(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

The United States prison system is in a crisis. In 2000, the U.S. inmate population reached a record two million, which means that one person in one hundred forty in the United States was incarcerated. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, the number of inmates tripled, and the United States locked up more people per capita than almost any other country, running neck and neck with Russia for this dubious distinction. Incarceration rates are six times those of Britain and seventeen times those of Japan. The rising numbers have made prisons a growth industry; California builds a new prison every year to keep up with the demand. The burden of imprisonment falls disproportionately on racial minorities. In California, for example, a young black man is five times as likely to go to prison as to a state university.

All this takes place in a society in which crime is steadily falling. In the years following 1991, for example, violent crime fell roughly 20 percent. The huge increase in rates of imprisonment is accounted for in part by mandatory prison terms for drug offenders—a solution that failed to reduce drug abuse. Yet the problem of skyrocketing inmate populations and a failed drug policy passed unmentioned in the 2000 presidential campaign. Politicians always seem ready to take credit for falling crime rates but seem to have no interest in researching the extent to which, if at all, falling crime is related to harsher sentencing laws.

Many of these facts are mentioned by journalist Ted Conover in his engrossing account of the year he spent as a correctional officer (correctional officers, or COs, as they are known, dislike the term “guard”) at the notorious maximum-security Sing Sing Prison in New York. Conover, always fascinated by prisons and curious about what the life of a guard was really like, approached the New York Department of Correctional Services with a request to write a profile of the experiences of a new recruit, but he was turned down. So he decided that his only option was to become a CO himself.

Keeping his journalistic intention secret, Conover enrolled in a seven-week training program at the Albany Training Academy. This turned out to resemble a military-style boot camp, and his account of indignities endured, including mandatory exposure to tear gas, seems likely to deter anyone else from following in his footsteps. It strikes Conover that much of what the trainees are put through is similar to what inmates must endure every day.

On completion of the training program, Conover and his fellow graduates were all assigned to Sing Sing, which is considered the least desirable prison in the state as far as being a CO is concerned. “It’s a rough place,” one of the instructors had said, and Conover recalls how a CO he had become acquainted with told him that his time at Sing Sing was the worst nine months of his life, Vietnam included.

Conover soon finds this out for himself, and the reader is left with no doubts that being a CO at Sing Sing is a difficult, stressful, unpleasant, and dangerous job. In 1997, the prison housed 1,813 inmates in maximum security and 556 in medium security. Of that total, over 1,700 had been convicted of violent offenses, including robbery, rape, assault, kidnapping, burglary, and arson. A total of 672 inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter. Within the prison, disturbances were frequent. “Lots of cuttings lately,” says the first deputy superintendent for security, ominously.

Conover starts with four weeks of on-the-job training (OJT). On his first day in the prison, where he assists a regular officer, he feels inadequately prepared, as if he has been certified as a lion tamer before he has ever been left alone with a lion. When he gets to his assigned floor, R-and-W, everything appears chaotic to him: Inmates are walking about all over the place, and the officer in charge is besieged by inmates wanting to make phone calls or be granted other special requests. Conover muddles through, not really sure of what he is doing, and has his first confrontations with inmates. After just a few hours he wonders how he is going to make it to the end of his shift. Trainee officers, like substitute teachers, command little respect.

Conover goes through a rapid learning curve. Although his four weeks of OJT are, in general, dispiriting, he does find one CO whose mastery of the job Conover admires. The key to Officer Smith’s competence is that he treats the inmates as human beings, maintains a sense of humor, and is firm yet flexible in carrying out his duties. He regards being a CO as an art, and he has highly developed interpersonal skills. As Conover observes wryly, being a CO is, in a macho kind of way, a “people-skills” profession; so much depends on how the CO interacts with the inmates.

The inmates are a tough bunch. Nevertheless, Conover, like Officer Smith, often succeeds in finding the humanity in them. He seems to grasp quickly that if men are put in situations where...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)