National Book Critics Circle Awardees for General Nonfiction

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Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000)

Written by Ted Conover

Ted Conover, the intrepid author of Coyotes, about the world of illegal Mexican immigrants, spent a year as a prison guard at Sing Sing. Newjack, his account of that experience, is a milestone in American journalism: a book that casts new and unexpected light on this nation’s prison crisis and sets a new standard for courageous, in-depth reporting.

At the infamous Sing Sing, once a model prison but now New York State’s most troubled maximum-security facility, Conover goes to work as a gallery officer, working shifts in which he alone must supervise scores of violent inner-city felons. He soon learns the impossibility of doing his job by the book. What should he do when he feels the hair-raising tingle that tells him a fight is about to break out? When he loses a key in a tussle? When a prisoner punches him in the head? Little by little, he learns to walk the fine line between leniency and tyranny that distinguishes a good guard.

Along the way, we meet a cast of characters that includes a tough but appealing supervisor named Mama Cradle; a range of mentally ill prisoners, or “bugs”; some of the jail’s more flamboyant transvestites; and a philosophical, charismatic inmate who points out to Conover that the United States is building new prisons for future felons who are now only four and five years old. Conover also gives us a history of Sing Sing (it was built by inmates, and for decades was the nation’s capital of capital punishment) in a chapter that serves as a brilliant short course in America’s penal system.

With empathy and insight, Newjack tells the story of a harsh, hidden world and dramatizes the conflict between the necessity to isolate criminals and the dehumanization—of guards as well as inmates—that almost inevitably takes place behind bars. This book won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. (Copyright © Random House. All rights reserved.)

Source:  Penguin Random House Company.

Ted Conover is the author of five books, most recently The Routes of Man (2011), about roads, and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), an account of his ten months spent working as a corrections officer at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Newjack won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001 and was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His other books are Whiteout: Lost in Aspen (1991), Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America's Illegal Migrants (1987), and Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes (1984).

Born in 1958 in Okinawa, Japan, where his father was stationed as a navy pilot, Conover was raised in an affluent Denver neighborhood. A summa cum laude graduate of Amherst College, Conover spent two years at Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar. In 2001, he received an honorary doctorate from Amherst and in 2003, a Guggenheim Fellowship. In recent years he has taught at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the University of Oregon.

Conover's books of narrative nonfiction have typically been explorations of off-beat social worlds. He will often become an active participant in the subculture he is writing about. His first experiment with this melding of anthropological and journalistic method took place in 1980, when he rode freight railroads back and forth across the western United States with some of the last remaining hobos. This experience, initially rendered as an ethnography for an honors thesis, became the basis of his first-person book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes (1984).

Conover contributes to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He lives in New York City.

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