'Newjack': Prison's failure through a guard's eyes

May 07, 2000|By Bill Morris | Bill Morris,Special to the Sun

"Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing," by Ted Conover. Random House. 319 pages. $24.95.

Any country with a galloping economy, a declining crime rate and a constantly growing prison population needs to ask itself some tough questions.

Since few people in America today seem inclined to play the unwelcome role of inquisitor, Ted Conover has taken on the job in his insightful new book, "Newjack."

Conover has already carved a reputation as an astute chronicler of subcultures, from the rarefied air of the Aspen elite to the gritty worlds of railroad hobos and illegal aliens. Now he takes us into the belly of an altogether more malevolent beast, New York's notorious maximum-security penitentiary at Sing Sing.

Conover's motivation, he writes, was "to hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of the guards -- those on the front lines of our prison policies, society's proxies."

Told that prisons were off-limits to journalists, Conover, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, simply applied to the Albany Training Academy for corrections officers. After surviving the training course, he reported for work at Sing Sing as a rookie guard, or "newjack."

From the start of his one-year stint, Conover was a newjack with an agenda. He was intent on understanding "America's incarceration crisis," brought on, he contends, by rigid sentencing guidelines that have put nearly 2 million people behind bars, triple the number of 25 years ago.

"Through knowledge, political will, and perhaps some luck," Conover writes, "we seem to have tamed inflation and the budget deficit. But our response to crime remains a blunt and expensive instrument that more often seems to scar the criminal than reform him."

Suddenly a part of this blunt and expensive instrument, Conover is tested and taunted, insulted and assaulted. He finds himself boiling with stress, frequently afraid, but also able to make the sort of connection with prisoners that was his ultimate reason for being there.

One such connection is with Larson, a bookish, thoughtful, self-taught man doing time for assault. When one of their talks touches on America's $35 billion annual corrections outlay, Larson bristles at the notion of bureaucrats planning to build new prisons.

"Anyone planning a prison they're not going to build for ten or fifteen years is planning for a child, planning prison for somebody who's a child right now," Larson says. "So you see? They've already given up on that child! They already expect that child to fail. You heard? Now why, if you could keep that from happening, if you could send that child to a good school and help his family stay together -- if you could do that, why are you spending that money to put him in jail?"

Along with such eloquent moments, "Newjack" has its weaknesses. The descriptions of boot camp at the academy are about as absorbing as, well, boot camp. And a chapter on the history of Sing Sing, while studded with colorful nuggets, disrupts the flow and feels too long by half.

So "Newjack" is not flawless, and Conover does not come up with tidy answers. But he has dared to ask the tough questions. In this land of deep denial, that in itself makes this a timely, troubling, important book.

Bill Morris, a former newspaper reporter and columnist, is the author of the novels "Motor City," "All Souls' Day" and the forthcoming "Deuce and a Quarter." He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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