Why would one of the America's foremost experiential journalists go through a grueling corrections officer training program and take on harrowing, highly stressful work in a prison? That's what Ted Conover did in the late 1990s in order to research Newjack, his account of life inside New York's notorious Sing Sing prison.
The answer, Conover tells us, has to do not only with the societal interest in understanding what goes on inside the walls. It also involves a fascination, dating to boyhood, with the walls themselves, and the hidden world they conceal.
Conover writes of passing by a small Minnesota town on the way to family reunions, seeing "a prison with a massive brick wall and turret-like guard towers," and thinking about the scene for hours. This uneasy yet intriguing glimpse of the external architecture of incarceraton provided a formative template for later encounters with such high-profile places of confinement as the Tower of London and Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary.
Every time I read this, I ask myself, "Does he mean St. Cloud?" For I, too, was once a frequent traveler past a turreted prison on the way to and from northern Minnesota. And I, too, felt the fascination Conover describes so well.
Years after my boyhood forays with my family past the stark prison near St. Cloud, I had occasion to see what is on the other side of those turrets. In September 2000, the prison administration and the St. Cloud community organized an outreach event billed as Walk Within the Walls. With the inmates on lockdown for the day (a Saturday), people were invited to tour the prison and its grounds - and formed long lines to do so.
About six months after Walk Within the Walls, I returned to Minnesota Correctional Facility - St. Cloud as part of a research team from the corrections department central office in St. Paul. We were there to administer a survey aimed at eliciting inmates' views on the quality of their healthcare services. Walking among the old-style cells, distributing the paper survey form to inmates, was a rather surreal experience at times. Each member of our team breathed a sigh of relief as we concluded our work and left the prison behind.
Fascination from afar is one thing; the reality inside is quite another.