Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

ISBN: 0375726624
ISBN 13: 9780375726620
By: Ted Conover

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About this book

Acclaimed journalist Ted Conover sets a new standard for bold, in-depth reporting in this first-hand account of life inside the penal system.When Conover’s request to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Officer Academy was denied, he decided to apply for a job as a prison officer. So begins his odyssey at Sing Sing, once a model prison but now the state’s most troubled maximum-security facility. The result of his year there is this remarkable look at one of America’s most dangerous prisons, where drugs, gang wars, and sex are rampant, and where the line between violator and violated is often unclear. As sobering as it is suspenseful, Newjack is an indispensable contribution to the urgent debate about our country’s criminal justice system, and a consistently fascinating read.

Reader's Thoughts


While volunteering in a maximum security prison, I found I was as nervous around the guards as I was the prisoners. In fact, I did not really care for prison guards at all, but now that I came across this excellent piece of investigative journalism while touring the Eastern State Penitentiary, I am on fire about prison reform and profoundly confused at the complexities involved. Ted Conover spent a year as a corrections officer, and his experiences are told alongside an accessible and interesting history of the American Prison. It should be required reading for every American. There isn't a more expensive and less effective government program, we imprison more people than any other country in the world by far, and our prisons need colossal work and activism to be anything more than a dehumanizing and useless band aid against mounting poverty and recidivism. What is tragic is that conditions in prisons are worse than they were fifty years ago, and it doesn't look great for the future. And on a side note, his experience with prisoners is eerily similar to managing a classroom.

Daniel Parker

Story I'm writing right now involves like in a prison, and this book provided lots of good fodder. The author covers his year as a prison guard, from boot camp to his leaving. A full year with murderers, thieves, thugs, mentally ill, "bugs", and so on. I learned a lot and he makes some frank assessments of the purpose of prisons and the life behind bars of those imprisoned and those who work to keep them there. Very engaging read and excellent journalism.

Badly Drawn Girl

A gripping page turner that reads like a novel, Newjack is a book that gives outsiders a glimpse of the realities of prison. Ted Conover goes undercover because he isn't granted any access to information as a journalist. But he doesn't approach it as an undercover stint, he goes through correctional officer training with the intention of becoming a CO. The reader gets to experience it all alongside him... training, first day jitters, fears, biases, friendships, and violence. I have read a lot of books about prison, usually written from the prisoner's perspective but this book was the first I'd read that addressed the other side of bars. Ted Conover does an amazing job at presenting more than one side of the story. I came out of it with a new respect for the men and women who work in the prisons.


The author, an anthropologist journalist, went through basic training and became a corrections officer in Sing Sing for a year. The usually secret world he uncovers --- of brutality (almost entirely on the inmates’ side), of facing danger daily, of learning to enforce some rules and let others slide --- is fascinating. He also makes some fine discoveries about the criminal mind; while he does get chummy with some inmates, by the end, he finds himself both invigorated and repelled by the violence all around him. It seeps into his home life, but he also feels exhilarated when there’s a cell extraction, for example. And he begins to lose his liberal idealism: “beating the shit” out of recalcitrant inmate doesn’t bother him as it once did.Other than one long, misplaced chapter on Sing Sing history and two of its influential wardens (semi-interesting stuff, but fit for a different book or article), this is an engrossing feat of undercover journalism into a shadowy world. America’s penology system needs a clear-eyed and sympathetic look, and Conover gives some good indications that the animals might be taking over the zoo.


Zookeeping 101 …Most of the books about prison are written by current/former inmates, authors focusing on sensational events (riots) or academia types ripping the US prison system in general. They are (generally) one-sided and somewhat depressing. Ted Conover’s NEWJACK provides a refreshingly different perspective of prison life … that of the prison guard. While not an overly exciting read, it certainly fills a void.Ted Conover was so determined to provide a prison guard’s point-of-view, he enlisted in the academy to become one himself. Unbeknownst to the State of New York, they provided all the material for this book: the training and Conover’s short-term stint guarding Sing Sing, the state’s historic maximum security penitentiary. Even though the author had ulterior motives behind his employment at Sing Sing, he clearly reveals that he was dedicated to taking the dangerous job seriously.NEWJACK sheds light on the people and the systems designed to house and “rehabilitate” society’s most dangerous souls. More than anything, the book reveals that a fragile balance exists inside the walls of prisons and at any given moment, an explosive situation can escalate and hand control to the inmates. While television and movies often depict prison guards as being stupid, lazy, corrupt and putty in the hands of savvy inmates, Conover provides contradictory evidence. Sure, he details a few stereotypical guards going through the motions just to collect a paycheck, but the bulk of the book depicts most of the individuals Conover worked with are competent and take their jobs seriously (knowing that not doing so could prove to be harmful, if not fatal). If you’re expecting the book to be an action-filled digest chock full of daily assaults, shankings and prison break attempts, you’ll be disappointed; in no way does Sing Sing resemble the gladiator-like arena portrayed by Hollywood (HBO’s “Oz”, for example). While there are a few blood-letting incidents Conover describes, most of the books “action” comes from Conover’s sometimes irritable relationships with senior co-workers who seem to relish testing the mettle of new guards. During his brief tenure in Sing Sing, Conover is able to provide a fairly thorough perspective of most every facet of being a guard (he even gets a stint in the guard tower which is described as reading room with an arsenal at one’s disposal). What we discover is that the life of a prison guard is centered on completing mundane processes day-in/day out all while under the watchful eyes of bored inmates looking for opportunities to exploit any/every mistake. One of the primary lessons learned by Conover was to never reveal personal information to any of the inmates as even the most insignificant, seemingly innocent/inane tidbit could be a powerful tool in the hands of an inmate. I found myself continually thinking of the dread these guards must feel going to work each day; Conover even questions his ability to complete his desired stretch of employment at Sing Sing throughout the book. The author dedicates one highly detailed chapter to recapping the colorful history of Sing Sing; I found this to be the best, most interesting part of the book.NEWJACK was a decent, educational read, just not terribly exciting (I seemed to have fallen into the trap set by Hollywood). While it may not be action-filled, it covers new ground by exposing a more secretive side of the prison system (so much in fact, that the book was once considered contraband inside the prison). I give Conover credit for having the guts to do what he did in order to write this book (becoming an actual guard). If anything, readers should have a new-found respect for those who choose this career path as prison proves to be a miserable environment for everyone inside the walls … the only difference is that the guards have the opportunity of leaving at shift’s end.


'Newjack' is a commendable book and achievement, as the author, Ten Conover, spent a year working in Sing Sing prison as a correction officer and meticulously recorded his experience. He exposes the hypocrisy of correction officer training which stresses strict adherence to rules versus the real life mishmash of daily rule following on the job. He dispels some common myths about prison guards (they aren’t all terrible inflictors of random violence, as seen in movies) and prisoners (they aren’t all mindless, sociopathic thugs). He also explores the personal impact of working in such a stressful environment, where a mistake can lead to violence or even death for a corrections officer or an inmate. The problem is that the narrative breaks down in the back half of the book and many sections seem superfluous. Did we need a full chapter devoted to the history of Sing Sing? This is logical and relevant to the topic at hand – I just found it less interesting when compared to some of the better personal stories about prison life. His on the job experiences were unique, while a Wikipedia page probably could have provided some of the history. Unfortunately, not all the personal tidbits are compelling and at times I felt like I was listening to somebody at a party explaining in too much routine detail about their job that day. The book thrives in the earlier chapters, when Conover stirs emotions when he deals with aggressive instructors in trialing or unpredictable inmates on the job. While I commend the author on the thorough reportage, I guess I expected more from a book that is so highly honored (Pulitzer Price finalist, etc.).

Bob Lake

This is a very interesting look at life inside the penitentiary from the viewpoint of a "guard". I immediately followed my reading of this book with a reading of Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos, which is a look at penitentiary life from the viewpoint of the inmate. This combination made for an interesting look at the viewpoints of these two groups.


A book that you have to admire for the sheer audacity of the experiment, even putting aside that it's solidly written, probably 3.6 or .7 stars. I'm didn't get a whole lot out of Conover's descriptions of day-to-day life in Singsing, but I think that's because I've done some research on this subject independently, and others might have different experiences. Where it really shines is in his description of what the job does to him, not just in the stress triggered by the constant possibility for violence, but perhaps even moreso in the stress that comes from constantly being hounded and degraded and being supposed to just stand there and take it. You come to understand why unofficial punishments happen, or why a guard might finally lose it and resort to violence at only a slight provocation. When you look at Conover's experiences in the book, and think that he was only on the job about eight months, it's kind of staggering. He brings a sense of practical reality to what it means to handle violent men constantly, needing them to cooperate while at the same needing to be able to deal with their resistance and hostility.


Here's one for the 'jobs I never knew I didn't want' list (previous entries include vet and farmer). I suppose this could be called stunt journalism -- unable to gain access to the Sing Sing corrections system as a reporter, Conover simply became a corrections officer himself -- but if so, it is stunt journalism at its best.Conover had originally hoped only to shadow a recruit going through the training process, and when he submitted his own application to be a CO, that was his end goal -- get through the training process, get out, and write about it. Instead he stuck it out for a year, learning not only about training but also about the inner workings of Sing Sing.He does not paint a pretty picture. Make no mistake -- he's not advocating for the inmates here; this isn't an exposé of flaws or abuses in the system. But neither is it an endorsement of the system, or of the ways inmates are treated. He gets to know other officers -- those who use and abuse their power and those who earn some modicum of respect from their charges. He gets to know some inmates as well, to one degree or another. One of the most fascinating things to me is how little curiosity he sees in the other COs: It serves him well, as rarely is his cover story questioned, but they are often of little use when his own curiosity is piqued. Some of the COs and superiors strike him as creative, competent, flexible where needed; some don't seem destined to rise (I believe he describes one lieutenant as semiliterate).The Powers That Be were not, unsurprisingly, happy with the news that Conover had written about his time in Sing Sing, and it's true, he does not paint a particularly flattering picture. There are flaws in the prison system as a whole and Sing Sing more particularly, and he doesn't hesitate to point them out. Beyond that, it's a grim, grey place from where Conover stands, and he's not interested in flattery of any of his subjects. But -- as far as my limited knowledge of prisons goes -- he seems pretty damn determined to be balanced, and outside a slog or two (did not need all that prison history packed into one chapter) it makes for fascinating reading.

Darcia Helle

I want to start by saying I have immense respect for Ted Conover. When our prison system denied his request to shadow a corrections officer recruit, he sidestepped the system and applied for the position himself. His commitment to the job, in order to bring us the story, is commendable.Newjack is an honest, straightforward look at life inside a prison from the viewpoint of a corrections officer. While I read a lot on this topic, most books come from the inmate's perspective. I was shocked to learn how little training these men receive. They go from a short 7 weeks at school straight to prison work, having had absolutely no prior contact or training directly with inmates. These men and women who risk their lives each day are woefully unprepared for the reality inside those walls. This book is a scary, sad, sometimes funny look at that reality.I've long believed our prison system is a mess and only reinforces negative behavior. If you doubt that at all, you need to read this book.

Emily Goenner

Interesting, but I have a prison connection at the moment which made it real and relevant. Society's prison culture is a topic, though, that should be of interest to more people due to its size, growth, and the destruction it causes to families of inmates and guards. Conover is engaging, astute, and colorfully describes many of the characters he meets, inmates and other guards alike.

G.d. Brennan

Walter Cronkite once said that the citizens of a country have a right to know what's being done in their name. It's a simple enough premise: public institutions, spending public money, should be subject to public scrutiny. And yet, the nation's prisons and jails remain practically invisible to the public eye, thanks to both their media-shy temperament and a relatively incurious media. Newspapers and television may flock to chronicle shocking crimes and sensational trials, but when the sentences have been handed down and the headlines are fading, the public mentality seems to be "out of sight, out of mind."Journalist Ted Conover sought to redress this problem, to understand the corrections system in New York State and, in particular, the corrections officers who, on behalf of the public, guard those deemed unfit for society. Towards that end, he wanted to follow a rookie C.O. through training and into an initial posting, but was repeatedly denied permission to do so. Rebuffed by the powers-that-be, stymied by the system, he settled on an even better and more original solution: to become that rookie C.O. himself.Many journalists aspire to be (or pretend to be) completely objective--dispassionate chroniclers of the world, separate from the people and situations they write about. The brilliance of Conover's book is that he took a completely opposite tack, enmeshing himself in the system rather than trying to observe it at arm's length. And in doing so, he has created an excellent, compelling, and thoroughly informative book, one that dismantles many stereotypes about prisons and guards, stripping away the lumpy old layers of paint and showing the true shape and color of things.Many of his most insightful observations deal with a very poorly understood subject--the effects of incarceration on the guards. At the outset of his experiences, Conover wonders whether guards truly are the brutal people depicted so often in prison movies and, if so, whether they are drawn to the work because they are insensitive, mean people or whether they become that way because of the work. By the end of his time guarding Sing Sing, he seems convinced that the latter is often the case, that warehousing people can end up dehumanizing both the people being warehoused and the people doing the warehousing. The stress and strain of prison, it seems, seeps into the lives of C.O.s, resulting in higher rates of alcoholism and divorce. (Those who pick this book up expecting an overly-sensitive, "Cool Hand Luke"-ish rant about cruel C.O.s and maltreated prisoners will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the author's fairness and empathy towards his fellow guards.)Prison sex, too, appears far differently on the inside than it does in popular culture. While prison rape is a staple of movies and shows about incarceration ("The Shawshank Redemption", "Oz"), Conover concludes that most prison sex is, in fact, consensual. Such observations may seem like voyeurism, but they are not; given the lower availability of condoms, the higher rates of infection for sexually transmitted diseases (particularly HIV) and the fact that many of these men will eventually leave prison (possibly to rejoin thier families), prison sex is a factor that fundamentally alters the incarceration equation.Despite its overall excellence and its willingness to take on such edgy topics, the book isn't a completely thorough or representative picture of New York State's corrections system. The author readily admits that Sing Sing is an atypical prison, with a larger percentage of minority guards and unseasoned officers than the upstate facilities; it would have been interesting if he'd been willing or able to spend longer in the system and get a better look at those institutions.Still, this complaint is insignificant when compared with the book's overall virtues. "Newjack" is a great public service, a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the consequences of the nation's get-tough-on-crime mentality. While many people affect a cavalier don't-do-the-crime-if-you-can't-do-the-time air, Conover's book shows that this is a very myopic attitude--prisoners will do the time, and they will emerge, and the experiences they face on the inside will help determine whether they will do the crime again or instead find a place in society. Given that fact, society should try to better understand what life is like for them--and for the guards who do the public's thankless bidding.


Un giornalista vuole scoprire come vivono guardie e detenuti in un carcere di massima sicurezza; ma le autorità gli impediscono di entrare. Decide allora di diventare guardia carceraria: si sottopone a un addestramento severissimo e rimane a Sing Sing per un anno, in incognito, documentando tutto ciò che accade dietro il filo spinato e le torrette di guardia: violenza, droga, malattia mentale, ma anche storie di riscatto e momenti di grande umanità. L’impatto è difficile: il carcere è un mondo chiuso, con regole proprie, il microcosmo di una società totalitaria (“esempio quasi perfetto di uno Stato di polizia”). Ma i detenuti non riconoscono l’autorità delle guardie. Conover scopre a sue spese che non basta avere le chiavi e un manganello per imporsi: dovrà scegliere se vuole essere un “newjack”, una recluta, che dialoga con i detenuti per ricondurli alla ragione, o una guardia che si guadagna il rispetto dei detenuti usando la forza.Sing Sing è un mondo di adrenalina e testosterone, e non c’è un attimo di pace. Abbondano anche le tensioni razziali, perché i detenuti sono quasi tutti neri e latinoamericani (e non mancano gli scontri fra bande), mentre le guardie sono in maggioranza di pelle bianca. Alcuni reclusi soffrono di gravi problemi psichici, e sono confinati in un edificio speciale per evitare che gli altri detenuti facciano loro del male. I casi di omicidio in carcere non sono rari. Un giorno Conover viene assegnato alla sala visite, e ha modo di riflettere sui mali della società americana: detenuti giovanissimi, con moglie e figli, che dovranno passare tutta la vita dietro le sbarre; più generazioni di una stessa famiglia ospitate nello stesso carcere. Newjack è una grande prova di giornalismo investigativo, nella migliore tradizione americana. La prosa di Conover è punteggiata da citazioni di Michel Foucault e di Tocqueville sul tema delle carceri; eppure questi excursus non rallentano il ritmo del libro, che non diventa mai noioso. Il racconto di Conover è vecchio di dieci anni: vorrei scoprire se nel frattempo è cambiato qualcosa nel sistema giudiziario americano, e se le sue proposte, molto ragionevoli (per esempio abolire le pene detentive per lo spaccio di droga) hanno trovato un seguito. Chissà se anche nelle carceri italiane si campa così.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson

The blurb from Tracy Kidder on the back of this book compares it with the journalism of Orwell (Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days) and I have to agree.While no one could duplicate Orwell's way of subtly imbuing every moment of a narrative with political meaning, Newjack has a different kind of appeal: Conover, perhaps because of the ordeal he endured, allows himself to become much more vulnerable in his text than old Eric Blair ever did. It might be that vulnerability that gave Conover the sensitivity to observe the images that at times make Newjack transcendent: the father who after decades of lockup encounters his son in the inmate showers, the prisoner who keeps a spider for a pet, the Latino man who solicited a cellmate to melt plastic from stolen silverware and tatoo a passage from The Diary of Anne Frank onto his back in Spanish. Then there is the unforgettable spectacle of Sing Sing's B-block on a New Year's Eve -- I won't give that one away.Newjack does have a few limitations. Prison life is by nature mind-numblingly bureaucratic, and that tone occasionally (and unavoidably) creeps into the text as Conover attempts to describe what he actually did as a corrections officer every day. But fortunately, the two missing elements I felt the book most needed -- a map of Sing Sing and a reflection on Conover's experience once he was away from the "scrap heap" -- are included in the latest edition. Conover also offers some recommendations on how we might improve America's penitentiary systems, though a decade on it seems like we have heeded few if any of them (plus built Gitmo to boot).

Elliot Ratzman

Prison memoirs by prisoners are plentiful, shocking and tragically predictable; few have narrated the working life of prison guards, doing a “life sentence eight hours at a time.” I read 4/5 of this excellent book in a day—I highly recommend it. The author, Ted Connover, goes through the process of becoming a Corrections Officer in the NY state system. After a few months of hellish basic training, he is thrown “into the deep end” working in Sing Sing prison. Need I say it’s like one big Zimbardo experiment? Conover writes with an anthropologist’s eye, describing the social arrangements, the moral compromises and the banality of prison-guarding evil—including his own. The line between inmate and CO is, of course, blurred—prison traumatizes both. Along with some penology and history, especially in the New York system, we are treated to one unforgettable story, character sketch, wise observation after another. Make sure to get the paperback version which has an indispensible afterwards.

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