July 18, 2001

Wasted Lives: An Interview with Ted Conover

Blue Dog Press, Buffalo, New York, July 18, 2001

Wasted Lives: An Interview with Ted ConoverWhen participatory journalist Ted Conover was denied access into New York State prisons to chronicle the lives of corrections officers, he found a way around it. He became one.

Conover went to prison guard boot camp and spent ten months inside of Sing Sing, one of the world’s most notorious prisons, in an attempt to tell stories shrouded by the “Gray Wall”—the law enforcement code of silence.

The controversial account of his journey, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, was published last year and quickly became an essential volume in the canon of books on life inside prison walls.

According to local activist and poet Chuck Culhane, who was once an inmate at Sing Sing, “Conover is a truth-teller and a poet, as is clear by the depth and breadth of his empathy. I met guards like him inside; some burned out in six months, some became conservatives after getting mugged by reality once or twice, some rose to the quotidian task and tried to be human among humans, human among stone.”

“To be in a prison is to witness the wasted lives and the young energy that is going nowhere,” Conover said. After a Pulitzer nomination and a National Book Critics Circle Award, Newjack is hitting bookstores in paperback (Vintage), bringing the discussion back into the public’s consciousness. Conover will appear at Talking Leaves’ new 951 Elmwood location this Friday, July 20, at 7:00 p.m. He spoke with Blue Dog Press last week.

How has the prison culture and economy affected Ossining, where Sing Sing is located?

Ossining isn’t typical; it’s not like 99 percent of the other prison towns in New York, because the prison has been there since 1825. There was a tiny village, so from the very beginning, the prison dominated town life. It’s a smaller factor now, mainly because correction officers can’t afford to live in town. I don’t know how much the prison adds to the local economy, but they all complain that it doesn’t pay taxes on this prime real estate it occupies. I know that most small in towns in New York State do want to have prisons, for the economic development reasons. I just saw a really good documentary film, called “Yes, In My Back Yard,” which is about how these small towns have been vying to get places that are, in a sense, toxic waste dumps, placed in their own towns. There’s clearly desperation behind that desire. You don’t want that if you can get anything else.

There are quite a few questions that could come out of that idea. Is it simply a quick fix for the town? Will the criminal justice system continue to provide prisoners for these prisons? I think one advantage towns see in prison construction is that “this is a job that is not going to leave.” It’s not like some rust belt industry in the process of shutting down. Prisons have been—for the last 27 or 28 years in the United States—a major growth industry. The Department of Correctional Services is New York State’s second largest employer. It’s huge—it’s massive. It seems unlikely that prison employment will go down anytime soon. That said, last year was the first year in 26 years where the inmate population did not increase. The huge boom in numbers of prisoners, caused mainly by the sentencing provisions of the Rockefeller drug laws, is slowing. We can hope it continues to slow. This is bad for a lot of newjacks, because it means there’s not the same kind of chance to get back home that there was before. My friends who want to go back to Attica or Wende are going to have to wait a long time, because the department is hiring fewer people. But even if we’re successful in slowing the rise of the inmate population, I think prisons are here for the foreseeable future.

Is there a particular personality type that goes into the prison guard line of work, or is the personality shaped by the job?

That’s exactly the question that I wanted to answer, when I first thought of profiling a recruit as he or she went through the academy. I thought, what better place to answer that essential question, ‘who are these people?’ I think the answer is mainly the latter, that the job changes people and, usually, for the worse. Most correction officers would agree with that. It’s a soul-shrinking job. It’s a job that can easily get the better of you and you have to be a strong person to do the work and stay whole. I very much believe that. That said, most people in corrections are good people. Most of the people I worked with are basically like me. They want to go to work, do their eight hours and come home in one piece. And you don’t do that by doing the things that stereotyped guards do, which is pick fights with inmates all day. Some officers, yes, seem a bit too fond of telling people what to do all day. But frankly, most people in the academy aren’t like that. They come because it’s the best job they can get living in Small Town, New York, with a high school education.

Sing Sing is an older prison. From what you know of the newer prisons being constructed, will the conditions improve for the inmates or the guards?

No, I’m not optimistic about that at all, because the latest prison built by the state is a supermax high security facility [Five Points Correctional Facility in the town of Romulus]. The latest trend in corrections is construction of supermax prisons. It’s due to the progressive decay of discipline in prisons. Almost every state prison in New York has a Special Housing Unit [SHU], which is the box, the hole, solitary confinement. And almost every prison’s SHU is full. So when inmates have broken rules, there’s no place to put them. They just stay where they were. So the latest trend is entire prisons that are solitary confinement and it’s a very disheartening development. As one of my instructors at the academy said, “You keep ’em in a small room, 23 hours a day, you pass him his meal, he exercises by himself — that, to me is the recipe for a junkyard dog.” And I believe that. I think it’s hard on an officer to work in a place like that, because you’re not doing anybody any good. You’re a warehouser. And nobody is coming out of those places better then they came in, I’ll tell you that.

One quote from your book read, “It’s a zoo and you’re the zookeeper.”

That refers less to a supermax, which is a highly regimented environment, than to a kind of crazy place like Sing Sing, where there is a high chaos factor and you really do feel like a zookeeper. As negative as that sounds to say and as much as the me who went in to the job was disappointed to hear that come out of my trainers mouth, it’s really true. That’s what the environment is like — it’s crazy.

Hard-liners on crime believe prisons are a place where people should be left to rot. The other side of the coin is rehabilitation. What efforts are being made, if any, at Sing Sing or other New York prisons, to rehabilitate inmates?

There’s a nominal effort. In many prisons, there are programs for alcohol and drug abuse and, occasionally, for anger management. But the most effective rehab you can offer an inmate is education and there’s practically no education going on past the high school level. That’s been shown to be the number one reducer of recidivism; post-secondary education. That’s a tool! Anyone can learn how to make a license plate, but to give someone some greater intellectual skills translates into a difference on the outside. That’s what we’re not doing and that, to me, is the big tragedy. Not everybody in prison can be rehabbed. It was an inmate who told me, “y’know, some of these guys were never ‘habbed’ in the first place!” And it’s a good point. You could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and they would not be able to live as law-abiding citizens. For that reason, I’m glad we’ve got prisons. I think if you worked in one, you’d feel the same way. There are people you’d meet and think, “thank God he’s here!” On the other hand, it is so tragic to see the number of young people who might turn their lives around if given another chance. We’re not showing them a way out.

Another thing you touched on in the book is the large number of mentally ill inmates—

There’s a huge number. The de-institutionalization of the mentally ill that began in the 1960s seems to have come full circle with their re-institutionalization in prison, where the criminally mentally ill are now. They’re all getting worse and they are, mostly, going to get out. So this seems, to me, bad policy.

I’ve read quite a few studies on the relationship between recidivism and religion, or spirituality. What type of role does spirituality play, not only for inmates, but also for prison guards, who have to go home at the end of day and try to live normal life? Is there a spiritual component that helps them cope?

There’s not really any provided by the state and I’m not sure there really should be. I see in prisons that Islam is making a huge difference for a lot of inmates. That certainly seems the most transformative spiritual experience that inmates are having these days; encountering Islam. I don’t see a parallel involvement on the part of officers. Frankly, I don’t really know enough to tell you how many go to church, but it’s a job that takes a spiritual toll.

Newjack suggests that society— through activism or journalism— may be able to change the conditions within prisons. There is an activist movement, comprised mainly of students, that has of late brought attention to the corporatization of the prison system in the U.S. There is also stronger opposition to the Death Penalty than ever before. Did you get any sense that the inmates knew of, or appreciated, the political climate outside of the prison?

They definitely know what’s going on because they get TV, radio, and some newspapers. Attica occurred at one of the peaks of the student protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and inmates are a part of that. They are affected by political movements outside, though I haven’t heard of any inmate demonstrations against the death penalty, for example. But I’m certain that inmates are generally aware of this increased activism.

Did writing Newjack reshape your fundamental beliefs on crime and punishment issues like the death penalty, minimum sentencing, and prison funding? Did it change your core moral and political beliefs?

The whole thing affected me deeply. In a certain way, it made me more realistic about inmates. A number of them, as I said, really are damaged people, for whom I see little hope. On the other hand, I witnessed the tragedy of the hundreds of mainly young, black men who we’re locking up at huge expense for what seems to me to be questionable reasons; drugs are bad, but is ten to 15 for a first drug offense reasonable? No, it’s insane and completely disproportionate to the crime. As a country, we have an odd fixation on incarceration. I taught a class at Harvard last fall and I got to bring in prison experts from around the world; every other country looks to alternatives to incarceration far more than we do. We’re incarcerating one out of every 140 people now and one out of three black men between the ages 18- and 30-years old. This is misguided and tragic. To be in a prison is to witness the wasted lives and the young energy that is going nowhere. I think prison made me more cynical and realistic on one hand ‹ there’s a good reason we have prisons. But being able to step back and take a bigger look just makes me see how we’ve gone overboard with this. We over-use prison in this country and I think it has some frightening implications for the future.

Do you think your book will have any effect on that?

It definitely has entered the public debate. I get asked to do a lot of shows. I’m doing Court TV this afternoon. I get asked for my opinion a lot, so I guess that’s a good sign. The book is being taught in colleges and I think as an author, writing about a public issue, the most you can hope to do is influence the debate in positive way. So, yeah, I hope the book is doing that. But books are funny things; you never know whom they are going to reach.

I looked at Newjack as an activist book. Did you intend it as a vehicle for reform of the prison system?

I really didn’t. I had a vague sense that something was awry with prisons; the rapid growth of our prison establishment signaled that something was wrong. But I had no strong opinion about what that was and that’s how I wrote the book. I think I had such a powerful experience that it can speak for itself. I don’t like books that preach to the converted. I think if you simply tell a prison story and bring people to the subject who wouldn’t otherwise be interested, show people what a dumb place this is and the wasted opportunities, then maybe, on a very general level, people’s sense of things will change. And hopefully that will translate to specific change. I didn’t want to write an op-ed; I wanted to write an honest story of my experience.

Your writing in Newjack is precise and not muddled by pretensions; no words are wasted. Is that a result of taking portions of the book from your notebook?

I took voluminous notes; I think my notes for this book are 500 single-space, typed pages. And that’s partly the journalist’s impulse, the documentary impulse. But it’s also how I would make the transition to my normal life everyday. Sit down at the computer and unburden myself — everything I witnessed. An experience as amazing as this will tell itself. Every day, even the boring days at Sing Sing, I saw things that would astonish my friends, just because prisons have such a cult of secrecy. People like the ones I hang out with know nothing about prisons, except what they see on TV. So even the boring days there would be something Iwould have never imagined. Watching an inmate make a tattoo, or figuring out the poem on an inmate’s back, seeing how they cook things, figuring out who the officers let alone and who they let break the rules. Just the tiny ins and outs of prison life were so fascinating to me and still are. Part of me is still there. We’ve contrived this bizarre environment and it’s a fascinating, warped place. The hard part was just enduring for that long. Once it was over, I just knew everything I had would make a great book if I could simply let it tell itself and find a straightforward way to tell the story. That’s a great advantage, when you’re working on a story that’s so great by itself; it’s like you’ve got something supercharged in your notebook.

A story about Newjack by Lauren Sandler [“Guarding the Prison, Guarding the Press”, MediaChannel.org] asked several questions about the ethics of your project, specifically: “Did he cross a line in reporting a story where his cover as a guard required him to use force against many of his subjects, the prison’s inmates? Can we separate Conover, the guard, from Conover, the journalist?”

I frankly think what makes the book interesting is that you can’t [separate them] all of the time, and nor could I. By becoming an officer, I was able to experience something that a “capital J” journalist couldn’t, because journalists generally have to depend on the interview, and the interview has its limits. To get to participate is to borrow from anthropology and use another important tool to get the story. I am patently not an objective journalist when I’m wearing an officer’s uniform. I went in to do that job, as well as with a goal of writing about it later. My goal every morning was to go there and do an officer’s work. Now, does an officer’s work require him to use force? Yes, it does; that’s the very nature of our prison system. It is coercive. As officers, you are society’s last representative for people who have broken the law. Many of these people are very angry at society–you could even say at white society, in general—and at you as an officer, in particular. Was it immoral? It’s no more immoral than having a prison system. If you’re going to build a prison, someone is going to work in there and you can’t condemn him or her for using force, according to the rules.

2 responses to “Wasted Lives: An Interview with Ted Conover”

  1. Judy Cox says:

    Do you think solitary confinement should be an available alternative to being in the general prison?

    Should we have solitary confinement?

    I think, when you’re tired of being abused, if you can’t run away: you strike back. Isn’t the SHU a way for the guards to strike back, or to escape the wearing and abusive harassment of dangerous individuals?

  2. Judy Cox says:

    Is there a movement to get education into prisons?
    A system that educates guards & prisoners?

    Should there be mandatory limits on the length of time a guard serves, and could there be a system of alternative duty? Like being educated at a higher level along with the prisoners? Following a group of prisoners to a different setting that they have applied for and earned, as a guard, role model and supportive figure in self growth?