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"A life sentence in eight-hour shifts",
This review is from: Holding the Key: My Year as a Guard at Sing Sing (Paperback)
Ted Conover has taken a brave step where few people who call themselves 'journalists' would dare: he signed up to work as a Correctional Officer (they don't call themselves 'Guards') at New York state's maximum security prison, Sing Sing.
This impressive, award-winning book describes the training COs go through, as experienced by Conover, which is something of a watered-down version of a military boot camp: being constantly shouted at and harassed, forced to live by seemingly arbitrary rules, intimidation and ridicule, constant pressure and tension; this conditioning, the author argues, is an early attempt to give the COs a taste of what life is like for inmate. There, however, is when any move towards empathy terminates.
Understanding inmates' experiences, Conover learns, is not a good idea and a certain distance should be maintained. "I don't like them. They're not my friends." is a typical attitude, which makes it easier to dehumanise or simply ignore the prisoners' condition. The balance that Conover tries to maintain as a CO, is one betwixt tyrant and pushover: to be overly violent and aggressive, or to let the rules slide for an easy life. This middle ground exerts tremendous pressure on Conover's life and bleeds over into his home life.
Holding the Key is an impressive book, one that seemingly accurately demonstrates the daily stresses, confusion and frustrations of life as a Correctional Officer. Searches, forcible cell extractions, threats of violence, confrontations with people continually trying to antagonise you and surprisingly, hints of genuine friendship and compassion, are all a part of this book and probably a typical experience for many, many Correctional Officers, both in the United States and here in Britain.
This engaging read provides a fine addition to the body of work on prison life, such as George Jackson's Soledad Brother (and indeed to the superb U.S. HBO prison drama series, Oz). In going undercover for one year and living the life of a CO, Ted Conover gives us a fascinating insight into what must be an incredibly demanding profession and yet one that is most open to stereotyping or ignorance.