12.28.2014

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | NEWJACK - TED CONOVER


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.
- Goodreads


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I came across this book by luck. A new friend was chatting with me about books, and mentioned having read Orange Is the New Black for her book club, and having some issues with it. She said that after reading it, she'd watched an interview between the author of that book, Piper Kerman, and Ted Conover. The interview, she said, was intelligent and insightful - and Conover's comments really drew out some of the important issues in the discussion about America's penal system.

She lent me Conover's book after this conversation, so that I might see for myself. 

The book is an account of Conover's training and first year working as a corrections officer at one of the USA's most notorious prisons - Sing Sing. Originally, Conover wanted to write an article on the process of becoming a guard, in the interest of which he requested permission to shadow a prospective CO throughout their training. Flat-out denied access, Conover took the next logical step - he became one himself. 
 
As soon as I started reading, I knew this was going to be my kind of book. Conover's journalistic background is immediately apparent in both his impeccable research and engaging tone. His work also bears a striking similarity to ethnographic accounts I read while studying anthropology. It also brought to mind Hunter S. Thompson's  "Gonzo" style of journalism, whereby the journalist's own experience is placed at the centre of his or her account, rendering it subjective. Both pluses.

I can tell how much a book is impacting me by how many quotes I transcribe into my journal. After about the 20th page of transcription, I gave up and just ordered a copy of the book. So much of what he discusses bears serious consideration. If anything, the situation for the now est. 716 per 100,000 (one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world) US citizens currently behind bars has become more grim in the nearly two decades that have passed since Conover's stint at Sing Sing.

Among the points that most impacted me were: discussion of mandatory drug sentencing (and how it is counter-productive - for many communities that have few avenues for economic gain it makes prison an inevitability or rite of passage rather than a deterrent); the rate of mental illness amongst the prison population; the precarious balance of power between inmates and guards; race and how it connects to myriad issues for guards, inmates and society as a whole; and the problems created by privatizing prisons (i.e. the conflict of interest that arises from the incarcerating institutions having a vested interest in sentencing as many people as possible to prison time). 

And this is just a small sampling of the rich, issue-based journalism to be found between these pages. Conover provides thoughts on the emotional and physical strain of working or living in prison, a historical overview of how the prison system has evolved over time and even looks at how the reality of prison stacks up against pop culture's interpretations of it.

For anyone who is concerned with not only the number of inmates (mainly young men of colour) who are placed behind bars every year and the conditions they experience once they find themselves there, this book is required reading.

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Book Title: Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
Author: Ted Conover
Series: No
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Vintage Books
Released: June 2001
Genre: Non-Fiction, Journalism, US Prison System
Pages: 331
Date Read: November 19 - December 7, 2014
Rating: 10/10

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