Monday, September 18, 2006

Last week I read Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover, a non-fiction book in which the author describes his experiences as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison. A journalist by trade, Conover went undercover as a guard for over a year because his attempts to gain access and interviews for an article were rebuffed. The book not an expose - there are no shady deals or gotcha moments, although he does not ignore the very real corruption that exists in the prison system - it's more of a thoughtful examination of the daily chaos and intense stress the average prison guard deals with and the mental toll this takes on him or her. He includes a short history of prisons, Sing Sing in particular, and several pages on the ways prisons have evolved over the years. There is a brief exploration of the death penalty but not a lot of information on rehabilitation or education programs. The most interesting parts of the book were his interactions with the prisoners and his observations on the different styles of the officers he worked with. He says he initially was interested in the project because of the overwhelming number of negative portrayals of corrections officers in print and film and he succeeds in humanizing his fellow guards as civil servants placed under enormously stressful and dangerous conditions. The thing that stuck with me the most however was an exchange he had with one of the inmates over the growth of prisons run by private corporations as for-profit enterprises:
"It says here in this article that the government is planning right now for the new prisons they're going to need in ten or twelve years. I got that right?"
Again I nodded.
"That's wrong."
"What's wrong about planning ahead?"
"Because, dig this. 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. 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?"

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