Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Hard Time

By Ben Winters

JUNE 12, 2000:  Rebuffed by the New York Department of Corrections in his efforts to profile a new recruit, Conover went undercover and spent a year as a corrections officer, patrolling one of America's oldest, most infamous prisons--a year surrounded by high cement walls, bitter barking sergeants and hundreds and hundreds of hardened criminals.

And he's not a big guy. Catching up with Conover during a local stop on his book tour, I marvel at the size of him: Not puny, but definitely slight, boyish, handsome, the kind of guy you'd expect to have an opinion about the new Philip Roth, not the kind to face off with murderers and armed robbers.

"The secrecy of prison intrigued me," he explains. "And the stereotypes surrounding guards--it seemed the truth had to be much more interesting than the image of 250 pounds of brutal white meat, right?"

What is true, he discovered, is the white part. "The typical guard would be a white male in his twenties, from a small town, who has a high-school degree and possibly some military experience. And he probably has first-hand experience with unemployment--a lot of guys have had jobs [and] been laid off. This is a steady job."

For Conover, it wasn't a steady job; it was an opportunity for full immersion, a chance to spend a year experiencing and reflecting on the shocking state of our justice system.

"You only have to work in prison for a week to see what a blunt instrument it is, and how there's been no innovation in practically the 170 years since Sing-Sing was built. It began with a big idea, which was the penitentiary--it involved putting [criminals] in cells by themselves, giving them Bibles and waiting for the change to take place. It's sort of a cool idea, but it didn't really work, and we haven't come up with another one to replace it."

Bottom line, says Conover, "It's a fairly fucked-up world in which to live, and you can't help but take it home after you've worked there for a while." Two years after he came out Sing-Sing, Conover still has dreams about being a guard, or of being a prisoner; terrifying dreams about power and control.

"My next project will not be undercover," he reports. "You can't do too many of these. It affects your identity--and I only have a limited capacity for that."

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