cover image Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Ted Conover. Random House (NY), $24.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50177-7

In books like Rolling Nowhere (about hoboes) and Coyotes (about illegal aliens), Conover distinguished himself with brave, empathetic reporting. This riveting book goes further. Stymied by both the union and prison brass in his effort to report on correctional officers, Conover instead applied for a job, and spent nearly a year in the system, mostly at Sing Sing, the storied prison in the New York City suburbs. Fascinated and fearful, the author in training grasps some troubling truths: ""we rule with the inmates' consent,"" says one instructor, while another acknowledges that ""rehabilitation is not our job."" As a Sing Sing ""newjack"" (or new guard), Conover learns the folly of going by the book; the best officers recognize ""the inevitability of a kind of relationship"" with inmates. Whether working the gallery, the mess hall or transportation detail, the job is both a personal and moral challenge: at the isolation unit (""the Box""), Conover begins to write up his first ""use of force"" incident when a fellow officer waves him away. He steps back to offer a history of the prison, the ""hopelessly compromised"" work of prison staff and the unspoken idealism he senses in fellow guards. Stressed by his double life and the demands of the job, caught between the warring impulses of anthropological inquiry and ""the incuriosity that made the job easier,"" Conover struggles but nevertheless captures scenes of horror and grace. With its nuanced portraits of officers and inmates, the book never preaches, yet it conveys that we ignore our prisons--an explosive (and expensive) microcosm of race and class tensions--at our collective peril. Agent, Kathy Robbins. First serial to the New Yorker. (May)