A journalist goes where others are sent

Newjack Guarding Sing Sing By Ted Conover Random House 321 pp., $24.95

Not many people become prison guards (corrections officer is the politically correct term) unless they absolutely have to. Author Ted Conover is an exception.

For two decades, Conover has specialized in immersion journalism, a craft term that means getting inside somebody else's life for weeks or months or occasionally years, day after day, to achieve the fullest possible understanding. It takes special skills to perform immersion journalism successfully. It takes unusually tolerant subjects and unusually generous, patient publishers, too.

Probably the best-known practitioners of immersion journalism outside the craft itself are John McPhee and Tracy Kidder. Conover is different from them, though, because his immersion journalism is frequently of the undercover participatory variety. Previously, Conover entered the worlds of railroad hobos and illegal Mexican immigrants. To enter those worlds undercover, he did not have to apply; he just went.

Entering the world of prison guards required an application. So Conover applied, using his real name but failing to mention he planned to write a book about his experience. He passed the New York State psychological tests despite what some readers might deem his professional insanity.

In March 1997, Conover reported to Albany for prison-guard training, to be followed by an assignment to a correctional facility if he did not wash out. He was nearly 40 years old, relatively small of stature, with a wife and children. It is difficult to imagine how Conover's family felt about his decision to write about a job that would put him in danger of injury or death every day. Conover provides little material for imagining - his family members are barely mentioned.

The result of Conover's odyssey is an endlessly fascinating, often suspenseful book. Conover and his editor achieved just the right effect as he tells the story in first-person prose. The tone is mostly matter-of-fact, leavened by appropriate amounts of glibness and dark humor. He generously shares his thoughts and feelings without sounding condescending or self-pitying. When he focuses on prison supervisors, fellow guards, and inmates, his succinct word portraits are usually memorable.

Conover describes the training in a 44-page chapter that is likely to make any reader wonder at the determination of the author to get the story. The training was brutal, meant to scare away weak recruits through psychological and physical means - all for a life-threatening career that pays so poorly many guards work second jobs.

So why do hundreds of men and women compete for slots in the training class? In some instances, because the health insurance and other benefits are decent. In other instances, because the job allows its holder to exercise authority over the lives of others. In a few instances, because of reformist tendencies.

Conover's classmates came from the ranks of the unemployed and the marginally employed - fast-food restaurant manager, apartment-building floor buffer, auto-body-shop mechanic, youth-detention-center supervisor. Most of those in the training class hoped to receive permanent assignments close to their homes, but they knew there would be no guarantees. Conover hoped for the most famous, fearsome prison of all - Sing Sing, in Ossining, N.Y. He got it. Obviously, Conover lived to tell his story. But it's a harrowing journey.

Most guards, no matter how macho on the outside, fear for their safety daily. New York State prison guards do not carry guns inside the walls, and often are alone with dozens or even hundreds of criminals, many of them violent. A guard has to survive with a baton, a radio, handcuffs, plus common sense and psychological acuity. Because most guards do not come from the educated elite, they must depend on common sense and their wits to do their job.

Given the low pay and lousy working conditions, it would make sense that guards pull together. But Conover found that often they do not. The authoritarian atmosphere (similar to police departments and military units) frequently produces resentments and one-upmanship among co-workers.

Prisons rarely rehabilitate inmates (surprise!), but Conover discovers a substantial number of inmates who are decent human beings in a trying atmosphere. The relationships, positive and negative, that he develops with specific inmates help drive the book's narrative. Previous literature on prison guards is sparse. "Newjack" - a term for a rookie officer - might set the standard for years to come.

*Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo., and serves on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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