New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing

5 November 2017
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With all the news about closing prisons and abuses within the prison system, we need to look at the problems Inside from as many angles as possible.  One that surprised me was a memoir written by journalist Ted Conover, who worked as a guard at Sing Sing until he just couldn’t.

Correctional officers get only negative publicity.  Period.  But Ted Conover, investigative reporter with guts, went through training and spent a year as a rookie officer (“New Jack”)  at notorious New York City’s Sing Sing to discover that ‘they’ are ‘us.’  This collection of vignettes explores the friendships, the sicknesses, the malingering, the dedication of those who live their lives within walls guarding inmates.

First, the book is beautifully written, as if by a poet.  “The Visit Room…an inmate could try to reconnect to the real world and prior life, could try to salve the wound of imprisonment…. The Visit Room was about catching up, reconnect things, and looking ahead, about a woman’s touch and a child’s chatter.”

Second, the book explores all aspects of the reality of prison, including the effect it has on families of victim and inmate. “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 things they took:  money, peace of mind, health, and entire lives, because they were selfish or sick or scared or just couldn’t wait.”

Third, thankfully, the book breams with humor.  The Family Reunion Room, where family-visit trailers had outdoor grills, swing sets, kitchen, and separate rooms for kids and adults:  “The Felon Reproduction Program, some officers called it.”

The humor is necessary to allow us to turn the pages, from one story to the next of neglect and violence and insecurities and insanity.  Each story is compelling and opens the world of correctional guards to us, naïve or jaded or disbelieving readers.  I believe.

Third, the book is history.  Conover is a meticulous researcher (and his material was fact-checked when the New York Times ran portions).  He traces America’s confusion over the purpose of incarceration.  He points to our British history, to bad leaders and good ones, to failed attempts, to commercialization of wardens from appointed overseers to career state personnel.

And finally, in an afterword, the book offers suggestions for the future: repeal mandatory sentencing laws; educate them while you have them; involve officers in the training and counseling; take a leap and help reduce poverty and increase opportunity for young people.

If you think you know everything you need to know about prison, you are simply wrong.  Read this book and let me know if you learned no new fact or if you do not, now, have more empathy for those officers who serve time along side the inmates, who did something wrong and are serving their time.


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