Monday, December 18, 2006

Currently Reading - Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

My dad worked in our city's prosecutors office and on some days I would go with him at work. On the first floor of their building is the city jail. I remember watching pale prisoners sitting behind the bars, doing nothing, staring into blank space. The most striking thing about the jail for me however was the stink of the place. It was an unbearable mix of sweat and urine and god knows what else. My dad, when I misbehaved, sometimes threatened to send me to jail. It's always an effective way to shut me up.

I'm halfway through Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover, which I picked up in Evangelista about a month ago. Mr. Conover is a journalist who is into participative observation. On the jacket of the book I understand that he previously went living as a homeless man to write about it. Newjack is about his experience as a correction officer in New York's notorious Sing Sing maximum security prison.

We've seen so many movies and read books about life in prison but more often it's from the perspective of those who are behind bars. Mr. Conover's book tries to see what it's like to be on the other side of the bars, namely being a prison guard. Talking to some veteran correction officers (as they preferred to be called apparently), he was told that the title suggests a role in setting people straight. In reality however, rehabilitation is not their job. The truth is, prisons are warehouses of human beings and the prison is above all a storage unit.

The book also has a insightful look at the racial undertones of the justice system in the US. In the 1990s, according to Mr. Conover, one out of three black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine was either behind bars or on probation or parole. Young black men in California are now five times as likely to go to prison as to a state university.

Taking on the power relations that exist between prisoners and their guards, he said that prison is also a microcosm of a totalitarian society, "a nearly pure example of the police state." The men in uniform, represented by the guards, controlled nearly every aspect of the lives of those in prison. He added, "prison, more than any place I've ever seen, was about rules."

Having been reading mostly fiction, the non-fiction ones that I've been reading lately, like Our Guys (on rape), Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Newjack, had been a good departure from the usual, particularly on their calculating interpretations of modern society in different settings and in a variety of situations. Certainly, prisons have been one of the more neglected institutions but it is sometimes worth asking if indeed they are effective as deterrents to crime, pushing justice, and reforming convicts. The answers to these conundrums reflect the prevailing attitude towards justice and human rights, forces that should not be oposing to begin with but have key implications on how we treat our prisoners.

Last weekend I grabbed a copy of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. I'm quite embarrassed to talk about it because while everybody seems to have read this it's only now that I'm starting on my Alvin Toffler.

My current MRT book on the other hand is Edinburgh, which I'm reading for the second time.


About the weekend...

I had a breakfast meeting in Philcoa with my orgmates from UP Maradjaw Karadjaw, my provincial organization when I was still in college. The current members are continuing the Crayons for Peace project that we started several years back. It's an innovative initiative that integrates peace education, art studies, and values education. The beneficiaries are the children in Surigao. The crayons would be distributed this Christmas. So us alumni are supporting them on this and hopefully we can continue doing so for the next many years.

After the meeting I went to chaotic Manila, near UST, to buy my ticket for Banaue on the evening of the 23rd. God, it has been a long time since I've been on an FX. I certainly wished that I was in the MRT instead. I hardly go to Manila these days (most of the time I go to Malate if I'm in Manila) and had an interesting look at that part of the metro last weekend. The traffic in Espana was atrocious, to think that it was a weekend. There are still so many things that Manila needs to do more than the beautification that the LGU has been pretty occupied with lately. The streets are too dirty and homelessness is just too prevalent.

I'm pretty lucky to be living in Makati and working in Quezon City. Living in Makati can actually give you a false impression of Metro Manila. At least traveling from one end to another of the metro gives me a daily glimpse of what's happening to the rest of the city. Of course much of my impression is that there's just too much chaos all over. More than that however is the huge polarity between the more affluent and poorer areas. It's repulsive sometimes but I just have to live with it and hope that things would improve soon.

After Manila, I went to Greenbelt to watch Little Miss Sunshine, which has been nominated in the Golden Globes. A very funny film it is. But the asshole that I am, I was quite uncomfortable with some of the punch lines that go beyond plausibility. I'm not good at comedies at all. I keep on questioning the situations when I should accept them as they are. I hope I can catch Thank You for Smoking at the Mall of Asia tonight.

Photo credit: (1) (2) Hero Hill.

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