Newjack: The One That Takes the Flak

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Newjack: The One That Takes the Flak


Summary of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Ted Conover, the author, was initially turned down to review the prison as a journalist, so he had to become a correctional officer (CO) himself. Running a prison in the limelight would require CO’s to run prisons by the book. This does not happen, though, because the experienced CO’s teach the newjacks how to be a guard and they run the prison without the use of most rules from the book. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing outlines the trials and tribulations that come with the job of being a CO, and also the hardships that prisoners face on a day to day basis. He mentions that while in the training Academy, newjacks are taught to refrain from speaking to the inmates; where in the actual workforce, communicating with the prisoners is essential to keeping everyone happy and respected. In the Academy, much like boot camp, you are taught the rules of being a CO, but working in an actual prison has a focus on hierarchy. Every CO learns how to handle their work life differently, which is also not taught in the Academy. It is clear that the Academy does not do a good job of preparing CO’s for the workforce. Successful correctional officers learn to find a way to follow the rules and build relationships with the inmates at the same time. They find the fine line between what rules you should not dare to break and what rules can be broken and be looked past. As a CO, one is required to show dominance; for example, when the CO’s raid the special housing unit, the inmates are taught their lesson if they do not comply with their commands. Conover learned that discretion is used greatly in the situations that CO’s face, and also that whatever happens, you protect your fellow correctional officer. Life as a CO is a difficult one, it is shown by the fact that Conover continued to have nightmares about his job three years after he quit – a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Prison life is not only rough on the prisoners, but also on the people that hold the keys.


Ted Conover states that “no one, as far as [he] could see, improves in prison” (Conover, p. 142). After reading Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, this statement showed to be true. Rehabilitation is not a focus that the correctional officers have, which is not a good thing. Instead of being “warehousers of human beings” (Conover, p. 41), correctional officers should be trained in ways to educate their inmates in a healthy environment. However, even if rehabilitation programs are used, prison will not have effective therapy unless the prison environment is changed. In order to succeed in prison, the inmates need to be provided with sufficient resources and education. If the inmates are taught how to behave in society, they will be greatly helped when they later need to be integrated into life outside of prison. The prison system is clearly not working to deter inmates from committing crime again, and that is why prisons are overcrowded. Inmate satisfaction would increase, and violence in prison would decrease exponentially if they were provided with rehabilitation programs and better living conditions.

Recidivism rates can be reduced though the use of rehabilitative programs. Sure, it is more expensive than just housing the inmates, but it is cost effective in the end. Inmates need something more than just prison, they need to be educated; inmates are going to learn some way or another, they will look at prison as a school of crime. A prison system that offers a chance at rehabilitation values the inmates within its walls; Sing Sing could have been better improved simply by integrating therapy with inmates’ incarceration. Ted explains that “…prison is actually a world of two sides – two colors of uniforms – the [correctional officers] and the [prisoners] (Conover, pg. 18). By this, he tries to explain that the prison system has something like a hierarchy – the boss and the worker, the rich and the poor, the master and the dog. There is a hierarchy in all situations; although in prison, it is much more prevalent. Conover notes that if


correctional officers were allowed to do their job and actually ‘correct’ the inmates by teaching, counseling and discussing the problems the inmates are having that there would be a dramatic decrease in violence. If a person is in prison to serve their time, the prison system should force these people to go through a series of training programs on how to be a better person that can function in society. “Recognizing rehabilitation would lead to parity in treatment and sentences for those offenders for whom treatment and reform is possible” (Sands, 1988). Prisoners need a way to improve themselves, because the majority of them need it before they can function and live a regular life. Zamble & Porporino conducted a study to determine how prisoners cope with problems and how well or how poorly treatment needs are being fulfilled in prison. They discovered that for rehabilitation programs to be maximally effective, they should be implemented as early in the term as possible to capitalize on motivation. Best results were achieved at the end of the term (Zamble, et al. 1990). When in prison, the identity of a person is gone – they are identified as a number. The inmate may be called many nasty names, either by guards or other inmates. It is exactly the case that happened to the students in the Stanford prison experiment, where even when the ‘prisoners’ knew they were just doing a job, they began to believe that they were meaningless. The number the inmate is given replaces his/her name. When an inmate goes through these things, where their identity is ripped away from them, they are still told to be respectful and compliant with a system that does not show respect in return. Prison is supposed to help inmates become new and improved, but if there is no rehabilitation or therapy, prison will destroy them. This is one of the main reasons that more often than not, after an inmate serves their prison time the inmate commits a crime again because they are not taught how to be reintegrated into society. It is evident that rehabilitation programs need to be in prisons


to at least try to rehabilitate prisoners. However, it will be very costly to do so. An inmate named Larson comments that instead of improving prisons, the government should be improving the school system’s guidance and counseling services, also helping families financially. Conover admits that spending over 35 million dollars on imprisoning offenders can be better used to educate and deter students that could possibly have a chance of committing crime (Conover, pg. 233). Rehabilitation has shown little impact on prisoner’s behaviour in the past, but now with the right resources and techniques, recovery is attainable. In one study, several inmates with between 5 and 18 year histories of substance abuse showed signs of recovery when they went through five steps, ultimately confronted their problem and identified it as a problem that was affecting their everyday life (Smith, 2006). The majority of inmates in prisons are there due to drug offences. When going through a rehabilitation program, “the focus is on the person rather the drug” (Malinowski, 2003). Malinowski (2003) also suggests that “the net effect of treatment in the many studies surveyed represents on average a reduction in recidivism of approximately ten percentage points”. So, the concept that “nothing works” for rehabilitating inmates can be challenged with these findings.

As stated before, correctional officers should have the requirement to give rehabilitation to inmates. This way, there is a lesser chance that the same inmates are returning to prison when they are finished their sentence. The quote “Rehabilitation is not our job. The truth of it is that we are warehousers of human beings (Conover, p. 41)” greatly explains how the prison Sing Sing ran; the guards were serving their life sentences in eight-hour shifts, and the inmates were just scraping by with no opportunities to better themselves. If prison life was improved, more chances of success in and after prison would be reached. Prisoners were not allowed to have any


communication between each other whatsoever; they also ate and worked in silence, all the while being watched by correctional officers. One of Conover’s instructors states that “[he’s] just a forty-thousand dollar baby-sitter” in a warehouse of criminals (Conover, pg. 41). He is explaining to newjack Conover that prison is a place where correctional officers come to work; they open and close cells, watch inmates when they are out of their cells, like visiting their families or eating in the mess hall and escorting inmates to different parts of the prison. Conover’s duties were simple and did not change. In the situation that he was in, what his instructor said is true. This fact could have been switched around, though. If prisons are properly funded and provide training to correctional officers to give therapy or even just to talk about the inmate’s options with them, the amount of violence in the prison would decrease. Even though it says in the rule book that correctional officers are not supposed to talk to inmates, it is important to build a relationship with them to ensure that they are stable. This frustration directed at the prison system is expressed by Conover when he says “incarceration the best punishment we have been able to think up, has itself become a social problem” (Conover, 2001, p. 19). Prison overcrowding can have a huge impact on inmates’ lives. It can arise from many different factors; for example, minimum sentencing, the three-strike law, and recidivism. Prison overcrowding cannot be solved by building more prisons, because to build a prison costs a great amount of money, and in the long run, the funds will be taken away from other necessary things in the prison system such as programs to better the prisoners. Plea bargaining helps the prison overcrowding situation, as inmates get out early if they show good behaviour. According to Cid (2005), the ideal role for the prison in the system of punishment has three parts; imprisonment should be used only in those cases where a more humane punishment cannot be imposed, living


conditions in prison should be as similar as possible to those of people living in freedom and treatment programs that facilitate inmates’ early reintegration into society should be offered (Cid, 2005). If inmates have their quality of life improved, the safety of other prisoners and staff will also be increased.

By rehabilitating offenders, new inmates’ well-being in prison will be improved compared to other instances where overcrowding is an issue. There will be less inmates because the inmates that would have otherwise recidivated would instead be integrated into the public living a normal life, not causing trouble. Educating inmates could also reduce recidivism rates; when an inmate graduates with a GED, he/she feels that there are other ways to survive in the world. Inmates receive little opportunities to allow them to improve their standard of living while serving their sentence and even after they complete it. Treatment programs and educating the inmates will decrease the recidivism rates and allow the former inmates to find jobs and be productive individuals that contribute to society. Instead of hiring correctional officers solely as guards, the prison system should train them how to help the inmates work their way up through therapy so they will be prepared for when they are out of prison and in the real world.


Conover, T. (2000). Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. New York: Random House.

Sands, J. (1988). Federal sentencing reporter. New York: Vera Institute of

Justice, (12), 112.

Smith, S., & Ferguson, N. (2006). Getting clean in a drug rehabilitation program in prison.

Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 42(1), 51-74.

Malinowski, A. (2003). ‘What works' with substance users in prison? Journal of Substance use,

8(4), 223-233.

Zamble, E. and Porporino, F. (1990). Coping, imprisonment, and rehabilitation: Some data and

their implications. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 17(1), 53-70.

Cid, J. (2005). The penitentiary system in Spain. Punishment & Society, 7(2), 147-166.