By Chet Yarbrough
“Newjack” is a tepid indictment of prisons. It is about doing time, both as a prisoner and as a guard. Clanging prison doors and simmering discontent are evident in Ted Conover’s book but it is not a polemic for prison reform. However, Conover explains how prison changes guards and the guarded in the American prison system.
Conover surreptitiously becomes a Corrections Officer at a storied New York prison called Sing Sing (30 miles north of NYC). He enters a seven week boot camp and four-week “On Job Training” program to become a C.O. (Corrections Officer) for one year, including his 11 week training period.
Conover exposes many dysfunctions that are inherent in a system that isolates human beings from society, punishes them with confinement, and releases them based on time served. Corrections Officers are as likely to be changed by their roles as gate keepers as prisoners are by their incarceration.
Both C.O.’ and prisoner’ roles increase human frustration. Corrections Officers, by training and experience, become martinets that focus on control of human nature, their own and the prisoners. COs are directed to control their emotions regardless of any verbal abuse they receive. Prisoners are treated like herd animals; i.e. corralled, fed, and released at a master’s discretion.
A Correction Officer enforces rules, written and unwritten, and prisoners break rules. Both factions vie for respect. It becomes a “zero-sum” game with marginalized losers and short-lived winners. The losers are prisoners and the winners are COs.
Rules become symbols of authority and control rather than guidelines for human reform. Conover gives the example of a rule that says a Correction Officer, under no circumstance, is to assist a prisoner with his duties. When a prisoner is told to carry a bundle of laundry that is too big for him to carry, the CO is not to assist him because it violates a code of conduct that might compromise security. Offering help may engender friendship which may lead to collusion, corruption, and/or escape. Cognitive dissonance causes some COs to question their humanity; i.e. outside of prison, man is encouraged to help his fellow-man; inside prison, it is a sign of forbidden vulnerability.
Prisoners are being taught to believe that helping one’s fellow man is not a societal benefit. Prisons do not reform prisoners; i.e. prisons warehouse human beings and return most of them to society after time served. This is a sad commentary about an American prison system that incarcerate 716 human beings for every 100,000 residents, the highest per-capita incarceration in the world.