January 10, 2010

Sing Sing Book Club

Escape Into Reading Takes A Literal Turn

From USA Today, February 12, 2004, By Bob Minzesheimer


Call it the Sing Sing Book Club.

Newjack, Ted Conover’s tale of like as a rookie prison guard, was required reading for a group of prisoners planning to escape Sing Sing.

Last week, New York police arrested seven people, including two inmates and a guard, at Sing Sing state prison and accused them of planning an elaborate escape. What makes this a literary story is that prosecutors say the plot involved assigned reading: Newjack, Ted Conover’s acclaimed book about life as a correctional officer at Sing Sing.

In 29 years as a prosecutor, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro says, “I don’t remember any other defendants who read books, much less had required reading.”

She assumes that the suspects, whose plot involved impersonating prison guards, wanted to “know as much about the institution as they could.”

Newjack (prison slang for a rookie guard) was published in 2000 and won the National Book Critics Circle award.

Conover, a journalist who has written three previous books, worked at Sing Sing for eight months without saying he was writing a book. He says officials never asked about his background. His account is mostly sympathetic to guards but raises moral questions about the way prisons are run and guards are trained.

He says he “spent hours trying to figure out how I would escape if I were wearing the green uniform, instead of the gray – maybe because occasionally I felt trapped in Sing Sing myself. I think I came up with a pretty good plan.

“But I didn’t put it in the book.”

At first, Newjack was declared “contraband” at Sing Sing. After a two-month review, officials said inmates could buy it – it’s not in the prison library – but citing security, censored six pages by ripping them out.

Conover says, “No officer has ever complained to me that the book poses a security risk, and I’ve corresponded with scores of them.” (For reactions to the book from guards, inmates and their families, visit the author’s Web site, www.tedconover.com.)

A spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services said no officials at Sing Sing were available to discuss the book. Conover says he “always welcomes new readers.”