Guarding the Prison, Guarding the Press

Ted Conover swings his leg over a metal traffic barrier that guards the edge of a parking lot and crunches his way through foliage to the top of a hill. He surveys the view below on this balmy fall day in New York State. Geese fly in formation up the Hudson River. Golden maple leaves drop from trees overlooking the Palisades. At the bottom of the hill, behind a three-story wall of unfinished concrete, lies one of the world's most famous prisons: Sing Sing. "There's B block, that huge brick building." Conover points to a massive structure. "You can often hear the PA system on the blocks on summer days when the window is open: 'FIRST GALLERY! ON THE CHOW!' But today -- well, I guess any day -- you can't tell what it's like on the inside from here."

Sing Sing, like the entire American prison system, defies observation from the outside. Conover probably knows this better than anyone. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of three previous books of participatory journalism, Conover wanted to investigate the heart of what he calls "America's incarceration crisis." His investigation became the controversial book "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing." "I believe strongly in the need for prison reform, but I didn't want to write an Op-Ed. I wanted to give people information, take them somewhere they couldn't go otherwise," he explains. As he writes in the book, "There is little that engages my imagination like a wall." Conover has walked this ground before, immersing himself in situations concealed to the public, with such books as "Coyotes," about his travels with Mexican illegals, and "Rolling Nowhere," about riding the rails with hobos. This sort of work is his claim to fame. But in this case, Conover found two walls -- the gargantuan rough gray structure that secures prisoners at Sing Sing and the invisible barrier that keeps outsiders from understanding what goes on there.

Conover found that getting into Sing Sing was as difficult as getting out. First he was snubbed by the state bureaucracy. Then he tried talking to the guard's union representatives but quickly sensed that their collegial vow of silence about the details of their brutal daily lives wasn't something to be broached. Unable to break through the system, Conover became part of it. Literally. In order to understand the psychology and experiences of the corrections officer, he enrolled in the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) training academy, braved seven weeks of boot camp and became a rookie prison guard -- a "newjack."

The legacy of his experience is twofold. Conover, the writer, published a book that has spawned controversy (and censorship) throughout the DOCS. But Conover, the guard, still has fantastical nightmares about being attacked by inmates -- this almost three years after he last entered the hulking mass of B block.

Relentless Reporter

All good writers immerse themselves in their work, but Conover's relentless devotion to his reporting and the risky methods he undertakes to accomplish his task have raised ethical questions. His and his book's high visibility ("Newjack" graced the cover of The New York Times Book Review and Conover has appeared on Oprah, for example) lend attention and gravity to these concerns. Did he misrepresent himself in securing a position at Sing Sing? Did he cross a line in reporting a story where his cover as a guard required him to use force against many of his subjects, the prison's inmates? Can we separate Conover, the guard, from Conover, the journalist? And, perhaps most important, is it possible for the media to infiltrate the inner workings of prison life in any above-the-table role without taking these ethical risks?

To write "Newjack," Conover had to give himself over to the work in a way that, under the surface, seems almost antithetical to journalism. The psychology of a corrections officer is at odds with one of the requirements of good journalism -- that the writer establish genuine, human contact with his subjects. A successful guard, he explains, does exactly the opposite. "You need to lump people together, make an effort not to get to know them. The job requires that to protect yourself," he says. This is especially strange when one considers that Conover's best-regarded work consists of stories of close relationships he has developed with his subjects. He has made a career of forming bonds with strangers in situations most people would never choose to be in. "I admit it," he laughs. "I'm part of the great American freak show."

As he writes in the forward to "Coyotes," he is driven by "the subversive idea that a human is a human and that human beings everywhere can come to understand and even like each other." This idea drives his interest in the correctional system as well, specifically the experiences of guards, who are often regarded as sadistic brutes. "There's not much out there that supports the idea that corrections officers are human beings, subjected to human pressures and stress," says Conover, running a hand through a flop of sandy hair and focusing his blue eyes over a maze of cell blocks. "Anyone put in that role would not always show their best side." It's hard to picture this polite, soft-spoken man not showing his best side. And this particular immersion put him in an extreme position: Conover's guard duties required that he extend physical punishment to inmates. Looking at him -- Conover stands about 5'9" and can't weigh more than 160 pounds -- one can hardly imagine this guy beating the crap out of prisoners, then going home to write about it.

Questions Of Ethics

Over burgers in a café in Ossining's town center, just a few blocks from the jail, Conover talks about the larger journalistic questions his book has prompted. "It's like this," he says after a long pause. "There are not many prison systems that allow the media in. There are many obstacles to prison coverage, especially by electronic media, because prison systems don't want to let crews in. And the presence of a film crew or sound crew changes what is happening. I mean, if you want to know about interaction with officers and inmates, you're not going to find out with the camera or tape recording. And so, a sort of hermetically sealed way of how prisons are run keeps media from much meaningful reporting."

But a requirement of meaningful reporting is, of course, good ethics. On this front, Conover insists that he played fair. "This whole book is about ethics," he says. "I didn't say I was intending to write a book, but I didn't make up a story like 'ABC News' did," he points out, referring to the famous Food Lion case where ABC producers took jobs at a supermarket to expose health risks. In that case, the journalists lied on their job applications.

Conover did the opposite: He identified his profession in his application to the training academy, though he never revealed that he intended to write about the experience. After that he got lucky: no one ever asked what he did before working as a guard. "I was relieved to find how the macho environment of corrections discourages people [from] asking about people's backgrounds. I didn't want to talk about it. The good thing was nobody else did either. And everyone presumes you've only been to high school, because if you had been to college, why would you be doing this job," which pays little and offers an awful schedule and even worse working conditions?

Technicalities like this hold up in court, but journalistic ethics are weighed differently. The realm of judging ethics requires more nuance than the defense that Conover listed his occupation on a single form at the beginning of his long year in the prison machine. In even the most cut-and-dry undercover cases, duplicity is involved -- this is the essence of the work and the necessity if such work is to be successful. Roy Peter Clark, whose job at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school, is to assess such matters, offers a two-prong test to justify or reject the ethics of undercover work like Conover's. "The first standard is: Are other reporting methods possible or imaginable, and would they get the desired efficacy?" he says. "And two: Is what's being reported worthy? Is it of such importance that it's worthy of these measures?"

The first question is answered by the factors Conover described -- that prisons are closed to the news media. But is the story Conover tells worth the subversion? That's a pretty easy test to pass if you look at the numbers. We are in the middle of a prison boom in this country. The nation's incarceration rate has quadrupled over the past two decades, and new prisons are being built continuously to house the two million people currently behind bars. "I think the prison system is an increasingly important institution in America, one that needs to attract good journalists and good thinkers," says Clark.

The Aftermath

The Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) is hardly pleased to have attracted Conover's attention. Incensed by the book's publication, the DOCS at first tried to keep "Newjack" out of the state prisons. State Corrections Commissioner Glenn Goord, who has been the public face of DOCS resistance to the book, said: "It is my obligation to draw the proverbial line ... [of providing information to inmates] that I reasonably believe could endanger them or staff." He believes the book crosses that line, but will allow inmates to read "Newjack" as long as certain pages have been razored from it, pages said to contain information about the deployment of chemical agents used to control inmates, specific holds guards are instructed to use to restrain inmates, guard duties during disturbances and security issues within the prison.

While the DOCS may find Conover's book problematic, it is a testament to his compassion that Sing Sing's guards do not. Corrections officers have contacted Conover to thank him for revealing the humanity behind their uniforms. When Ossining public library held a "Newjack" reading and book-signing, guards turned out in force. Even a menacing guard Conover describes as a "shaved-head monster" in the book wanted his book signed "to Perlstein," the pseudonym Conover gave him for publication. Conover's compassion is hardly something he withholds (the guy titles a chapter "My Heart Inside Out").

"It may seem like a very negative prospect to you to work in a prison for a year," he says. "To me it doesn't seem that way. I thank God I don't have to do it again, thank God I don't have to do it any longer, but while I was there, there was no place I would have preferred to be most of the time. There was never a day I came home and I couldn't write three paragraphs of notes about an experience that would be totally new to everybody I know."

He takes a bite of his burger, reminiscing for a long moment, going deep into a place that only a corrections officer -- or an inmate -- could imagine. "When bad things would happen, there was the consolation that this was going to be interesting to retell." Conover looks out the café window toward Sing Sing and grins. "It's not just my work. It's an adventure."

Lauren Sandler writes about media and culture from her post in New York City.

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