Ted Conover was a guest lecturer at SLC's Adult Writers seminar in June 2001. Conover, who has hopped trains with hobos and crossed borders with two-legged coyotes, is used to going incognito to tell a story. For his latest book, Newjack (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction), he got himself hired as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison, where he reported on the nerve-racking life of rookie correction officers ("newjacks") and their brethren within the normally hidden world of an American penal institution. Poet Thomas Lux has taught writing at the College since 1975, and is currently director of the Graduate Writing Program in Poetry. In 2001 Lux published his ninth full-length collection of poetry, The Street of Clocks (Houghton Mifflin). Conover and Lux recently sat down to discuss life "on the inside" for Sarah Lawrence magazine.
LUX: You do a kind of undercover writing. You're in the books, but you really write about the other, or others.
CONOVER: Right. All my books are first person, but all of them are focused on people besides me. What I write is a mixture of memoir and reportage that allows me to create a mood and establish a voice. Choice of subject is very important, and somewhere not too far behind comes my voice as a writer.
LUX: What made you need to take two or three years of your life, literally to risk your life, and become a prison guard?
CONOVER: Well, a couple of things. One was a general unease at the rapidly growing prison population over the last 25 years. The number of inmates in New York State has gone up by a factor of six since the early seventies. You have two important things happening in prison – massive incarceration, and a stereotyped group of working-class white men overseeing a population of, basically, inner-city people of color. Many state departments of correction act like their operations are top secret, and exercise complete control over access to the prisons. New York turned down my request to follow a recruit through the training academy. So, I thought, I'll bet – with the résumé of menial jobs I've performed over the years – I can get hired as a guard. And I did.
LUX: What did they want to know about your life?
CONOVER: I didn't list my books, but I told them everything else. The worst sticking point was a misdemeanor arrest in Denver in the ‘80s, when I was riding the rails and had a little argument with a policeman. They said, "We're not worried about that." Certain sins can be forgiven. They want to know about your credit card debt, figuring if you have a lot of it, you'd be susceptible to bribery. And they want to know if you have a temper problem, because if you do, you shouldn't work in a prison.
LUX: I taught at Sing Sing several times in the late seventies, and I always got incredibly thirsty – it was very hot. Someone told me they turn the heat up to keep inmates lethargic.
CONOVER: One day in October, when the heat came on, one of the inmates said, "Hear that? The steam's on. Same day they turn it on in the projects."
LUX: Probably my thirst was just nervousness, although I was never hassled by the prisoners. They were glad you were there. If anything, it got them out of their regular routine. Once I gave a guy an assignment and I said, "If you have time to do this, bring it next week." He said, "Time, man? That's all I got, man. Two to eight, two to eight. I got time."
CONOVER: They're grateful to teachers and other volunteers – and equally, they're antagonistic toward officers, which is frustrating if you come in with an open mind and a desire to treat people fairly. You are stressed by inmates all day, and they themselves are stressed by the conditions they live in. It's a hard place to find any peace of mind.
LUX: Did any officers read your book?
CONOVER: The officers I told seemed amused, or skeptical, or curious about what I would say. But none of them has given me any negative feedback. On the contrary, what I usually get is, "Well, finally when my wife says, ‘What did you do today?' I have an answer, and it's your book." But the top-level administrators are angry because I snuck in under their radar. I'm glad I did. The subject needs the light of day. There's no justification for keeping journalists out. Newjack was banned in New York State prisons for six months, and now a censor in Albany rips out seven pages before an inmate can receive it. The book is contraband until these pages are torn out.
LUX: Are they consecutive pages?
CONOVER: No. They mostly have to do with the training process, things like the secret grips we're taught to thwart angry inmates. And there's a description of the yard where I worked every day and where an officer I knew was badly beaten by inmates. The tower in that yard is improperly placed to protect officers, and the officer was beaten up in an area that's beyond the approved range of the Department's rifle. They didn't think inmates should know that, so instead of moving the tower, they're tearing out pages from Newjack.
LUX: That's amazing. Have you heard from any guys inside who've read your book?
CONOVER: Just a handful, all of whom say they like it. I show officers often in a positive light, but also negatively, because they misbehave. And I misbehaved, which is how I feel I can justify describing other people who are doing the wrong things, too. I write about what it's like to hold back all day long. There's never a catharsis in prison, except for violence. That's the only release.
LUX: I've written about cops in San Diego, and they're convinced that locking up prisoners and keeping them there is the main reason that there's been a big crime drop nationally. Are you scared of our attitude toward just warehousing prisoners? Is the policy going to turn around and bite us in the face?`
CONOVER: Some of the drop in crime is connected to the increase in incarceration, but just a fraction — maybe a quarter. A greater factor was the booming economy. But it can't continue at this rate — we can't afford to spend so much money on something that's essentially damaging to people. Almost everyone comes out of prison worse than they went in, whether inmates or officers.
LUX: Most of the nonfiction that people are writing today is memoir. There was a time when you didn't write memoirs unless you'd been a general or a president. Now everybody and their brother seems to be writing one. Some of these books are terrific – and others are not.
CONOVER: I think it's peaked, though I'm aware of a couple of projects in the pipeline that are terrific. Many of the most important stories to be told are about people's personal lives, and there's still a fair degree of interest in that. Occasionally someone with an interesting life will also turn out to be a good writer. On the other side, some of the memoirs seem an extension of tell-all television programs. The challenge as a writing teacher is to focus on literary quality, and the art in the story, instead of sensationalism.
LUX: That's the art of telling. No matter how unique or good the story is, it's only compelling if the writer can engage you with the narrative. What I like about what you do is that you get to go out into the world, into other worlds, to be with regular people and write about them in nonfiction. Most of what I have to do as a poet is just in my imagination, in my head. Is curiosity – wanting to know stuff, to experience things – the bottom line for writers, particularly nonfiction writers?
CONOVER: Yeah. I think curiosity about the outside world is characteristic of almost all non-fiction writers, probably most fiction writers, and I'm sure many poets. The ability to leave home and travel, whether 20 miles to Sing Sing or 5,000 miles to Africa, is one of the things I love most about my work. You could say all writing is about travel, and all reading is about leaving where you are and going somewhere else.