Journalist Ted Conover went undercover for nearly one year working as a prison guard at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. His work was praised and criticized. As Conover told us in October, his time undercover was incredibly stressful, painfully isolating and ethically fraught but nonetheless it was necessary to get the story out.
Galag-AArtist: Harmonic 313
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. And here’s Brooke again with the concluding part of our exploration of the undercover reporting genre. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ted Conover teaches journalism at New York University. He’s also a master of the kind of journalism we've just been discussing, the undercover kind, in his case, the kind where a writer sheds the persona of journalist and submerges himself into another way of life. For his book, Rolling Nowhere, he rode freight trains across America with some of the last remaining hoboes. In his book, Coyotes, he spent a year with Mexican migrants shuttling across the border. In Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, he spent nearly a year as a prison guard in Ossining, New York. He said he likes writing where the writer has something at stake, where he doesn't depend too heavily on experts but rather has had time to think and research and transform himself into an expert, where the urgency of the subject can transform the writing into an act of witnessing. Ten years ago, he had the urge to become that kind of expert on prison. TED CONOVER: The first thought was well, could I be incarcerated? And the answer is, yes. But then could I stop being incarcerated when I wanted to? And the answer is probably no. I thought a really interesting way to write about it would be through the perspective of guards, through correction officers. So I got assigned by The New Yorker to write about a family of officers upstate. I thought all by itself that’s interesting - that generations of people work in the same prison – and got permission to visit one prison where a family I had met worked. But then I couldn't go back, and they wouldn't let me see them talking to inmates or doing the job. I'd heard about the Corrections Academy in Albany, which is a two-month training facility. And I thought that would be interesting, to see how the values of the profession are instilled in raw recruits. That could be great, to watch somebody go through. And they said, oh, we never let journalists into that. And they acted like it was the CIA, but, in fact, the Department of Correctional Services is the largest employer in New York State, after Verizon. At that point, I thought I had passed a test for no longer declaring what I planned to do. I thought, I am going to take the corrections officer exam, and I took it. And I didn't lie on the application. I had done lots of menial jobs to support myself as a writer. I listed all of them. So I got hired. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you prepare yourself, beyond the actual training? TED CONOVER: You know, the training gives you good preparation for being yelled at all day by angry men who are stronger than you and for being intimidated, because that’s kind of what it’s about. You’re in a place where people dislike you because of your uniform, you’re outnumbered, and yet there are certain standards of conduct you have to maintain. And mainly, they try to teach you not to lose your temper, because it’s when you lose your temper that bad things happen. If you can just control yourself and not get angry and not look scared, things are usually okay. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that letting the prisoners out of their cells for meals felt like opening Pandora’s Box. Can you talk about a specific day when something really went wrong? TED CONOVER: There were so many. Probably the worst day was the day I lost my temper. I had a trainee – I'd been there now seven or eight months – and she was sent to find out where everyone was going after lunch. You go to the gym, you go to the school to work on your GED, you go to the yard, and somebody has to fill out a form. She did that, and an inmate exposed himself – and worse – to her, and she came back looking just destroyed. And I got so angry at that guy, I went down and just yelled at him at the top of my lungs, basically. And everybody got so excited, mocking me. And I took the mirror of a guy who was using it to see when I was coming, but the next time I went by, he somehow both spit on me and swung at me at the same time and got me right behind the ear and knocked me over. And I wasn't hurt, but I was humiliated, because being a C.O. is all about control, and the whole cellblock was whooping and shouting. And it was days until I realized that the real injury I suffered was the way I felt about all inmates as I drove home that day. I just – I hated all those guys. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that prison was full of frustration and very little catharsis, and the more you did the job, the more you longed for the use of force. TED CONOVER: Absolutely true. And that particular day I went and told the sergeant what happened, and his first question to me was, he swung at you out of his cell? I said, yeah. He said why didn't you break his arm? And the thought had occurred to me. You've got this amazing leverage of having bars between the body and the end of the arm. I could have broken his arm. And such was my state that the thought was very appealing, and that’s – that’s kind of nasty, isn't it? [LAUGHS] That’s kind of sick. But it has a logic in prison. I did not get to exercise any force that day. He did. He felt great. I felt like a fool. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the most surprising thing you learned as a newjack? TED CONOVER: One of the most surprising things is that I could react that way, as a college-educated person who’s empathetic and, you know, [SIGHS] I thought that wouldn't happen to me. I never understood why people in prison could act the way they do. And, you know, you figure, oh, there’s just something unhealthy in the air, but it’s built into the very architecture of a prison – who gets to move around, who’s stuck in their box, the mechanisms of locking and gates, the dehumanizing effect of that on the majority of residents of a prison, and then the corresponding dehumanization of the person who has power over them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were isolated from the people you were working with ‘cause they didn't know really who you were, and you were isolated from your wife because she knew who you were but didn't know what you were experiencing. Can you talk a little bit about how that affected you? TED CONOVER: I think it’s a - almost a fixed characteristic of any undercover experience, especially a stressful one, which I imagine most of them are. During this time, I watched Donnie Brasco, the [BROOKE LAUGHS] movie about an informant – I think he’s an FBI informant with the mob. And like all such stories, I mean, people know this, that it messes up your life, right? You start drinking too much. Maybe you do some of those drugs. Instead of coming home to take care of your kid and help your wife with the dishes, you stay out late and you - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Decompress. TED CONOVER: Yes, or - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Worse. TED CONOVER: Veer off in the wrong direction. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Right. And it was no different for me. I wanted to spare my family the dirtiness of that job. I felt like I brought home a smell. I remember one day – Sing-Sing has these long, dark corridors, and I was walking with another officer between two gates, and I slipped. And we looked down and I had slipped in a pool of blood, because almost every day [LAUGHS] at Sing-Sing a prisoner was stabbing another one. That’s – that’s kind of creepy. I'd never had that [LAUGHS] happen before. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think? TED CONOVER: [LAUGHING] And I should have gone home and said, honey, well, it was a good day, but I slipped in blood and that’s why my pants look this way. But I took ‘em off, I washed ‘em. I didn't want her to know. And that - I think in retrospect, that’s not the right way to handle it, you know? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE] TED CONOVER: But that is how I handled it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it’s incredibly stressful and difficult work. But, it’s also kind of exciting, isn't it? Nobody knows who you are. You’re writing about them. You’re leading a double life. There’s an element of subversion to all of this. TED CONOVER: Oh sure. I mean, that’s how you keep going back, because every day you’re seeing something none of your friends have ever seen and that most people in society don't know about. I was wearing two hats at the same time. I mean, the guard was, by far, what occupied my consciousness and everything else most of the day, ‘cause that was so demanding. But at some level I was also thinking, wow, I've got to write that down. And then I could step into this little office I had – it was a cell converted to an o - it had a desk instead of a bunk. And I, I'd write down, like, a joke - how many C.O.s does it take to push an inmate down the stairs? BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many? TED CONOVER: None. He fell. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Okay, so I would write that down. I'd write down slang. I'd write down stuff that I knew I'd want to put into my notes. And so, yes, that is exciting to think - I am just seeing amazing things, and the telling of this, it’s going to be really satisfying to be able to stop someday and put all this down. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you say to the criticisms that there is no story worth misrepresenting yourself for? TED CONOVER: Well, first of all, was I a guard? Yes. I was not an imposter, in terms of my determination to do a good job, to do an honorable job, to do a job by the rules, to put myself on the line for the people around me the way they were doing for me. Did I fully expect to quit? Yes. Did I fully expect, when I quit, to write about it? Yes. Did I fully expect that some of these people I worked with would be surprised to hear that all along I'd been planning to write about it? Yes. All of that is true. But I didn't approach this particular project thinking, I'm going to go get the goods on those people, which would be one way to approach it, and not necessarily a bad way. I'm not saying it would be impossible to do that in an ethical fashion. If there was a prison, say, which was notorious, you know, which was corrupt, where bad things were happening, could a journalist feel justified in sneaking in there under false pretenses to see what was going on? I think so. I think the public has an interest in knowing, and I think that would be okay. This particular project, I thought, would be more interesting if I could go beyond expose to showing what it was like to do this work. So I talk about every single bad thing I saw. Everyone asks me, why don't you talk about prison rape? Well, believe me, I looked for it everywhere [LAUGHS] I thought I might find it. That’s what everybody wants to know, and that’s what they expect from the movies. I didn't find it. I heard about it occasionally. I, I wrote about that. But I didn't want to be tabloid. I thought, this is going to be so interesting, all by itself, just in the day-to-day examination of what it was like to do the work. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you were sincere in your work, even as you observed and you wrote about it. On the other hand, you do describe a situation where it seems as if you felt that you might be exposed, that your cover might be blown, and therefore you had a cover. TED CONOVER: It’s true. As in so many situations, when you do journalism, you don't go into every situation disclosing everything about yourself. Okay? It’s not just journalism. Whether you’re a doctor or a salesman or a lawyer, whatever, you don't go into every situation and blurt out absolutely everything that might interest the person you’re about to interact with. Now, as a journalist, does it behoove you to disclose the fact that you’re a journalist? Yes, under ordinary circumstances, that’s what I do. That’s what I teach students to do. But there are circumstances where it’s impossible, if you hope to find out something important. So can that be justified in certain circumstances? I think it can. I know there are those who disagree. I was written about in The L.A. Times when my book came out, and the reporter called somebody from the Poynter Institute, which is like the journalist’s superego, as you know, [BROOKE LAUGHS] down in Florida - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly. TED CONOVER: - looking to make sure we all dot our i’s and cross our t’s in an ethical fashion. And his comment was, well, if Conover’s coworkers didn't know the whole story about him, how can we as readers know he’s telling the truth to us? And to me, that’s a non-sequitur. One doesn't lead to the other. My writing is true. It’s fact-checked. It’s honest. I tell what’s really on my mind. Can you believe me? Well, I hope so. And I think most readers have shown that they do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you do this again? I mean, in Newjack I was, frankly, astonished to learn that after your nine months, you were up to take another test and you wanted - TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: - to take it, and your wife evidently said, are you nuts? TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: It stops here. TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] They only offer the sergeant exam every five years. Was I going to let that opportunity [BROOKE LAUGHS] slip by? I mean, who knows? This is the way I was thinking at the time. We don't know what life will bring us. I mean, look right now, the stock market crashing around us. I've always, as a freelance, felt the sort of – [OVERTALK] BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were looking at [TED LAUGHING] prison guard as a career to fall back on? TED CONOVER: Well, it’s a steady job, and I seem to do an okay job at it. And I thought, well, with a sergeant salary I'd, you know – it’s nuts. Of course, it’s nuts. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But that’s where my head was. And when she gave me a little shake, I was – I was happy, but I - some part of me still thought, well, it couldn't hurt just to sign up. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I - you know, it’s funny. It’s like Keats said, you hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, and one is that I'm a C.O. and then the other is that I'm a, I’m a writer, I'm a journalist. And we all have multiple roles. I just like to think if a journalist is imaginative, he or she can find some unusual kinds of roles that have to do with the conduct of our nation. And if you have enough forbearance to put up with whatever that job’s going to require, that, that can be pretty interesting. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have anything else in mind? TED CONOVER: I have a few ideas, but I can't tell you. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You'd have to break my arm. TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] I wouldn't do that to you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Ted, thank you so much. TED CONOVER: Thank you very much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted Conover teaches narrative nonfiction at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.