Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing Summary

Ted Conover

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

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Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing Summary

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In1997, journalist and NYU journalism professor Ted Conover worked in one of New York’s most notorious prisons, Sing Sing, as a hired guard. He published an in-depth account of his yearin the state correctional system, particularly the unjust and unsavory elements of prison, in Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing(2000). Newjack is slang for a new guard. The book won wideacclaim, including a National Book Critics Circle Award, and an excerpt was first published in The New Yorker.Conover’s other nonfiction deals with the integrity and vitality of subcultures, from hobos to illegal immigrants and more. He has gained a reputation for incisive, thoughtful reporting rooted in the anthropological training he received as an undergraduate.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing describes Conover’s repeated attempts to try to gain access to the prison system as a researcher. All he wanted to do was shadow a new guard. After all his requests were denied, Conover decided to apply for a position himself.

To his surprise, his future employers do not conduct a thorough background check; if they had looked him up online, they would have seen that he was an investigative journalist frequently critical of mass incarceration.

Conover is given seven weeks of training at Albany Training Academy. His drill sergeants scream about the important of hardwork and flawless work performance. He passes the academic portion with ease, and also completes physical training, where he gains first-hand exposure to tear gas and finishes a strenuous cardio test.

Conover is surprised that the moral aspects of keeping other human beings locked away in prison is never questioned by his fellow guards in training or his supervisors. Supervisors tell them that they control the prisoners with the prisoners’ consent; this puzzles Conover, as it is nonsensical. Another remarks, “Rehabilitation is not our job.” Again, this disturbs Conover; he was taught to believe that prisons encourage rehabilitation from crime and into a normal, law-abiding life.

Conover continues to see that no officers ever explicitly question why inmates are there or if they are being treated appropriately. His superiors only emphasize that his job is the three Cs: the care, the custody, and the control of inmates. Later, Conover recognizes that this is a sort of defense mechanism: it is easier to complete the job when prisoners are not thought of as humans.

Conover graduates from the academy. He is assigned to Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison in the New York City suburbs that has been in operation since 1825. Despite only seven weeks of training, he and some of the new guards will be responsible for managing more than 1,800 prisoners. The crimes, Conover is informed, range from rape and arson to kidnapping and murder.

There are certain skills that could not be translated to the new guards. Everyone – from the guards to Conover — is aware of their nerves and inexperience. Conover’s nerves do not go unobserved by the guards, and they grant him the nickname of New Jack, which they also call other first-year cops.

Around the prisoners, he is often fearful for his life. He takes this fear with him as he guards the cafeteria, shipping docks, and “the box” (the solitary confinement ward). This kind of paranoia only makes life uncomfortable for everyone. Still, he struggles to combine decency and authority with how he treats prisoners.

In prison, there is the extreme contrast of absolute peace and total pandemonium. This wild contrast sets Conover’s nerves further on edge.Other tension is internal: his job is easier when he does not care about the prisoners, yet as a journalist and anthropologist, his real job is to take an interest in them.

Throughout his year working at Sing Sing, he asks inmates what they think of their imprisonment.He takes thorough notes in the small spiral notebook that had been issued to each guard. He bonds with one inmate, a sensitive Latino man with a tattooed passage from The Diary of Anne Frank on his back. He realizes that guards have to ignore the personal, sensitive realities of the men they guard; they would not be able to be cruel otherwise.

Conover’s most dreaded position is working as a “gallery officer.” Because the hundreds of men are in maximum security, they cannot eat, shower, or use the restroom without explicit permission from the gallery officer. Conover observes how this lack of freedom disgruntles many of the men and hurts the pride of officers, who in the gallery officer position, start to feel more like waiters.

Conover also gives an in-depth look into the history of Sing Sing prison, including stories where inmate murder was sanctioned by the prison administration.

Conover’s position eventually disturbs his family life. He quits earlier than he expected because he is simply going crazy.

Conover concludes with a critical assessment of the US’s incarceration system. From what he has seen, prisons are simply warehouses for human beings.

The book has been praised by reviewers for not being political or polemical. Conover’s overriding intention was to emphasize that America spends billions of dollars on a cruel system of imprisonment that perpetuates racial and class inequalities.