting room, Conover reflects on his mixed sympathies with the prisoners, as opposed to his colleagues.
"It was all about absence, wasn't it-- the absence of imprisoned men from the lives of the people who loved them; the absence of love in prison. And also-- what you could never forget-- the absence in the hearts of decent people, the holes that criminals punched in their lives, the absence of the things they took: money, peace of mind, health, and entire lives, because they were selfish or sick or scared or just couldn't wait." (157)
I read this immediately after (also recently reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US) an account by a man spending twenty-five years in federal penitentiaries for cocaine trafficking, Michael G. Santos' "Inside: Life Behind Bars in America." Santos emphasizes rape, stabbings, smuggling, corruption, blackmail, prostitution, extortion, betrayal, and coercion as daily routines. Conover, by contrast, downplays the "punk-protector system of popular lore" scenario. At one of America's toughest facilities, while Conover shares Santos' depiction from the other side of the bars of the gang domination and the constant threat of sudden violence by staff and inmates, Conover tends a bit towards a comparatively calmer (if such terms realistically can be employed where so many are not only angry and rebellious but also mentally ill) atmosphere. His COs appear often more akin to harried public servants faced with an unending list of shouting customers, staffing a hellish DMV.

The shift from a caged gladiator school may be credited to the fear of lawsuits by inmates, the decline in the no-snitching code among cons, the presence of cameras, the burdens of bureaucratic paperwork, and the surveillance by supervisors of guards. He reckons consensual sex is more common between female COs and inmates than forcible sex between inmates. He tends to dampen the volatile mood assumed by film and rumor to be running rampant without cessation. Waffle Day in the mess hall tempts more mayhem than gangland beefs to settle by stabbings between tattooed rivals, he hints.

Yes, there are corridors without cameras in the old prison labyrinth where recalcitrant prisoners on their way to the box, or solitary, can be disciplined by creative COs. Conover as his hectic and frayed year progresses never can settle into a routine, for in that lies danger, but he learns to say no. He records on two pages how many times on his shift he turns down requests. Some are to annoy, some are necessary, some are legitimate, but the overburdened conditions that Santos lives in also wear down the jailers, understaffed and -- as in public schools-- served by those often least qualified, fresh out of training, and beaten down by uncaring senior colleagues and tyrannical bosses who try to clock in and clock out on cruise control, to isolate their psyches from the dehumanization even as they sustain and depend on their distance from their charges to do their job at least minimally.

"Correction" remains the mantra, but Conover suspects also lurking in his colleagues an idealism that "is never openly discussed by guards, the hope that prisons might do some good for the people in them, that human lives can be fixed instead of thrown away, that there's more to be done than locking doors and knocking heads, that the 'care' in care, custody, and control might amount to something beyond calling the ER when an inmate is bleeding from a shank wound." (209) He ends his year on New Year's Eve, as fires lit by paper thrown from cells fly out and ignite the vast galleries. He knows: "Prison was for punishment; it wasn't ours to forgive." Kindness "was taken for weakness and exploited. Goodwill didn't enter the picture. The job was about maintaining power, and goodwill could erode that power."

But, surreptitiously, he takes some confiscated (they lack the NY State "revenue stamp") cigarette packs out of the discard box from packages sent to inmates. He tries to leave them unnoticed on the rails of the cells of a dozen or so on "his" tiers, where he decided to try to keep working semi-regularly (one problem: newbies are constantly rotated in daily re-assignments to usually the worst postings or "bids," so nobody can get to do one job well if low on the totem pole of COs) on the gallery he once feared. By this gesture, he tries to restore a bit of humanity in the common currency that even the most resistant or the least cooperative prisoner might appreciate as a New Year's gift in a place where few gain any cheer in their cells. (Posted to Amazon US 8-11-09.)

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