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“New Jack – Guarding Sing Sing” by Ted Conover

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Ted Conover’s foray into the world of corrections started as undercover expose of the Sing Sing prison system. He soon discovered a world rarely seen by those outside of corrections. More than once, Conover was advised that he was not a “prison guard” but a correctional officer and he quickly learned exactly what that meant.

Richard Lessington, a correctional officer in the District of Columbia, said, “Corrections officers become for each inmate their mother, father, counselor, priest and disciplinarian.” It became apparent to Conover that most everything that was taught could be disregarded. Correctional officers were not just there to “guard” the inmates and enforce regulations. He soon discovered that instinct and past experiences were the best, and often only, guides in situations that he would encounter and that the line between right and wrong actions was often very gray. Conover stated that inmates advised him on more than one occasion, “You’re going to learn, CO, that some things they taught you in the Academy can get you killed.”

One officer notes that there are three basic assumptions that should be taken into consideration when dealing with the relationship between officers and inmates:

1) Negotiations are central to prisoner control because correctional officers cannot have total control the inmates.

2) Once an officer defines a set of informal rules with the prisoners, the rules must be respected by all parties

3) Some rule violations are “normal” and consequently do not merit officers’ attention or sanctioning.

As Conover continued to growth as a correctional officer, he became more adept as working from instinct instead of the training manual. When Conover enforces the directive of a keeplock officer and logs the incident, he learns exactly what that selective governing means. He states, “…I had just enforced a rule that wasn’t a rule, for my ‘brother in gray’.” He learned the brotherhood of correctional officers was much stronger than the binding of Standards of Inmate Behavior, All Institutions. As do most police officers, correctional officers within Sing Sing have a sort of unspoken camaraderie that involves covering for one another and protecting each other’s life, as if it were your own. Conover found out the hard way that the decision to protect one’s brother does not always coincide with the regulations of Sing Sing.

This is an example of one of the many instances during on-the-job-training by which Conover ascertained how important it is to have the cooperation of co-workers and/or inmates. Much as a parent learns which battles to fight with a toddler, correctional officers must learn which regulations are necessities and which ones are just political bureaucracy. As noted by Clear and Cole, “Officers are expected to maintain ‘surface order.'” That is, while it is expected that correctional officers will enforce all regulations, they must learn enforce the most important rules while being able to determine which regulations can be relaxed or overlooked.

A correctional officer that is able to establish that balance will not only shine in the eyes of their superior officers, they will also earn the respect of the inmates in their control. Conover writes about a fellow officer, “Smith melded toughness with an attitude of respect for his inmates. In turn he was respected back.” Through the cooperation of the inmates, Smith earned their respect and maintains an unusual amount of order over the individuals within his gallery. The key to his success was developing a closeness that did not interfere with his ability to make legitimate decisions or sacrifice his authority. Once control is relinquished, the authority passes to the inmates and all hope is gone.

Many correctional officers rely on a reward and punishment system to gain cooperation and maintain the much-desired order in a prison system. Officers have learned that instead of using force when regulations are disobeyed, the use of rewards for compliance is often better received. In many situations, a threat to take away a privilege or to lock down an inmate has little or no meaning. One inmate stated, “I got thirty years to life…and two years’ keeplock…and today, I got another three.” What incentive remains for this inmate to do anything that is asked of him? It soon reaches a point that a threat of additional punishment or restrictions has no merit at all. It becomes necessary for correctional officers to look outside of the box – instead of trying to convince them not to wrong, it becomes necessary to tempt them to do right. One officer stated that he realizes the importance of phone time. “…So what I do is give them a little extra and they are good to me.”

As Conover points out, there are conflicting messages regarding what relationship should be maintained. Formal rules require officers and inmates to keep a respectable distance however it is soon determined that a certain degree of knowledge is necessary to maintain some semblance of order. The establishment of amity, although not recommended, is helpful in deciphering the mental status of inmates in a correctional officer’s care. Relationships within the prison system allow the officers to develop informal networks and trust amongst influential inmates. They allow officers to counsel inmates and demonstrate the understanding attitude necessary to the rehabilitative process.

How a prison system is managed will determine if a system is successful or not. Prison management involves a great deal of politics and bureaucracy, but the officers within the system also effect it. The image of corrections to many people is that of prison guards keeping watch over inmates confined to individual cells, obeying prison guards by simple directives alone. The reality of the prison system is very different. Inmates are often toeing the line between obedience and chaos, awaiting the first mistake or misguided judgment of a correction officer that can force them either way. Conover found himself struggling with the desire to help these inmates and the need to control them. He learned that before you can help them, you must effectively learn how to control them. But to control them, you have to allow a certain degree of freedom to them as well. It is a very delicate balancing act between inmate and correction officer, control and freedom, relationships and privacy. Once the balance is determined, a successful correctional officer can be made.


Clear, Todd R. and Cole, George F., American Corrections, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2003

Conover, Ted, New Jack, Guarding Sing Sing, New York, New York: Random House, 2000

Lombardo, Lucien X., Guards Imprisoned: Correctional Officers at Work, New York: Elsevier, a1986

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