NEWJACK: GUARDING SING SING

 

The two most famous prisons in the world are Sing Sing, which sits on the Hudson River in New York, and Alcatraz, which sits on the rock in San Francisco Bay.  Ted Conover wanted to know more about what guards or correctional officers do.  As a reporter he asked if he could sit in on some of their training.  They said no.  So he applied for and was accepted as a trainee and became a guard at Sing Sing prison for a year.  The book, Newjack (Random House: N.Y., 2000), is the story of those years when everyone thought he was just another Newjack (slang for new guard).  Conover wanted to go inside because most of the books and movies done about prison life are from viewpoint of the prisoner.  This is a huge enterprise about which little is known.

 

The State of New York has 26,000 correctional officers and a budget of $1.6 billion.  It has 71 prisons spread across the state with the most famous being Sing Sing and Attica.  Fifty of the state's prisons were built in the last 25 years and during those 25 years "the number of inmates has increased nearly sixfold, from 12,500 to over 70,000, due mostly to mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses.  The majority of these inmates are young men of color from New York City" (p. 25).  This holds true nation wide.  At 1998 the nation had 239,229 guards---in 1982 we only had 60,026.  Obviously, this is a growth industry! Those who apply for the job feel lucky if they are among those who pass the tests high enough for the seven week training session before assignment to a prison.  However, 50% of them would no longer be on the job within a year….it is a tough job!

 

Sing Sing was built in 1826 using convict labor.   In those days two men shared a three-and-a-half-by-seven-foot cell.  It was common for prisoners to have TB.  The prison had no central heating or plumbing and open sewers flowed inside the prison with little light.  Today conditions have improved at Sing Sing, but it is still an oft times horrific place to spend time, both for the guards and the prisoners.  Prison guards have "…the highest rates of divorce, heart disease, and drug and alcohol addiction---and the shortest life spans---of any state civil servants, due to the stress in their lives.  They feared not only injury by inmates but the possibility of contracting AIDS and tuberculosis on the job" (p. 20).  "Officer after officer will tell you: There's no way in hell you'd want your kid to be a CO" (p. 21).

 

Before the death penalty was banned, 614 inmates sat and ended their lives in Sing Sing's electric chair.

 

One of the cell blocks at Sing Sing is probably the largest free-standing cellblock in the world as it is 588 feet  long….almost twice the length of a football field!…and houses 684 prisoners.  Life on a cellblock like this is very noisy, at times deafening, because the sounds bounce off of the concrete and steel.  When conditions deteriorate to the point where it becomes intolerable, then human explosions occur.  The greatest casualty toll of any altercation between Americans since the Civil War occurred at Attica when seven guards and thirty-six inmates were killed.

 

The problems with our prisons have been known ever since we created them.  "The safety of the keepers is constantly menaced.  In the presence of such dangers, avoided with such skill but with difficulty, it seems to us impossible not to fear some sort of catastrophe in the future." Alexis de Tocueville and Gustave de Beaumont in 1833, writing about Sing Sing in their book "On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application to France."

 

The problems of prison life are exacerbated by the attitudes of the guards.  Either knowingly or unknowingly, guards often make their jobs more difficult by behaving toward prisoners in ways that dehumanize them.  Not all guards do so.  Conover mentions one guard by the name of Smith who "melded toughness with an attitude of respect for his inmates.  In turn, he was respected back…At the Academy, this principle had never been mentioned" (p. 92).  Weapons, drugs, and alcohol "could all be found fairly readily inside prison.  Some of the drugs probably slipped in through the Visit Room, but most, it seemed, were helped into prison by officers who were paid off" (p. 104).  "While everyone knows that prison can warp or distort the personalities of prisoners, few stop to consider how it can do the same to those who work inside" (p., 107).

 

THE MENTALLY ILL

 

Prison systems usually have within them hospital wards for the mentally ill prisoners who cannot be effectively managed on a regular cellblock or gallery of cells.  However, the prisons often have more prisoners needing this level of care than they have hospital beds for them.  Such was true in Sing Sing and throughout the New York prison system where a crazy person was called a "bug" by both the inmates and the guards.

 

"You didn't have to work the galleries long to realize that a large proportion of inmates were mentally ill.  The symptoms ranged from the fairly mild---talking to oneself, neglecting to bathe---to the severe: mean who didn't know where they were, men who set fire to their own cells, men so depressed they slashed their wrists or tried to hang themselves.  Prison, said the department's assistant director of mental health services at the Academy, was 'a hard place to be crazy.'  He told us that the 'last good study,' now more than ten years old, had indicated that of the state's 70,000 inmates, 5 percent, or 3,500, were 'seriously and persistently' mentally ill---people who would be in a psychiatric hospital if they weren't in prison.  But corrections had beds for only 1,000 of them.  Another 10 percent, or 7,000, were under the supervision of a psychiatrist, 'taking some drugs.'  Stress, he said, worsened almost any condition, and prison---obviously---is stressful.  'Many people break down for the first time in prison,' the official said.  In other words, prison not only made crazy people worse; it drove people crazy" (p. 138).

 

"The progress of mankind from physical force to the substitution of moral power in the art and science of government in general, is but very slow, but in none of its branches has this progress, which alone affords the standard by which we can judge of the civil development of a society, been more retarded than in the organization and discipline of prisons…"  Francis Lieber, translator's introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont's book "On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application to France"

 

"From England and Europe, the United States had inherited a system of mainly corporal punishment for crimes.  As James S. Kunen has written, 'Before independence, Americans generally flogged, branded, or mutilated those felon they did not hang.  Except for debtors and such minor miscreants as vagrants and drunkards, people were held behind bars only to await trail or punishment, and not as punishment.'  In England as late as 1780, there were still over two hundred capital offenses---among others, 'stealing anything worth five shillings, felling a tree in someone's private forest, robbing a rabbit warren, living for a month with gypsies, or picking pockets.'  Hanging was commonplace.

 

"But generally during this era, throughout the Western world, the nature of criminal punishment was undergoing profound change.  The period between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, wrote Michel Foucault, saw 'the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle" and the gradual phasing out of corporal punishments.  Less and less did society target the criminal's body; rather, what we wanted to punish was his mind.

 

"The leaders of the American movement to rethink the prison were the Quakers in Pennsylvania.  As early as 1682, William Penn's colonial government experimented with incarceration as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment.  The Quakers' goals were prevention of further harm to society, deterrence, and, by the early nineteenth century, encouragement of prisoners to engage in 'penitent reflection,' which could result in their personal reformation.  This was the beginning of an American innovation, the penitentiary" (pp.172-3).

 

"Alexis de Tocqueville is famous for his seminal book DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, but what is less well known is his original purpose in coming to the United States.  The young aristocrat and his friend Gustave de Beaumont had been dispatched by their government in 1831 with the specific mission of examining America's rumored-to-be-innovative prison.  After their arrival in New York City…Sing Sing was their first stop" (pp. 174-5).