Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

ISBN: 0375726624
ISBN 13: 9780375726620
By: Ted Conover

Check Price Now


Crime Currently Reading Favorites Memoir Non Fiction Nonfiction Prison Sociology To Read True Crime

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


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.


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.


I was really looking forward to reading this book and was not disappointed. Conover is known as one of the leaders of the "New New Journalism" school -- "contemporary American literature for reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction". Conover's MO is immersing himself as a participant in his topic to see what the life is really like, then writing about it. For NEWJACK, he took a job for a year as a guard at Sing Sing, the famous New York maximum security prison. The result is a study of the American penal system unlike any other. What is particularly great about Conover's approach is that, as a participant, he is a character in the telling and is our stand-in on questions of morality and individual responsibility in a tragically flawed, yet tragically necessary, part of our society. My curiosity in the real life hiding behind the Hollywood-ized prison experience can be sated because Conover went somewhere I don't believe I could ever go myself. And the questions he asks of himself about such things as justified use of force (ie, violence) and fraternization with hardened criminals are the very questions I might ponder in his situation. The answers he provides are sometimes surprising, sometimes humorous and always thought-provoking.


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.


'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.).


As someone who works in corrections, I thought it was gutsy the way Conover got the background to write his book. He actually took the time and energy to apply as a corrections officer and got the job! For someone that doesn't know anything about corrections, he takes you in this sub-culture from the beginning and takes the reader though the steps necessary to become a corrections officer. From there, the reader is taken inside the prison, with its' many officers, nuances of prison life and the metamorphosis from civilian, to CO, guarding some of the most dangerous people society keeps locked up. The mystic behind Sing Sing is unveiled as is the daily workings of an "average" prison guard...a book that should be explored! Good job Conover!


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.

Chris Birdy

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover was an informative book that gave a brief look into the life of a corrections officer. Mr Conover took the reader from his first day of training through his last day on the job - one year. The book was well-written. My only problem with it was the second half of the book was loaded with history on incarcerations and punishment. The information was good; however it seemed to all be packed into the second half as filler when he had nothing more interesting to say about his job at hand.


Much much more than participant journalism, Conover's ambitious yearlong journey at Sing Sing as a corrections officer (don't call him a prison guard) produced this nonfiction masterpiece. Over the course of NEWJACK (prison slang for officer trainee), the reader sees Conover undergo many transitions: from excited trainee to disillusioned officer, from hardass guard to sympathetic friend of the inmates. Also, playing historian and anthropologist, Conover steps back from his personal experience to offer a timeline of both modern corrections practices and a history of Sing Sing. Although this journey is ultimately unpleasant, this book will change you.

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.

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.


I got this book out of the library after hearing what must have been an old interview on Fresh Air with Ted Conover (the book was published in 2000). Some disapproved of his methods. He wanted to learn about being a prison guard, but no one in the DOCS system would let him shadow a new recruit. So he signed up himself and did all the testing and training and then worked as a CO at Sing Sing for a year. The result is a really good book. No huge revelations, but a good thorough interesting if rather small-scale look at the work of guards in a prison. He ends the book with some of the usual pleas that seem to come from nearly every human being who takes a look at our Prison Idustrial Complex - stop putting drug offenders in with violent offenders, get rid of mandatory sentences for drug offences, make more of an effort to educate prisoners (and guards), etc.Glad I read it. Still depressed about the prison economy.

J.A. Callan

Ever wonder what life is like for the average prison guard (or Corrections Officer, to be PC)? Well, this is the book for you, then. Conover displays guts of steel in his undertaking of this project - masquerading as a corrections officer in order to gain the experience of what life is like for a prison officer in New York's Sing Sing Prison (The only prison in the world, I learned, which has a commuter track running through it!)The book delves into the lives of officers and inmates. The officers are essentially serving life sentences in eight hour shifts, Conover poignantly tells us. Entangled in a system which teaches them behaviour and protocol which sounds great in practice but once you pass through the gates and onto the Block or the yard it's an entirely different story altogether.Conover also presents us with a fascinating insight into the history of Sing Sing prison - which is known somewhat in popular culture today as being a mobster's jail. Conover is anguished by his experiences: the stress and abuse from a thankless job, and by some inmates who may not be incarcerated had they been born into a different part of the world.


Somewhat interesting but rarely exciting look at what it takes to be a prison guard.

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).

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *