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Finding A Balance Between Being A Human Being And A Prison Guard At Sing Sing

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Finding Balance Between Being a Human Being and a Prison Guard at Sing Sing

At the core of Ted Conover's book, Newjack:Guarding Sing Sing is the notion that the prison guard must find a way to balance between aggressive authority and the world of rules put forth by the prison and the prisoners themselves. Through exploring the text and other class readings, I will discuss how Conover had to balance his duty as a corrections officer with that of being "human" or humane.

In his book, Ted Conover is a journalist who spent nine months undercover as a correctional officer at Sing Sing prison in New York State. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing tells the story of Conover's introduction to correctional work. He wanted to write a story on the inner workings of the prison but was not allowed into the prison to do his research. He decided to go to the Albany Training Academy and become a Corrections Officer and find out first hand what Sing Sing was all about. He says "I wanted to hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of guards--those on the front lines of our prison policies, the society's proxies."

After training as a corrections officer, he was assigned to Sing Sing in Ossining, where new recruits often spent their first few months on the job. He becomes partly prisonized; a process through which an individual takes on the values and mores of the penitentiary. He assimilates himself into the way things work in the prison according to the law of the land and the unofficial laws of the prison.

He spent most of his time up close and personal with inmates during his year at Sing Sing. According to John Riley in his observation of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, he says "as a newjack, he (Conover) was responsible for the care and custody of scared young first-timers, drug addicts, gang members, violent predators, physically debilitated inmates suffering from diseases like AIDS and TB, and an assortment of "bugs"-- prison slang for the mentally ill." They live in an enforced state of near helplessness and responding to inmates who required assistance with an apparently endless array of personal problems filled much of Conover's time. (Newjack: Beyond the Stereotype of the Brutal Guard) "A consequence of putting men in cells and controlling their movements is that they can do almost nothing for themselves. For their various needs they are dependent on one person, their gallery officer. Instead of feeling like a big, tough guard, the gallery officer at the end of the day often feels like a waiter serving a hundred tables or like the mother of a nightmarishly large brood of sullen, dangerous, and demanding children. When grown men are infantilized, most don't take to it too nicely." says Conover. He tried to balance the rules with his own sense of what was acceptable; bending some rules here and there and avoiding most prisoner's complaints in return,which is a big issue since the dawning of Prisoner's rights.

He also found himself going from feeling sympathy towards the inmates to feeling overwhelmed by them and even scared and unsympathetic. Conover heard a story about an inmate who was beaten by correctional officers after striking an officer in the head with a broom handle. Conover says " A month earlier I would have reacted negatively to a story like that. But now, seeing how outnumbered officers were and feeling more like prey than predator, I found in the tale a grain of comfort." The violence and negativity all seem to warrant the aggression and brutality that we seem to expect in our prison guards.

Donald Clemmer identifies the role of the prison guard as an isolated figure deep in enemy territory, essentially working to undermine the culture developed naturally by its inhabitants. The Conover text is this idea of the prison guard as one who must learn to occupy an acceptable place within the context of this culture. According to Victor Hassine, "Over time, guards have learned that it doesn't always pay to be too rigid about prison regulations. An unwritten agreement has been established between inmates and guards: inmates get what they want by being friendly and non-aggressive, while guards ensure their own safety by not strictly enforcing the rules." Conover suggests that "unlike in the outside world, power and authority were at stake in nearly every transaction."

Correctional officers were not just there to "guard" the inmates and enforce regulations. He discovered that instinct and past experiences were the best guides in situations that he would encounter and that the line between right and wrong actions was often very clouded. Conover stated that inmates told him on more than one occasion, "You're going to learn, CO, that some things they taught you in the Academy can get you killed."

Conover had to figure his way around the many rules of the prison and one of them was concerning contraband. Guards have learned that it doesn't always pay to be too rigid about prison regulations. (Victor Hissine) He said, "The single most interesting word, when it came to the bending and ignoring of rules, was contraband." At Christmas time, he smuggled cigarettes into the prison cells of some of his prisoners. The lines between guard and con become very blurred. An example of this condition is relating to drugs,



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