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Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Dehumanization
One of the themes of the book is the dehumanization of prisoners in the correctional system. The author, Conover, was able to gain access to the maximum-security correctional institute at Sing Sing by becoming a guard (or "correctional officer," as they prefer to be known). In this position, he went through training and was then assigned as a "newjack," or new guard, to the prison. There, he witnessed the way in which the guards had to ignore the humanity of the prisoners in order to do their job of creating order in a chaotic situation. The system as a whole was not designed for rehabilitation but for "breaking" the inmates, which, Conover writes, now takes longer than it used to because punishments of the past, such as depriving prisoners of food and water, have been disallowed. Still, many prisoners are simply "warehoused" until they are broken (136).

Racism
Another theme is racism. Conover notes that in the 1990s, three in ten black men in their twenties were either in prison or on probation or parole (19). He quotes Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote from Folsom prison in the 1960s about how black inmates saw their imprisonment not as punishment for a crime but part of a war between white guards and black inmates. Most of the inmates at Sing Sing were black or Latino, and though some of the guards are black and Latino, they were caught in a system that was largely composed of white guards and black prisoners.

Mass Incarceration
Conover writes about the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. He notes that the United States imprisons six times the number of people per capita as England and seventeen times the number of people per capita as Japan (19). Young black men in California were five times more likely to go to jail than to go to a state university (19). In the afterword, he writes about some ways our society might change this situation, including repealing mandatory drug sentencing laws and concentrating on education to reduce recidivism.

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