May 14, 2000

Life as a Jailer

Each day thousands of inmates in Sing Sing prison passed Ted Conover and none ever appeared to see him as anything but a normal correction officer as he escorted prisoners, locked gates and issued orders. Except one, an inmate nicknamed Powerful. As Conover stopped by his cell one day and engaged in a brief conversation about a book of antiquated anthropology that Powerful was reading, the inmate looked at the correction officer inquisitively. “What’s your story, Conover?” he asked. “You’re not like the other C.O.’s here.”

And in fact he was not. From March 1997 to January 1998, Conover, an author and journalist, trained to become a correction officer, then took a job guarding one of the most famous maximum-security state prisons in America in order to write a book.

* * *

In each of his four books, Conover has immersed himself in another world to write the story of his experiences and the people he observes. For his first book, “Rolling Nowhere,” he lived on trains with hobos. For his second, “Coyote,” he traveled with Mexican migrant workers. For “Whiteout,” his third, he worked as a cabdriver and lived in a mansion to chronicle life in Aspen, Colo.

But while he lived with the hobos, he was never truly a hobo. Although he traveled and worked with Mexican migrants, he was still an Anglo. His latest book, “Newjack,” is different. Conover actually became a prison guard — more fully, perhaps, than he had intended.

“It got complicated with ‘Newjack,”‘he says. “You can’t do that job and not feel like a guard. You can’t do the job and not be willing to jump in if your friend’s in trouble. Or pray he is there if you get in trouble.”

Conover says he even came to relish opportunities to use brute strength against inmates after he observed them disobeying orders and attacking officers.

“Prison is full of frustration, and very little catharsis,” Conover says. “The use of force is one of the few catharses there is, and the more I did the job, the more I longed for a use of force.”

Conover’s mission in “Newjack” is to get inside the experience of correction officers, a misunderstood and little-appreciated group, and through that story to try to understand prison itself. He says he wants to show there are good guards and bad ones, not to excuse abuse but explain it in the context of a brutal system. And the image of prison guards that emerges from “Newjack” is not of unthinking thugs.

“There is no part of a correction officer’s job that has to do with correction,” Conover says. “I think down deep most officers wish there was something else for them to do but break heads.” Throughout his time at Sing Sing, he was torn between his duties as a guard and as a person. In the book he describes following an inmate struggling to carry laundry bags. Officers are not supposed to help inmates, and he does not. But then a civilian passes and berates him. Stung with guilt he lends a hand, only to be ridiculed by passing guards seconds later.

“What do you do?” he asks. “I tried to have it both ways, I tried to help a little. And so you do neither one well. You are neither a good person nor a good guard.”

Most journalists hew to a clear line between observing a story and participating in it. In most situations reporters take care to identify who they are and what they intend to do. But not only did Conover become a guard, he never let on to his superiors, his fellow officers or the inmates that he was observing them and intended to write about them.

Conover says that some stories can’t be gathered by traditional journalistic methods alone. There are some things about prison that correction officers will never discuss, and that the state would not let an outsider observe. And so the only way he could report the story was to live the life.

In 1994 he applied for admission to the Department of Correctional Services. In early 1997 he was admitted, and two weeks later he reported for training. Once on the job Conover would rise and drive to Sing Sing from his Bronx home to start his shift at 6:45 a.m. All guards were required to carry notebooks, and Conover used his to jot down quick observations during the day. Eight hours after he started he returned home, sat in front of his computer and wrote notes about his day for 90 minutes. Then he would go downstairs and play with his kids. But it was rarely possible to leave the prison at the gate. Even now, two years after he left Sing Sing, he still dreams about it at least twice a week.

“This is the first project where I have been able to sleep in my own bed,” he says. “But the only one that has been so demanding. I have never before on a daily basis, for months at a time, got up and thought, ‘Am I going to get hurt today?”‘And he kept the experience secret from all but a few of his friends, an isolation that he found “profoundly unsettling.”

There is no question the job transformed him, at least while he worked at Sing Sing. At the beginning of the book, he recounts the huge number of divorces and marital problems suffered by correction officers. Although he thought he could keep those stresses at bay, he said that during the time he worked at the prison he also grew distant from his wife, silent and surly. In trying to isolate her from the horrors of his job, he isolated himself from his family.

“It doesn’t go away after a shower,” Conover says. “You dream about it. You act differently around your family and friends because of it. You come home having done things that don’t come from the better part of you and you feel dirty. It’s that kind of job; it’s a stigmatized job. It’s something so shameful it takes place out of sight and you internalize that.”