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The Effects of Prisons on Prison Guards: A Review of Newjack by Ted Conover

By Elaine Cassel

Much is written about the “prisonization” of prison inmates. But what about prison guards? How does prison change them?

Social psychologists are concerned with social influence, the way in which people and social institutions influence the behavior of individuals. Prisons are a world like no other in modern life, a world in which gangs and wardens struggle for control, and a world in which the slightest affront to a prisoner or guard can lead to violence, even death. Many books and articles have been written about the adjustment prisoners have to make to prison life in order to get out alive (those that are not sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty).

But award-winning journalist Ted Conover wanted to know what happened to prison guards. So he went undercover and got a job as a guard in New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison. He tells his story in Newjack (2001, Vintage Books). (“Newjack” is the term used for rookie prison guards.) Conover had little preparation for what confronted him.

The first thing he confronted was constant fear and anxiety for his life. He realized that being a prison guard was among the most dangerous jobs in the world, second only, perhaps, to the cops on the street. Prisoners test incoming prisoners to see how they will fit into the prison structure. They do the same to guards. On the first day, Conover was punched in the head as he walked by a cell. The other guards left him to figure out for himself how to deal with it. Prison guards regard prisoners as the lowest form of life; prisoners feel the same about the guards.

Conover discovered that every day on the job was filled with stress. Part of the stress arose from most days being monotonous, punctuated by the occasional violence. Changes took place in Conover’s basic information-processing activities—he was constantly wary and watchful.

Conover found how hard it was to see the prisoners as human beings and to stay true to his humanistic roots. He understood how guards could adopt a stance of beating and bullying prisoners. Often guards felt that they were the ones being held hostage by prisoner’s threats and taunts.

Conover found that prison guards have almost as little respect outside of prison as they do inside. He learned that the public lacks respect for people who do this job that requires generally only a high-school diploma and pays barely above minimum wage. Stress on the job spills over into the home. Conover was shocked to find how often he came home sullen and angry. He was unable to get outside of his “role” as a guard. He wondered what would have happened to him, his marriage, and his family if his job were not going to end in one year.

In the 1971, Stanford psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Craig Haney conducted their famous “Stanford Prison Experiment.” They recruited psychology graduate students to play “guards” and “inmates.” Zimbardo himself was the warden. The experiment had to be abandoned after several days because the guards quickly got abusive—not physically because the experimenters controlled that. But their emotional and verbal aggressions, their sense of entitlement, got the best of them. They could not just play a part. The part became a part of them.

Students participating in the experiment talked about how having a uniform and a badge encouraged them to treating the “prisoners” like their inferiors. Imagine what it is like to be in a real prison, where some guards carry guns, sticks, and chemical weapons.

The goal of the Zimbardo experiment was to test the notion that most evil is the product of ordinary people caught up in unusual circumstances that they are not equipped to cope with in normal ways. The experiment proved precisely that. It proved what Conover found—that prison guards adopt a group identity and use their power to gain control over their prisoners in any way that the situation allows.Newjacks quickly lose their scruples and adopt group norms, even if it violates their previously held attitudes about how prisoners should be treated.

In Zimbardo’s experiment, the student guards were “debriefed.” That does not happen when someone stops being a real prison guard. Conover had to go back to living a “normal life,” but he reports lingering effects from his days inside prison walls. When Conover’s book was published, Sing Sing was not too happy about Conover’s trick. He had carried off his subterfuge and now people were standing in line in New York bookstores to buy his book and hear him speak. Some of his fellow guards felt betrayed as well; but others felt that he had done them a favor by exposing the dangers in their jobs.
Newjack is not judgmental; it is a work of journalism, not policy. But it adds to the body of literature about the terrible toll that the prisonization of America takes on society.
Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College