Newjack Nation: Living in a Prison State

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that Jack Henry Abbott published In the Belly of the Beast, his brilliant, lunatic prison memoir, this year.

In 1981, the radical chic glitterati feted Abbott, a juvenile delinquent turned bank robber turned murderer turned Nietschzean polemicist who had spent 25 of his 37 years behind bars. Norman Mailer, whose correspondence with Abbott was the basis of In the Belly of the Beast, clamored successfully for his early release on the grounds of artistic brilliance. Abbott murdered a waiter a few weeks after he was set loose. In 2001, such glorification of Abbott would be inconceivable. In the Belly of the Beast would be raved—deservedly—but anyone who read a page of it would beg that this villain, this sociopath who reveled in each stab wound he inflicted and each guard he assaulted, remain locked up forever, preferably in the hole.

The liberal romance with prison has ended, and it is (mostly) a good thing. Of course, the occasional felon is lionized—see Mumia—and we have not entirely scotched our faith that the outlaw can be redeemed. (Charles Colson’s wildly successful Prison Fellowship reminds Americans that lost souls don’t have to stay lost.) But in the last generation, Americans soured on the idea of prisoner heroes. We came to believe that sending people to prison reduces crime outside and that death is a fitting punishment for murder. We learned to tolerate prisons that were ever more punitive and sentences that were ever longer.

But now we are suffering a relapse of jailhouse flu, a sickening ambivalence about the penitentiary state. There is an acute distrust of prisoners but also an acute sense that something is dreadfully wrong in the Big House. You’ve probably heard the numbers: Nearly 2 million Americans are behind bars, quadruple the number of 20 years ago. We imprison an astonishing 476 people per 100,000. One in 11 American men will serve time in his life, and one in four black men will. Loathing is growing for the mandatory minimum sentences that incarcerate nonviolent druggies for preposterous amounts of time.

From this ambivalence springs a peculiar sort of penal activism: prison reform that pays little attention to prisoners. Two new-ish books illustrate this phenomenon: Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and Joseph T. Hallinan’s Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. The authors are appalled by our lock-up mania, but they don’t idealize jailbirds. They fret less about what punishment does to convicts than about what it does to the rest of us.

Conover’s Newjack, published last year, is the more powerful by far of the two, the most gripping jail book I’ve read since Dead Man Walking. After New York corrections officials denied him access to state penitentiaries because he was a journalist, Conover decided to explore prison the hard way, by becoming a guard. (Excuse me, I mean “corrections officer” or “CO”: “Prison guard” is a taboo phrase.) He trained for seven weeks in a military-style boot camp, then was deposited as fresh meat—a “newjack”—at Sing Sing, one of the oldest, most chaotic prisons in the nation. He worked there for one dismal year.

Most great prison books depict jail from the point of view of the inmate. Jailers are faceless, cruel, and distant. Newjack is exactly the opposite, showing jail only from the jailer’s perspective. (Newjack and In the Belly of the Beast together comprise a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs of life in stir.)

Prisoners are strangely absent from Conover’s book about prison. That is the point. As far as COs are concerned, prisoners really are little more than furniture. When they appear in Newjack, prisoners are being acted upon: being dragged out of their cells, being forced into their cells, being ferried from place to place. They rarely speak, except to curse out a guard or lie or hallucinate.

Newjack lays bare how prison work deadens the COs. Conover begins his year if not exactly idealistic, at least open-minded. He hopes to meet inmates and learn to understand prison life. But everything narrows once he goes inside. Conover’s enthusiasm rapidly gives way to paranoia and anxiety. He rarely gets to know any prisoners. Most officers are intentionally distant. They force themselves not to care about the men they are warehousing. It would be intolerable otherwise. (And even those officers who seek prisoner companionship don’t get far. Prisoners loathe COs as much as COs loathe prisoners.)

Every encounter is fraught. Much of the day is spent arbitrarily enforcing petty rules. He hates most of the work and is stressed out by all of it. He learns to lie to protect himself and his fellow officers. He has bad dreams and brings the violence of his job home to his family. The work makes even sympathetic COs callous. Many officers—and Conover doesn’t exempt himself—become blasé about the use of force. They constantly push around inmates and occasionally beat them. Some of his colleagues, Conover suggests, seem to feel nothing about this violence. Some enjoy it. In one particularly telling moment, Conover recounts how one CO describes the job as doing time, eight hours at a stretch.

The message of Newjack is that prison corrupts guards. The message of Going up the River is that prison corrupts everyone. Hallinan’s book lacks the unifying narrative and the first-person, yank-by-the-nuts intensity of Newjack. It is a series of feature stories strung together, a tour through the American prison universe. Hallinan does a fine job describing—and deploring—the new garrison state. He visits some of the popular, horrific “supermax” prisons, in which all inmates are isolated for 23 hours per day. He details the increasingly vindictive methods of punishment prison officials are devising: forcing inmates to split rocks on chain gangs (pointless make-work); humiliating inmates caught masturbating by making them wear bright pink uniforms and making all inmates wear old-time prison stripes; removing all “privileges”—air conditioners, television, books, classes—so that slammer life is empty and dead. Many prisoners lose even regular rations: They are served a vile “food loaf”—a nutritive mush—instead of real food.

Hallinan reserves his greatest indignation for prison economics. He hates the way private prisons allow wardens and investors to enrich themselves off prisoner deprivation. He attacks wardens of public prisons for trying to squeeze every penny of savings—in part by gouging inmates on things like telephone calls or toothpaste. Hallinan is appalled that rural towns are competing for prisons.

Hallinan, like Conover, is a second-degree critic. He believes it is fundamentally wrong to view prison as an economic opportunity rather than a human tragedy. Hallinan is not exactly arguing that prisoners deserve better—though he believes they do. Rather, he is insisting that the rest of us shouldn’t profit from their misery.

Prison reform without prisoners is ultimately a frustrating exercise. In the romantic age of prisons, reformers had a clear idea of what they wanted: fewer prisoners and more freedom. Our semi-reformers lack that certainty. Hallinan and Conover end their books desperate for change but don’t seem sure what it should be. They don’t want to loose these criminals on the public. They—especially Hallinan—have a few specifics: more prisoner contact with families, more educational and vocational programs, more parole. But mostly they seem to be pleading for more humanity. In the newjack nation, all of us—inmates and COs and free citizens—are beasts.