The main themes in Newjack are systemic abuse and dysfunction, the prison-industrial complex, and power and control.
- Systemic abuse and dysfunction: Conover reports that the prison system dehumanizes prisoners while steeping guards in a culture of aggression and fear.
- The prison-industrial complex: Conover reflects on the nature of the prison system and the ethics of incarceration, noting that rehabilitation has been dispensed with as a goal.
- Power and control: Corrections Officers see themselves as maintaining order in the prison by exercising power and control in various ways.
Last Updated on September 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
Systemic Abuse and Dysfunction
Interspersed throughout Conover’s personal recollections of his time as a corrections officer are statistics relating to the rates of incarceration in the United States, the history of prisons, and the ways in which both prisoners and guards are impacted by the penal system. Prisoners are dehumanized as cogs within a for-profit machine, and they often have few or no resources to change their lives in meaningful ways. Guards, on the other hand, are steeped in a culture of fear, aggression, and perpetual antagonism. The inmates resent them since they—both literally and metaphorically—hold the keys, and the outside world stigmatizes their line of work to the point that many feel compelled to lie about their vocation. Indeed, Conover notices that he has an increasingly difficult time compartmentalizing the stresses of his job, and it eventually begins impacting the way he behaves in his personal life.
Conover notes that most of the recruits in his training cohort are pursuing prison work for the financial incentives. Several of the recruits—including Dieter—are former military, and many others are unemployed or from impoverished backgrounds. There are no degree or advanced educational requirements, and the officers in charge of training seem to view empathy and compassion as signs of weakness. From the very beginning, future COs are indoctrinated into a mindset that pits inmates against prison guards, creating a strict dichotomy between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Inmates are excluded from all bureaucratic processes, and Conover’s suggestion that their input might prove valuable during the interpersonal communications courses is dismissed outright. Instead, the system relies on a culture of abuse and hazing in which the new recruits are taught to preemptively fear and resent the very people their job revolves around.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
The nature of the prison system and the ethics of incarceration are a focal point of Conover’s reflections in Newjack. The motto presented at the training facility indicates that rehabilitation and “correction” are not the primary goals of the prison system in its current state; instead, the mission of the corrections officers is “care, custody, and control.” Prisons have increasingly become a profit-based industry in which human beings are regarded as a form of livestock, stationed in glorified “warehouses” with guards to keep them under control.
Relationships and dialogue between corrections officers and inmates are actively discouraged in most cases, with the senior officers expressing a mixture of disgust and amusement toward the idea of inviting inmates to speak during the interpersonal communications courses. This blatant disregard for the population that the corrections officers are in charge of overseeing is a strong refutation of the notion that rehabilitation is truly part of the goal. The system is not designed to work for the inmates; however, as Conover points out, it is also not particularly beneficial for the guards. Instead, the authoritarian power dynamics and culture of aggression have created a highly toxic environment for everyone involved, leading to a deeply broken and dysfunctional system.
Power and Control
Notions of power and control are central to the ways in which prisons are conceptualized in Newjack. The guards view themselves as the maintainers of order, without whom the unruly prisoners would fall into chaos. Some of the correctional officers—including Conover, in some situations—seem to view this relationship as mutually beneficial. In their eyes, the guards are the ones who protect the inmates from each other and themselves by maintaining order—by any means necessary. However, during training, Sergeant Bloom provides a reminder that power is not absolute and that a well-organized mob is capable of overpowering nearly any system.
The mechanisms of power are also examined throughout the book, with different officers taking unique approaches to policing their designated galleries. For many of the officers and recruits, power seems to come from the exercise of authoritarian control. They expect absolute compliance and respond harshly if it is not received. These officers tend to view inmates as a sort of human livestock, and they show minimal concern for the safety and dignity of their charges.
By contrast, for people like Officer Smith, power is found through mutual respect and a recognition of shared humanity. Officer Smith allows inmates to explain their actions, and he cultivates personal relationships with them in order to maintain a rapport. While prison is often still an inherently chaotic and imbalanced environment, Office Smith’s gallery feels more stable, since his power is granted and acknowledged by the inmates rather than maintained through fear and intimidation. Conover ultimately asserts that each CO must decide on their own how they want to treat inmates, and much of their professional success will depend on the type of power they choose to wield.