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Zoology 101

Donna Wares is an editor on The Times' state desk. She has written extensively about corrections and directed coverage of California's prisons

Nobody grows up planning to be a prison guard. But then, 30 years ago no one ever imagined that prisons would become one of the nation’s biggest growth industries. The war on crime and the prison-building boom that has occurred coast to coast have ratcheted up a desperate demand for new guards, who try to dignify the work by calling themselves “correctional officers.” They now have political clout and powerful unions and lobbyists representing them, and they have gained peace-officer status, just like cops, with the salaries and benefits that go with it.

But no badge or title or pension plan can change the grim reality behind the dirty work of running a system that, in the final analysis, traffics in degradation, not only of the inmates but also of the guards. New officers are fresh meat on the academy assembly line, learning such necessities as the proper way to cut down a suicidal inmate from his noose, how to spot the signs of a brewing riot, how to administer the latest in “pain compliance” and what to do if taken hostage. (One smart tip: Smash the televisions so the inmates can’t watch themselves on the evening news.)

“You’re the zookeeper now,” a training officer tells Ted Conover’s graduating class at New York’s corrections academy, a converted seminary. “Go run the zoo.” Conover isn’t your typical new zookeeper looking to do his eight and hit the gate, along the way collecting a $40,000-a-year paycheck. He’s a journalist who wants to write about prison from the inside. When the New York Department of Corrections turns down his request to shadow a new recruit through the training process, Conover is undeterred: He signs up for the Civil Service exam and goes in undercover as a guard in training.

His book, “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” is a compelling chronicle of the author’s frustrating and often terrifying year on the beat in one of the world’s most infamous prisons, the maximum-security pen that was home to the nation’s first death chamber. Through Conover’s eyes, the life of a prison guard becomes a slow death of sorts in eight-hour increments in this decrepit human warehouse. Nothing works here. The rules change shift to shift, cellblock to cellblock. One out of every three of his fellow guards is a rookie, or Newjack, as ignorant as Conover of the operating code of this place. The murderers, molesters, hypes, transvestites and bugs (that’s what the guards call the psych cases) have little to do--there are few jobs and limited educational programs--so they spend their time hurling insults and bodily waste at officers.

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Sing Sing Prison houses 2,300 men, between a quarter and a third of them imprisoned because they’ve killed someone. Despite Conover’s best intentions to be a moral and decent officer, he quickly finds himself caught up with the other Newjacks in the violent culture of the place. His fear of the chaos and his dread at the start of each shift are palpable as he works inside Sing Sing’s toughest cellblocks. Perversely, new officers are often thrown into dangerous posts right away, he says, because of chronic staffing problems. He found himself at times alone, watching over 150 inmates, his hold over them in question from moment to moment. He knew it, and so did his charges.

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This is no fly-on-the wall narrative. Conover gets his hands dirty, and this makes for some of the most fascinating elements of the book. He is sucked in with his fellow guards, thrilled at his first invitation to join an “extraction team” headed for the Box, the solitary confinement unit. Team members storm cells in helmets and stab-proof vests to search for contraband, frisking every inmate and flattening anyone who refuses to cooperate. The guards use the power of the mob--their mob--to terrorize the inmates, just as the inmates terrorize them. Not surprisingly, the work takes a terrible toll. Many guards quit. Others put in for transfers right away, hoping for work at a less treacherous lockup. The valedictorian of Conover’s academy class seeks other employment within a week of graduation. Because of the stigma, many guards lie when people on the outside ask what they do for a living.

If the book has a shortcoming, it lies in the limitation of Conover’s covert approach: He rarely gets close to any of his fellow guards, for fear of being exposed. As richly as he details his own tour of duty, he often skimps when it comes to portraying fellow recruits at the academy and the officers he worked as individuals made of flesh and blood. The reader is left wondering just what brought them to Sing Sing, why they stay and how they keep a grasp on their humanity. Conover does a better job of bringing to life the inmates and their world of homemade weapons, pet sparrows and a caste system that ostracizes the lowest among them: the worst of the bugs, the guys who don’t wash, the transvestites with poufy hair.

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The reader knows Conover is a short-timer--he’s going to quit after a year, after he gets his story--but he still can’t escape the stress of Sing Sing when his shift ends. He finds himself withdrawing from his family, having to stop himself from shaking his small son in anger at the slightest provocation. He is seized by panic attacks while driving in the car. Nothing will cure him, we realize, except to escape the futility that surrounds him--the common ground the guards and the inmates share.

“Newjack” is an important cautionary tale. The book starkly details the consequences of a nationwide corrections system that does little more than warehouse an unprecedented portion of the population with no real attempt at education or mental health treatment. The author portrays an ever-expanding prison industry--with particular attention to California, the nation’s largest corrections system--that sweeps up white-collar crooks, drug addicts and the mentally ill alongside society’s predators. As Conover notes, the system’s revolving door soon spits these inmates back onto the streets with no new skills, many more dangerous and antisocial than when they were first locked up.

“Newjack” is a graphic and troubling window into society’s scrapheap. Conover is to be commended for having the chops to venture where few others would dare go.


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