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By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Monday, July 17, 2000
An inside story

Journalist barred from a jail article finds a way to get it -- as a guard

What author Ted Conover endured to get the inside story about working as a state correction officer in notorious Sing Sing -- boot-camp-type hazing at the training academy, inmates tossing feces and assaulting him, nightmare-inducing fear and a paltry salary -- was only the beginning.

"Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing'' (Random House, $24.95), Conover's grim account of nine months working as a rookie CO (he remained a stealth journalist during his state employment) is stirring controversy in criminal-justice circles.

The book, published in early May, is barred from inmates at state prisons pending a media review by a committee of Sing Sing staff.

Although Conover's book has been selling briskly at local bookstores and is in its fourth printing with more than 40,000 copies in print, state Department of Correctional Services spokesman Jim Flateau said he has not read "Newjack'' and neither has DOCS Commissioner Glenn Goord.

"Who cares?'' Flateau said. "Why would I be interested in the view of a newjack?'' (The book's title is prison slang for a rookie CO.)

Opposition and praise

"My book is banned de facto and I think that's a totally indefensible position on the part of DOCS,'' Conover, 42, said in a recent phone interview from his home in the Bronx, where he lives with his wife, Margot, a magazine editor, and their two preschool-aged children.

Reaction from other insiders has been less adversarial.

"He's pretty much on the money in his portrayal,'' said Denny Fitzpatrick, spokesman for New York State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association, a union representing approximately 24,000 state prison guards.

"We were just talking about the book this morning,'' Fitzpatrick said recently, adding that he didn't have a problem with letting prisoners read it. "It took a lot of gumption just to get the story. My hat's off to him.''

"It's a good read and an important book,'' said Bob Gangi, executive director of the state Correctional Association, a prison watchdog and reform group. "It puts you in the shoes of a CO and helps you understand their fears and gives a very human sense of who they are and how they approach inmates. Ultimately, it's a very sympathetic portrait.''

Gangi tried to bring a copy of "Newjack'' inside Sing Sing on a recent visit, but was denied. Gangi argued in favor of allowing inmates to read Conover's expose. "It's not a subversive document,'' he said.

Gangi said COs in Sing Sing told him "the book was the best thing that ever happened to us'' in terms of raising public awareness and respect for a job that a veteran CO described for Conover as "a life sentence in eight-hour shifts.''

Conover's enterprising journalism and resolve to risk moment-to-moment mortal dangers in one of the most disturbing labors in state government has been hailed by critics.

The Washington Post said: "The stories are spellbinding and the telling is clear and cold.'' The New York Times Book Review praised the book as "compelling and inescapable ... it proves his point, that everyone is dehumanized within the world of our prisons ... a world better at creating animals than at civilizing criminals.''

Meanwhile, Conover and DOCS officials, who are portrayed in the book as remote, disconnected Albany bureaucrats, continue to engage in a battle of wills.

Conover considered the fact that DOCS officials would not cooperate with The New Yorker's fact-checkers prior to the magazine's April 3 excerpt of "Newjack'' typical of the obstructionist behavior the writer said he encountered with the department.

"That's not our role to sit around and recheck his work,'' Flateau said. "He wrote his book. He's responsible for its content.''

Conover said he tried to no avail as a free-lance magazine journalist on three occasions to get permission from Flateau's office during 1994-95 to shadow a CO recruit through the DOCS training academy in Albany for a profile in The New Yorker.

"I was here, basically, because the department had told me I couldn't be,'' Conover writes in the second chapter of his book. "The academy, they said, was off-limits to journalists -- no exceptions, end of conversation.''

Conover is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of four books, an anthropologist by training who specializes in immersion journalism. He has spent long periods inhabiting the lives of his subjects, which range from long-distance truck drivers in Africa to Mexican illegal aliens to railroad hoboes. He relished the challenge of piercing the DOCS fortress.

Conover sidestepped DOCS' media gatekeepers in 1995 by taking a civil service exam. On the application, he used his real name and listed his occupation as free-lance writer and researcher. He passed the test and was summoned to Albany in December '96 for medical and psychological tests. He was interviewed by a DOCS psychologist in Albany in '97 and a few months later received notice that he was to report to the DOCS training academy on New Scotland Avenue in two weeks -- March 2, 1997.

Flateau said he did not have any recollection or paper record of Conover's journalistic requests.

Conover said he considers the DOCS response an attempt to wipe the egg off their administrative faces. "I think they're embarrassed that they let me in,'' he said.

"Like all officers, I kept a small spiral notebook in my breast pocket for note-taking; unlike most of them, I took many notes,'' Conover writes in his book's foreword. "Most of the individuals in the book are identified by their real names. But to protect the privacy of certain officers and inmates, I have made up the following names for real people.''

Conover admitted he may have been rubbing it in -- after surviving 11 months of the grueling training and dangerous work undetected (only Conover's wife, his literary agent and a few family members knew of the covert project) -- by sending Goord a signed copy of "Newjack.''

The commissioner's office acknowledged receipt of the book with a form letter.

Dangerous reading: Despite the cold shoulder from DOCS officials, Conover is proud that he passed muster with his toughest critics, fellow COs into whose secretive subculture he takes readers without pulling punches.

Last month, at a reading and signing of "Newjack'' in the Ossining Public Library, Conover was initially unsettled when he discovered the first two rows of the standing-room-only audience (taped for a segment on C-SPAN2's "Book TV'') occupied by COs in gray work uniforms.

Two Ossining police officers were stationed outside the library. Conover was told an anonymous caller from Sing Sing said there was going to be trouble at the author's appearance.

"There were some angry questions afterward and my wife said she didn't like the way it was going,'' Conover recalled. She urged him not to stick around to sign books. Conover stayed.

Conover sat at a table, head down, signing dozens of books. He heard a voice from a man at the head of the line: "Sign it to Perlstein.''

Conover looked up. "There was the CO. I called Perlstein, whom I described as a shaved head monster. He was holding his 3-year-old daughter and clearly hadn't come to cause trouble.''

Conover inscribed a copy of "Newjack'' to Perlstein and asked his former Sing Sing co-worker if he liked the book.

"Oh, sorta,'' the guard shrugged.

Afterward, Conover was surrounded by gray uniforms. Several COs posed for snapshots with the author. Conover also has received approximately 100 e-mails from COs on his Web site (www.tedconover.com) and the response has been mostly positive. "I'm grateful, because it's all in there about COs, warts and all,'' he said, adding there have been no threats of payback.

Conover has not returned to the prison since the day he quit his $23,500-a-year job, shortly after New Year's Day 1998. As a newjack, he'd had to work New Year's Eve and he describes, in his book's chilling conclusion, an apocalyptic scene in which inmates set fires in their cells and tossed burning debris into the gallery in primal protest.

"Maybe he hated us, maybe he hated that inmate, maybe he didn't know what he hated, but eventually the pile caught fire,'' Conover writes. "We felt the heat from a sudden inferno on our backs and leaped out of the cell. Dragging corners of things that weren't yet alight, we pulled the bonfire apart.''

"Guess they just needed to let off some steam,'' said Greene with a grin as we stood on R-and-W, still gazing at the little fires as the clock approached 1 a.m. 1998.''

Conover already had tendered his resignation by then. "They asked that I give them two weeks and that was it,'' Conover said. "It's like everything else about DOCS. Nobody talks about it. Everything is on a need-to-know basis.''

Conover walked out of Sing Sing for the last time in early '98 without fanfare. "Newjacks quit every day. It's just expected,'' he said. "So many people are constantly leaving Sing Sing that a lot of effort is taken not to become too close to people.''

Conover gave back his CO badge ($450 fine if it's not returned), employee I.D. (he photocopied it for the book cover), uniform, baton and gear. He saved his boots, collar brass, name tag and DOCS baseball cap. The psychic baggage is less easily shed.

Transformation: Conover probes the internal transformation in the book, his seething anger at being punched in the head while walking by an inmate's cell and how he later retaliated for the cumulative abuse by enjoying participating in the brutal surge of COs in special riot armor during a "cell extraction'' of an inmate in solitary confinement -- the Box.

"It's a hard job to feel good about, morally speaking,'' Conover said. "The job is tough as hell and most do it conscientiously and well. But they are victims of the system just as inmates are.''

Conover is 5-8, 150 pounds and soft-spoken. He responded to questions in measured and thoughtful sentences devoid of profanity.

There were times inside Sing Sing when he loosed the monster within, though, and the change frightened his family. In his book, Conover describes nightmares and depression. He grew silent and surly, pulled inward and turned alternately sullen and snappish with his wife. He recounted losing patience with his willful daughter and son and reacted angrily to their minor mischief.

"My wife pointed out I had become someone else, kind of cold and robotic,'' said Conover, who returned from the prison each day and sat at a computer for an hour and typed his thoughts and accounts of that shift's experiences. "I needed that decompression chamber.''

Conover writes in detail about trying to straddle the moral no-man's land between inmate and guard through random acts of kindness toward prisoners -- an extra waffle, a discussion of poetry, a pack of cigarettes, sharing the load of an unwieldly laundry bag -- all of which would earn the wrath of fellow COs if witnessed.

At the training academy, Conover described how sergeants drill into COs' heads never to assist inmates with chores, never to share personal information and to interact as little as possible. Like his own occasional transgressions, though, Conover knew of other COs who allowed their humanity to shine through with inmates they guarded.

Juxtapose such moments of near-normal relations between prisoners and COs, however, with inmates Conover writes about, such as the man nicknamed "Mr. Slurpee.'' Guards gave this prisoner a wide berth because he "would project a spray of urine and feces at officers -- from his mouth.

"Prison work will break your heart every day if you let it,'' Conover said.

Even now, 18 months after he quit, Conover said he continues to suffer nightmares and exhibits symptoms he thinks might be a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"I felt like I'd been an exchange student for the year in some faraway, backward country where they speak their own language,'' Conover said. "I actually missed it at first and that took me by surprise. It was like I'd adopted their customs and had become one of them.''

 

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