newjack-ted conover

guarding sing sing

“he was attracted to exactly the same strong women that would not tolerate his bullshit”

i was on hold for a long time for this one-rodrigo told me about it way back when the magazine (existed and) still had an office in the last manifesTO space. whatever the reason it took so long to get to me, i’m glad that i finished it during this inaugural “weekend” that also corresponded with the polishing off of the last of my dvd selections from maryvale, notably grown up movie star (dir. adriana maggs). it is fitting that the theme of prisons (real or imagined) and cycles keeps coming up, the above (paraphrased) quote came from junot diaz’ philly free library talk that i of course heard via podcast because i missed seeing him here for the international festival of authors recently. a sunday night epiphany for this emotionally-unavailable person as she hopes to wrap up this affair the neatest way yet. (sigh) we’ll see. i am glad for and stunned by the bravery of humans:

“The single most interesting word, when it came to the bending and ignoring of rules, was contraband. To judge the long list of what constituted contraband, its meaning was clear. In practice, however, contraband was anything but.
The first strange thing about contraband was that its most obvious forms-weapons, drugs, and alcohol-could all be found fairly readily inside prison. Some of the drugs probably slipped in through the Visit Room, but most, it seemed, were helped into prison by officers who were paid off. The Department had a special unit, the Inspector General’s Office, which followed up on snitches’ tips and tried to catch officers in the act; the union rep had even warned us about the ‘IG’ at the Academy. A couple of times a year, I would come to find, a Sing Sing officer was hauled off in handcuffs by the state police.” (104)

“I was doing well at keeping work off my mind until I noticed his younger sister with her hands on the slats of her crib, looking out. Unnervingly, it reminded me of the same view I had all day long. Like an inmate, she was dependent upon me for everything. These two jobs were too much the same, I thought with disgust. My son, tired but rambunctious, didn’t want to brush his teeth and, struggling, mistakenly hit me in the eye. I grabbed him angrily and shouted, made him cry. Well, there was one difference between him and the inmates, I thought darkly as I tried to calm us both down. He was destroyed when I got mad; they, on the other hand, seemed energized.” (114)

and, damn.


3 thoughts on “newjack-ted conover

  1. arts and crafts:

    “I frisked the cell. It was a pigsty, with roaches crawling over the bunched-up sheets and garbage on the floor. I flipped through his notebooks; the handwriting was unexpectedly lovely. The inmate wrote in Spanish. He had also made a chess set, using toothpaste caps and squares of paper as pieces. (I had seen these games in action. Another inmate had to have a board, too, and they made moves by voice, since neither could see the other’s board.) There was a lot of pencil-written gang graffiti on the walls, but no contraband.” (132)

    “Soap carving was a time-honored jailhouse art. I’d know about carved pistols from the movies, but inside Sing Sing I had also seen carved mini-radios and animal sculptures. I even had an idea who had made this heart. He probably made it for Sims, as a stand-in for chocolates or a date to the movies. In their deprivation, inmates would grasp at anything. The mystery to me was how it had made its way into the office. Despite her professed antipathy, Sims must have accepted it. But significantly, the heart hadn’t made it from the office to Sim’s house. Leaving it here was some sort of middle path, and I thought I understood that middle path, because I was coming to understand the paths on either side: Completely tune the inmates out, as Sims professed to do, or else let them in, at your peril. What, I wondered, if she didn’t have anybody at home? What if he had told her he loved her? What might she be tempted to do?” (220-1)

    “The environment of the Box produced stunning acts of insanity and barbarism. During our OJT, Officer Luther had told us of a Box inmate nicknamed Mr. Slurpee, who would project a spray of urine and feces at officers-from his /mouth/. One day at a lineup, a sergeant held up for display an interesting-looking noose about three feet long. ‘We think we take everything away that they could hurt themselves with,’ he said. ‘And then we find this-made out of toilet paper.’ He left it out for display after lineup. An inmate had rolled endless yards of toilet paper into tight cords before weaving the cords together into the noose. It was dingy from all the handling and, to judge by my tugging, seemed as tough as a real rope. Impressive, I thought. But, on another level: all this resourcefulness and the end result a /noose/?” (130)

  2. sometimes, relationships get ill:

    “I would hear inmates utter these exact words several times more in the upcoming months at Sing Sing, a threat disguised as advice. (The phrasing had the advantage of ambiguity, and thus could steer the speaker clear of rule 102.10: ‘Inmates shall not, under any circumstances, make any threat.’) But I hadn’t heard those words spoken to me before, and that, in combination with the man’s standing so close, set my heart racing. I tried staring back at him as hard as he was staring at me, and didn’t move until he had stepped back first.” (99)

    “Vivid to me, and a seeming conundrum, was the refusal of my inmate to submit to a strip-frisk. By refusing this small violation of his privacy, he’d earned himself a big violation. What could account for an action so apparently contrary to his best interests? My idea of his best interests, I later concluded, was colored by the team I was on. Eventually, it occurred to me that self-respect had required him to refuse. His stupidity began to look principled. He was renouncing his imprisonment, our authority, the entire system that had placed him there. If enough people did that together, the corrections system would come tumbling down.” (135)

    “In other words, prison not only made crazy people worse; it drove people crazy.” (138)

    “The PSU was a holding tank, not a place where people improved. No one, as far as I could see, improved in prison. It took weeks for an inmate in the general population to get an appointment with a therapist, and the wait between appointments, once a relationship had been established, also seemed to be weeks.” (142)

    “It was easy to forget when you worked at Sing Sing that all the inmates there were, essentially, missing from someplace else. Outside the walls, however, they were still fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands-mainly of poor people from New York City. In being sent to prison, they had no doubt let people down; some who loved them no longer wanted to see them. But they were missed by many others, and every day of the week these people found their way to the prison via bus, car, train, and taxi. They submitted to searches of their person and property and subjected themselves to long waits in order to spend a short time in Sing Sing’s Visit Room.
    The Visit Room constituted a sort of breach in the wall between the hermetic world of the prison and the universe outside. In it, an inmate could try to reconnect to the real world and prior life, could try to salve the wound of imprisonment. A visitor could contemplate, with more perspective than any prison employee, the effects of incarceration and the prospects of life after it. The Visit Room was about catching up, reconnecting, and looking ahead, about a woman’s touch and a child’s chatter.” (151)

    “Well, there was welfare, and a few inmates had means, but it was mostly a mystery. I wondered what kind of love the woman felt for the inmate. Was it romantic-the desire for something you could never have? Was it practical-a way to raise children without interference? The COs couldn’t figure it out, because these men could never /support/ the women, and the goal of solvency animated officers’ entire lives.” (155)

    “The essential relationship inside a prison is the one between a guard and an inmate. Any true progress in the workings of a prison ought to be measurable in changes in the tenor of that relationship. The guard is mainstream society’s last representative; the inmate, its most marginal man. The guard, it is though, wields all the power, but in truth the inmate has power too. How will they meet, with mutual respect or mutual disdain? Will they talk? Will they joke? Will they look each other in the eye?” (207)

    “This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.” (243)

    “Most common in drama, by far-and least common in real life-is forcible sex. The rape of the white middle-class inmate is a staple of contemporary prison movies, from /American Me/ to /Midnight Express/ to /The Shawshank Redemption/, and it even takes place in the supposedly hyperrealistic TV prison series /Oz/. It is such a fixture on how middle-class America thinks about prison that people who hear I worked in Sing Sing always bring it up within a few minutes-if they dare bring it up at all.” (262)

    “To have a mother in prison and become a guard there yourself-that was the strangest bond I heard all year.” (288)

    “Here, Delacruz joined the conversation, explaining that you might get more cash robbing a rich person on the street but that you’d have to be in their neighborhood, and judges would hit you harder for that: They would know the victim was white because of the name, the address, etc. It was much safer, obviously, to rob less prosperous people of color.” (291)

  3. legacy:

    “A decrepit footbridge takes me over the tracks of the Metro North railroad-Sing Sing may be the only prison anywhere with a commuter railroad running through it-and other officers start to appear. My climb continues, up a wooden staircase that’s been built atop a crumbling concrete one.” (5)

    “From seminary to corrections academy: a sign of the times. In the foyer, two uniformed officers sitting at a table asked for identification, took my letter, and nodded toward a mountain of luggage nearby.” (13)

    “Kingsley startled me by admitting that probably 90 percent of the officers he knew would tell strangers they met that they worked not in a prison but at something else-say, carpentry-because the job carried such a stigma. Sure it had its advantages, like the salary, the security, and, with seniority, the schedule: Starting work at dawn, Kingsley had afternoons free to work on his land and rebuild his log cabin. But mainly, he said, prison work was about waiting. The inmates waited for their sentences to run out, and the officers waited for retirement. To Kingsley, it was ‘a life sentence in eight-hour shifts.’” (21)

    “Concomitant with the rise of imprisonment, there were 239, 229 correction officers nationwide at the beginning of 1998, up from 60,026 just sixteen years before. In large areas of New York and other states, corrections is the only growth industry, the most likely profession for thousands of young people. But how odd to devote yourself professionally to confining others in a small space.” (41)

    “Sing Sing was a world of adrenaline and aggression to us new officers. It was an experience of living with fear-fear of inmates, as individuals and as a mob, and fear of our own capacity to fuck up. We were sandwiched between two groups: Make a mistake around the white shirts and you would get in trouble; make a mistake around the inmates and you might get hurt.” (95)

    “Here was a man who had violated federal law-a fugitive, technically-actually working inside Sing Sing. Resting against its very bricks. And not afraid to tell an officer.” (164)

    “You feel it along the walls inside, hard like a blow to the head; see it on the walls outside, thick, blank, and doorless; smell it in the air that assaults your face in certain tunnels, a stale and acrid taste of male anger, resentment, and boredom. You sense it all around in the pointed lack of ornamentation, plants, or reason for hope-walls built not to shelter but to constrain. In the same way that a murder forever changes a house, Sing Sing has its own irrevocable vibe, a haunted feeling surely unlike that of any other prison, one rooted in the ground and in history: thousands upon thousands of lashings meted out by my predecessors in the nineteenth century; hundreds of prisoners executed there by the state while strapped down in an electric chair built by other inmates; and for the untold numbers of prisoners who were locked inside, an enforced experience of the glacial slowness of time. The prison’s most famous warden, Lewis Lawes, called his memoir /Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing/-the number referred to the sum of the length of sentences of all the inmates under his supervision. ‘Within such cycles worlds are born, die and are reborn…Twenty thousand years in my keeping….Will they bring life and purpose to any of our twenty-five hundred men who are sharing in that tremendous burden?’” (171)

    “Grotesquely, the autopsy room was situated in the Death House, next to the cells of Death Row. Inmates there, having seen their acquaintance marched to his execution through an infamous little green door at the end of the hall and then hearing the sounds of the generator, next had to hear the sound of his skull being sawed open. Squire portrays himself as aghast-though he can hardly have been surprised-when one famous condemned murderer, Shillitoni, interrupted an autopsy by going mad in his cell, breaking his furniture, and tearing his bedding to shreds.” (192)

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