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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

This book by Ted Conover is a journalistic expose of what it's like to work as a prison guard at one of the most notorious prisons in New York state. Unlike a journalist going "under cover" for a short period of time for a story, Conover applied for the job...

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This book by Ted Conover is a journalistic expose of what it's like to work as a prison guard at one of the most notorious prisons in New York state. Unlike a journalist going "under cover" for a short period of time for a story, Conover applied for the job and trained just any normal applicant would. (Conover has done this before; in one example, he trained to become a USDA meat inspector so he could write about the meat industry.) Because of Conover's determination to experience this job as authentically as possible, even though it was extremely difficult for him (he experienced severe nausea every morning on his way to work from the stress), the book takes on a kind of experiential integrity not often seen in such works of journalism.

One of the most significant impacts of this book is the way it makes clear that incarceration, while degrading, dangerous, and stress-inducing for inmates, is also degrading, dangerous, and stress-inducing for corrections officers. By exposing the culture of this job at this infamous prison, Conover creates an opportunity for civilians to understand and possibly empathize with the guards enduring these challenging working conditions.

Conover's descriptions of his daily work life are detailed and matter-of-fact, and they illustrate the brutality he sees in this job. In one chapter, he describes doing inspections of inmates with a fellow guard to discover victims of a recent spate of knife attacks among rival gangs. Conover is clearly affected by the number and nature of the scars he sees on their bodies:

The huge number of scars surprises me. Half the inmates seem to have been stabbed or shot at some point in their lives. Often, the scars are on their face: a pale, thick line across the back of the skull where no hair grows, a sliced nostril imperfectly healed, a gash along a cheek that ended when the blade passed through a lip. The most ghastly wound is on a man who looks about nineteen: a ragged cicatrix that winds from one corner of his mouth to beneath his left ear, then all the way around his head, under the right ear, and back to the other corner of the mouth, as though the assailant intended to peel off the top: a sadist’s trophy.

The next line powerfully sums up the cell visits by making it clear that, although they do not find the fresh knife wounds they seek, Conover nevertheless learns how common such injuries and attacks are among inmates:

We continue down the line. Gash after gash after gash. But nothing fresh.

Conover's skillful blending of eye witness facts with a straightforward summation is uncannily moving, perhaps much more so than an emotionally laden account would be. Again and again he describes horrific conditions and behavior with this precise, factual choice of words, and therein lies the strength and significance of his book.

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