By Chet Yarbrough
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
By Ted Conover
Narrated by Ted Conover
TED CONOVER (AUTHOR, JOURNALIST)
On December 18, 2018, Congress approved a prison reform bill which is signed by President Trump. In this bill, Congress takes a first step in turning prisons into institutions of reform rather than isolation and punishment. The bill’s purported intention is to return prisoners to productive society by 1) improving prisoner treatment, 2) treating the drug addicted, 3) monitoring those put on probation to reduce recidivism, and 4) improving pretrial services for the arrested.
Clanging prison doors and simmering discontent are evident in Ted Conover’s book but it is not a polemic for prison reform.
Conover surreptitiously becomes a Corrections Officer at a storied New York prison called Sing Sing (30 miles north of NYC). He enters a seven week boot camp and four week “On-Job-Training” program to become a C.O. for one year, including his 11 week training period.
Conover exposes many dysfunctions that are inherent in a system that isolates human beings from society. The American prison systems’ principle function is to punish the convicted with confinement. Criminals are then released into society based on time served. What Conover’s experience shows is that Corrections Officers are as likely to be changed by their roles as gate keepers as prisoners are by their confinement.
Both C.O. and prisoner roles increase human frustration. Corrections Officers, by training and experience, become martinets that focus on control of human nature, their own and the prisoners. COs are directed to control their emotions regardless of verbal abuse they hear from internees. Prisoners are treated like herd animals to be corralled, fed, and released at a master’s discretion.
A Correction Officer enforces rules, written and unwritten, and prisoners break rules. Both factions vie for respect. It becomes a “zero-sum” game with marginalized losers and short lived winners. The losers are prisoners and the winners are COs.
Rules become symbols of authority and control rather than guidelines for human reform. Conover gives the example of a rule that says a Correction Officer, under no circumstance, is to assist a prisoner with his duties. When a prisoner is told to carry a bundle of laundry that is too big for him to carry, the CO is not to assist him because it violates a code of conduct that might compromise security. Offering help may engender friendship which may lead to collusion, corruption, and/or escape. Cognitive dissonance causes some COs to question their humanity. Outside of prison, man is encouraged to help his fellow man; inside prison, it is a sign of forbidden vulnerability.
Prisoners are being taught to believe that helping one’s fellow man is not a societal benefit. Prisons do not reform prisoners; i.e. prisons warehouse human beings and return most of them to society after time served.