Newjack: job come nightmares and family stress, daily

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing Unable to get official permission to interview and write about correctional officers, Ted Conover, author of the book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, “got in" by applying for a correctional officer position. After training, he and his fellow rookies, known as "newjacks," were randomly assigned to Sing Sing, one of the country's most famous — and infamous — prisons.

Sing Sing, a maximum-security male prison, was built in 1828 by prisoners themselves, kept at their task by frequent use of the whip. Today, the chaos, the backbiting, the rundown building and equipment, the disrespect and the relentless stress that Conover experienced in his year at Sing Sing show, quite well, how the increase of prisons in the U.S. brutalizes more than just the prisoners. Some of the individuals in Conover's entering "class" of corrections trainees had always wanted to work in law enforcement. Others were ex-military, looking for a civilian job that they thought would reward structure and discipline. But most came looking for a steady job with good benefits.

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To get it, they were desperate enough to commute hours each way, or even to live apart from their families during the work week.Their job consists of long days locking and unlocking cells, moving prisoners to and from various locations while the prisoners beg, hassle and abuse them. Sometimes, the prisoners' requests are simple, but against the rules: an extra shower, some contraband cigarettes. Other times, they are appropriate, but unbelievably complicated: it can take months to get information about property lost in the transfer from one prison to another. Meanwhile, the orders officers give are ignored. Discipline — even among the officers themselves — is non-existent.

And with the money and benefits of this "good" job come nightmares and family stress, daily uncertainty about one's job and duties, and pent-up frustration that, every so often, explodes in violence — instigated by staff as well as by prisoners.The picture this book paints would no doubt bother corrections professionals in prisons where prisoner-staff relationships and officer solidarity are more developed. In training, Conover is told that "the most important thing you can learn here is to communicate with inmates." And the Sing Sing staff who enjoy the most success and fulfillment in their jobs are those who communicate: who make clear what privileges they will bestow and what orders the prisoners must follow, and who will respect the prisoners' ability to behave accordingly. But the few officers who manage to build this cooperation with inmates are swamped by those who distribute favors and punishments inconsistently and who isolate themselves, as much as possible, from the prisoners.

Experienced corrections professionals would have no trouble seeing this as a huge mistake.Conover sees correctional workers as multidimensional characters, neither good nor bad, but as people struggling as we all do to behave well in difficult circumstances. He feels that most officers’ success is more a matter of controlling the challenges of empathy and anger, than over coming the hostility that comes along with the job.

I feel Conover did a good job at exploring the tensions that correctional officers face on a daily basis Conover describes a gap between the training and the reality of the job, official policies and procedures that require routine circumvention, poor relations between line officers and administrators, and the influence of stress on professional conduct and personal life. Conover covers all of this, describing the overwhelming confusion of a new officer’s first days in a crowded housing unit, illustrating the “newjack’s” dependence on the goodwill of inmates, depicting the apparent hostility and indifference of senior colleagues, and demonstrating the predictability of making serious and even life-threatening mistakes in the chaotic world of the prison. Conover gets beyond the stereotype of the brutal guard to see correctional officers as individuals, offering us a chance to understand how the prison experience shapes their professional lives and actually influences their personal relationships.Similarly, solidarity among officers — essential when staff are drastically outnumbered by inmates — is nearly non-existent.

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