Authors: Ted Conover
Acclaim for Ted Conover’s
“Nobody goes to greater lengths to get a story than Ted Conover. Immersing himself in his subject to a degree matched by few journalists working today, he has given us a compelling, compassionate look at a terribly important, poorly understood aspect of American society. My hat is off to him.”
tells the straight skinny on a guard’s life inside prison without being overly judgmental or cloyingly sentimental. It’s experiential journalism at its best.”
The Denver Post
“Ted Conover is a first-rate reporter and more daring and imaginative than the rest of us combined. This book is one of his finest.”
“A devastating chronicle of the toll prison takes on the prisoners and the keepers of the keys.”
“This book takes a reader inside one of the many locked doors of America’s penal system. It is clear-eyed and sympathetic, intelligent and engrossing. It reminded me of some of George Orwell’s admirable journalism.”
“A fascinating and sobering read.”
“It is hard to know if there has ever been an institution that cost more and achieved less than a prison. And after reading
, that statement seems truer than ever.”
“An incisive and indelible look at the life of a corrections officer and the dark life of the penal system.”
The Dallas Morning News
“Endlessly fascinating, often suspenseful.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“Pretty damned amazing… . entirely gripping and powerful.”
“A fascinating story… . Prison books crowd the shelves, but few tell the story from the point of view of the officers who spend eight hours a day doing time, hoping and praying that they make it home that night, hoping and praying that the job allows them to remain human.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune
is a valuable contribution to the urgent debate about crime and punishment in our time.”
The Boston Globe
“A fascinating window into the complex machinations of America’s prison systems.”
The Austin Chronicle
“A timely, troubling, important book.”
The Baltimore Sun
“George Orwell, you have a godson. Upton Sinclair, you’ve been one-upped. In this mind-blowing example of journalism at its most authentic, Conover discovers that prison can bring out the animal in any man, and even the zookeeper has to protect his soul.”
Ted Conover was raised in Colorado and lives in New York City. Two of his previous books,
, were named Notable Books of the Year by
The New York Times
. His writing has appeared in
The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine
, and many other publications. Further information about Ted Conover is available on his web site at
ALSO BY TED CONOVER
Whiteout: Lost in Aspen
Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of
America’s Illegal Aliens
Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails
with America’s Hoboes
sweet muse, sharp-eyed critic,
my girl on the train
Thanks to Kathy R., agent nonpareil; to Dan M., early believer; to Nicky D., Bob R., and Estelle G., good readers, advisers, and secret keepers all; to Robert S., Esq., for advice; to Jerry C., Jody and Jenni K., David S., Katie C., and especially, as ever, thanks, Jay.
This is a work of nonfiction, describing events that I witnessed and participated in. No scenes are imaginary or made up, though some dialogue was, of necessity, re-created. Like all officers, I kept a small spiral notebook in my breast pocket for note-taking; unlike most of them, I took many notes. 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:
|Aragon|| L’Esperance|| Astacio|
|Antonelli|| Michaels|| Van Essen|
|Foster|| Rufino|| Gaines|
|Arno|| Hawkins|| Perch|
|Dobbins|| Wickersham|| Pacheco|
|Bella|| Chilmark|| Scarff|
|McCorkle|| Duncan|| Saline|
|Popish|| St. George|| Pitkin|
|Dieter|| Birch|| Lopez|
|Di Carlo|| Massey|| De Los Santos|
|DiPaola|| Phelan|| Garces|
|Speros|| Perlstein|| Riordan|
|Turner|| Billings|| Delacruz|
|Malaver|| Mendez|| Perez|
|Fay|| Larson|| Addison|
|Melman|| Sims|| Blaine|
and the sun rises over a dark place. Across the Hudson River from Sing Sing prison, on the opposite bank, the hills turn pink; I spot the treeless gap in the ridgeline where, another officer has told me, inmates quarried marble for the first cell-block. Nobody could believe it back in 1826: a work crew of convicts, camping on the riverbank, actually induced to build their own prison. They had been sent down from Auburn, New York State’s famous second prison, to construct Sing Sing, its third. How would that feel, building your own prison?
The shell of that 1826 cellblock still stands, on the other side of the high wall I park against; the prison has continued to grow all around it. In 1984, the roof burned down. At the time, the prison was using the building as a shop to manufacture plastic garbage bags, but as late as 1943, it still housed inmates. Sometimes now when inmates complain about their six-by-nine cells, I tell them how it used to be: two men sharing a three-and-a-half-by-seven-foot cell, one of them probably with TB, no central heating or plumbing, open sewer channels inside, little light. They look unimpressed.
I park next to my friend Aragon, of the Bronx, who always puts The Club on his steering wheel; I see it through his tinted glass. This interests me, because, with a heavily armed wall tower just a few yards away, this has got to be one of the safest places to leave your car in Westchester County. Nobody’s going to steal it here. But Aragon is a little lock-crazy: He has screwed a tiny hasp onto his plastic lunch box and hangs a combination lock there, because of the sodas he’s lost to pilfering officers, he says. Between the Bronx and prison, a person could grow a bit lock-obsessed.
There’s no one else around. Most people park in the lots up the hill, nearer the big locker room in the Administration Building. But it’s almost impossible for a new officer to get a locker in there, so I park down here by the river and the lower locker room. The light is dim. Gravel crunches under my boots as I head into the abandoned heating plant.
This six-story brick structure is one of those piles of slag that
give Sing Sing its particular feel. Massive, tan, and almost windowless, it looks like a hangar for a short, fat rocket. The whole thing is sealed off, except for a repair garage around the corner and a part of the first floor containing men’s and women’s locker rooms and rest rooms.
The men’s locker room—I’ve never seen the women’s—is itself nearly abandoned; though it’s stuffed with a hodgepodge of some two hundred lockers of inmate manufacture, fewer than twenty are actively used. The rest have locks on them, some very ancient indeed, belonging to officers who quit or transferred or died or who knows what. Nobody keeps track. An old wall phone hangs upside down by its wires on the left as you enter, the receiver dangling by its curly cord, a symbol of Sing Sing’s chronically broken phone system.
Cobwebs, in here, find a way onto your boots. For a few weeks following my arrival, on Aragon’s advice I checked the room for lockers that might have opened up. None ever did. All those unused lockers needlessly tied up. This might not be a problem for the officers who drive to work from the north, but down south in the Bronx (I live there, too) you don’t want to advertise that you’re a correction officer: Too many people around you have been in prison. Officers tend not to stick the big badge decals they pass out at the Academy on their car windows (because they like their windows), and most, like me, don’t want to walk the street wearing a uniform. It’s just awkward. A locker lets you leave your uniform at work.