By Ted Conover
By arrangement with Ted Conover
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing is still considered contraband in New York state prisons–at least until the seven pages deemed a threat to security back in 2000 have been torn out. But though my book can’t come in whole, it appears that, as of last week, I can.
Rehabilitation Through The Arts, which helps stage a play at Sing Sing every year, invited me to see the inmate production of A Few Good Men. To my surprise, Sing Sing approved my visit, and then Albany said okay, as well. I was rehabilitated, politically speaking, and last Friday, for the first time since I turned in my badge in 1998, I passed back through the prison gate.
Almost three hundred civilians gathered in the prison theater, the only time all year so many outsiders are allowed inside. At least one was a professional actor from the outside world–Josie Whittlesey, who played the sole female part, a military lawyer. My wife and I pegged the male lead as another import; he had real star wattage, and we guessed that maybe he had come from some Westchester high school. (“This will help him get into Princeton,” Margot speculated.) After a moving performance and a thunderous ovation, the cast was allowed to shake hands and chat, from the stage, with the audience down below. Both sides were elated, and I must say, I’ve never felt more joy inside a prison.
As vans ferried audience members back to the prison gate, passengers were saying things like what talent! and what are these men doing in prison? Margot was particularly interested to know more about certain members of the cast, including the “high school student.” At home, I cross-referenced names from the playbill with the state’s inmate lookup site. Among the actors’ crimes were RAPE 1ST, CRIM POSS WEAP 2ND, CRIMINAL SEXUAL ACT 1ST, MURDER 2ND, ROBBERY 1ST, MANSLAUGHTER 1ST, AGGRAV ASSAULT/PEACE OFF., ATT MURDER 1ST. Some of those were committed, I’m afraid, by the same guy we pictured headed to college.
Margot was disbelieving. I didn’t have an easy answer for her, other than to remind her how many times I’d been surprised to learn the histories of men I supervised as a C.O. The costumes and the drama of the theater had made it easy for the audience to see them as somebody else. I think it probably did the same for the men themselves; for a few hours they could imagine themselves as different people, in different clothes, leading a different life. I can’t think of a better way of explaining rehabilitation-–not my kind, but the truly important kind-–than that.
Ted Conover is the author of five books, most recently The Routes of Man, about roads, and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, an account of his ten months spent working as a corrections officer at New York’s Sing Sing Prison.