The fall from politico to prisoner isn't necessarily long, but the landing, as Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith learned, is a hard one.
In 2009, Smith pleaded guilty to a seemingly minor charge of campaign malfeasance and earned himself a year and one day in Kentucky's FCI Manchester. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is the fish-out-of-water story of his time in the big house; of the people he met there and the things he learned: how to escape the attentions of fellow inmate Cornbread and his friends in the Aryan Brotherhood; what constitutes a prison car and who's allowed to ride in yours; how to bend and break the rules, whether you're a prisoner or an officer. And throughout his sentence, the young Senator tracked the greatest crime of all: the deliberate waste of untapped human potential.
Smith saw the power of millions of inmates harnessed as a source of renewable energy for America's prison-industrial complex, a system that aims to build better criminals instead of better citizens. In Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, he traces the cracks in America's prison walls, exposing the shortcomings of a racially-based cycle of poverty and crime that sets inmates up to fail. Speaking from inside experience, he offers practical solutions to jailbreak the nation from the financially crushing grip of its own prisons and to jumpstart the rehabilitation of the millions living behind bars.
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About the Author
Jeff Smith was a Missouri State Senator from 2007 to 2009, representing the city of St. Louis. After serving a year-long sentence in FCI Manchester for obstruction of justice, he is now an assistant professor at the New School's Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Planning. He is the author of Ferguson in Black and White, an ebook exploring the roots of the racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri. He lives in New Jersey.
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Mr. Smith Goes to Prison
What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis
By Jeff Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jeff Smith
All rights reserved.
"THE MISSILE'S ALREADY LEFT THE SILO"
How I Went to Prison Instead of Washington
I was twenty-nine when I decided to run for Congress. It was summer 2003, and President Bush had just invaded Iraq. I was incensed about the war and distressed about the Bush tax cuts given the looming expense of boomer retirement. But the issue that animated me was education reform and St. Louis's school-to-prison pipeline. To understand my passion, one must first understand my father's.
My dad dreamed that I'd play in the NBA. That he was five-foot-six and my mom was five-foot-two did not deter him. When I was three years old, my parents took me to the pediatrician, and my dad asked him about my chances at basketball stardom. "I've got good news and bad news," he said. "The good news is, your son's healthy. The bad news: he's in the third percentile in both height and weight."
"Well," replied my mom optimistically, "at least he's not in the first or second percentile."
"There's actually no such thing," said the doctor grimly.
But my dad didn't abandon his hoop dreams. Starting when I was about nine, he would take me to gyms and playgrounds in dilapidated parts of St. Louis where dusk brought with it the sound of gunfire, advising me to tell my mom that he had taken me to play golf. By my senior year of high school — then five-foot-three — I became a pretty good point guard and the only white starter on a team of mostly black kids bused out to our suburb via a special interdistrict program. Basketball was my lingua franca, my bridge to their world. At the preseason physical, I weighed ninety-three pounds. My coach looked at the trainer and shrugged. "Jesus Christ, we can't list him at that. Just put down one hundred."
I was probably the smallest person in every high school game I ever played, but on the court I never felt small; as point guard and captain, I called the plays and directed traffic. On defense, I was tenacious and got a lot of steals. But the opposing coach usually called plays to isolate me down on the blocks. Since my counterpart was often a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller, I was forced to learn every defensive trick in the book; that grit would define me.
My senior year, we were ranked number one in the region. My teammates had become my closest friends. One told me, "People think we're stupid 'cause we come out on the bus. But this school is three, four years ahead of my old school. I can barely keep up." He was right: most county kids thought the city kids were dumb, and they didn't disguise it. Seeing the difference between our worlds — their crowded neighborhoods and ramshackle homes versus my own middle-class street with trees and lawns and actual space between the houses; their lousy education at city elementary schools versus our schooling in one of the state's top districts — opened my eyes to the inequities that persisted forty years after Brown v. Board of Education and made me want to fix them.
I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I was one of two white students majoring in Black Studies, to the chagrin of my family and some of my professors. My dad, who'd done so much to expose me to black culture via basketball, advised me to be more practical. "If you want to be a doctor, do premed. If you want to be a lawyer, do prelaw. I hate to break it to you, Jeffrey, but you'll never be black."
When I returned to St. Louis after graduation, I wanted to teach black history in the city public schools, which had some of the state's lowest test scores and highest dropout rates. I applied but couldn't get hired without a teaching certificate. Instead, I was hired in part to evaluate and train certified teachers. I wish I could say that in my time there, I learned about the roots of the achievement gap or how best to address it. But those weren't my main takeaways.
Though well paid, the district's administrators generally performed without accountability or urgency. I could offer dozens of examples, but one stands out. I had just returned to the central office from a mid-November school visit at which I had encountered a teacher who told me that she still hadn't received the textbooks she'd ordered during the summer, and I went down to the department in charge of educational materials. When I explained the teacher's predicament, the man who appeared to be in charge eyed me wearily. "What kind of book?"
"I'm not in charge of that," he said impassively.
"So ... who is?"
"She won't be back till after Thanksgiving," he said with finality.
"So, who could help me now ... or point me to the books?"
"Didn't I just tell you she's on vacation?"
That lack of urgency — two more weeks students would go without books and the guy was completely blasé! — was both ubiquitous and mystifying: the district had lost two-thirds of its students in the last thirty years, and it was about to lose state accreditation. Just one in every ten freshmen would attend a four-year college; half would fail to graduate. A stunning proportion of black male dropouts would end up in prison before age thirty-five. This was hardly unique: one Harvard study pegged the rate of incarceration nationally at 60 percent. The amount of money the nation wasted on this was mind-boggling: a joint Columbia-Princeton study estimated that society could save $209,000 in prison and other costs for every potential dropout who completed high school instead. But absent drastic change, another generation of kids would be lost — in fact, multiple generations, because children of incarcerated men were far more likely than other children to end up in prison themselves.
That challenge would animate my next decade. After my frustrating tenure with a school district plagued by a sclerotic bureaucracy, I joined a woman who ran the city's interdistrict busing program to cofound a charter school that had more flexibility in its curriculum and personnel. Confluence Academy began with 250 kids whose parents gave us a chance; it now educates 3,500 students on five campuses.
While working for the public schools, I took a night job teaching ACT and SAT test-prep courses for Kaplan, but I soon realized that I didn't want to spend my life teaching rich kids how to beat a test. To make broad changes in public policy, I would need a graduate degree. I originally figured I'd continue with my primary major, African American Studies, and called one of my college professors to request a reference. "Jeff," he said, "I can't in good conscience write this rec. No white AF-AM Ph.D. will get a job these days." After hearing similar though slightly more diplomatic advice from another professor, I decided to pursue a doctorate in political science instead.
During grad school, I continued at Kaplan, where I taught a high school senior who was a top-flight Division I basketball recruit. He lived in the projects; his summer league team paid his Kaplan tuition. Despite his 3.0 high school GPA, his original ACT score was lower than the likely score of someone guessing randomly. Tutoring him at his apartment, I realized that he was illiterate. After we spent months reading Sports Illustrated together a word at a time, he earned a high enough score to attend a Big East school on a full scholarship and later play pro ball. Without a qualifying ACT score, he would've gone the junior college route, and the odds from there to pro ball were not much better than the lottery.
From this beginning, I created a tutoring program for disadvantaged high school athletes to help them earn scores above the threshold necessary for freshman eligibility, since failing to do so would cost them scholarship offers. I used Kaplan's copyrighted materials, telling myself that Kaplan was doing just fine, and anyway, these kids couldn't afford a $1,000 class. (I charged $50.) If they became NCAA Proposition 48 casualties and lost scholarship offers, I reasoned, many would quit high school; the statistics for black males were pretty clear from there: unemployment and likely brushes with the law. Here were some kids with the chance to escape, and since Kaplan wasn't losing business, no one was getting hurt. In five years I taught over a hundred athletes, many of whom went on to earn D-I scholarship offers. The ends justified the means, I thought. That view would come back to haunt me a decade later.
* * *
In 2000, I spent a year working in Iowa on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. Then I went back to grad school, and one day after completing my doctoral exams, I got a call from a man named Steve Brown. He was thirty-five, recently remarried with a big new house and a plan to run for the Missouri House of Representatives. On the advice of a mutual friend, he called me to discuss the race. We met for lunch at Blueberry Hill, a diner famous for its burgers, antique jukeboxes, and the weekly Chuck Berry shows held in its basement concert venue, the Duck Room. I was a few minutes late.
As I walked in, a bear of a man — six-foot-two, 275, I guessed — approached from the bar. He was wearing an expensive suit, monogrammed cuff links, and a watch that cost more than I made in a year. (I soon learned that he owned five such watches.) He shook my hand firmly and led me to his table, where he was on his second Diet Coke. "If you're early, then you're on time," he said. "If you're on time, you're late. And if you're late, don't bother showing up. That's what Vince Lombardi used to say."
Steve inhaled his burger. I asked him why he was running for state rep. "Hell, I wanna be a United States senator, but you gotta start somewhere." He laughed. His family had resources that could be leveraged, he said — a billionaire uncle and a father worth $100 million. No one would outspend him; of that he would make sure. He talked about his college football days and vowed to destroy his primary foe like he used to destroy opponents at the line of scrimmage. I hesitated when he asked me to manage his campaign, and he promised I could hire whomever I wanted. "Money is no object," he said. I accepted.
Our opponent in the primary was Dr. Sam Page, a wealthy anesthesiologist and town councilman who also had the ability to self-fund. Unbeknown to Steve, Sam had quietly begun his campaign a year earlier, and he had already garnered the support of the Democratic establishment.
Lacking endorsements, we went directly to voters. I hired a bright, capable Washington University senior named Nick Adams as my deputy, and other former students under him. We swarmed voters with enthusiastic young canvassers, using an Iowa caucus model. They learned, as I had, that every single voter mattered.
The only problem with our model was the candidate. I was used to doing 125 or 150 doors a night, but when we canvassed together, he'd often stop after 25 or 30 doors and ask to go home. He was too tired from playing squash that morning. It was too hot. He'd promised his wife they'd have dinner.
Yet I found Steve endearing. He was as loyal as anyone I'd known; he even defended me when his wife got angry that I demanded so much of his time. He was surprisingly athletic and always game for a contest, whether in tennis, basketball, golf, or squash. Generous to a fault, he'd take the staff out for wings and beer whenever the mood struck. He remembered everyone he met on the campaign trail. And for a guy with five Rolexes and three country club memberships, he could relate to voters; he knew they'd rather talk about the Cardinals than the state budget. He genuinely liked people. You just can't teach that.
Steve spent liberally from his family fortune, as did Sam Page. The difference? Page felt it; Steve didn't. In fact, when I asked if Steve could come up with another $10,000, he replied, "If I'm gonna call my uncle for money, it's easier to ask for a million than ten grand." In what was the most expensive house primary in state history, Steve lost by twenty-eight votes. Sometimes I wonder how things might have turned out differently had we convinced fifteen Page voters to pull the lever for Steve.
* * *
When House minority leader Dick Gephardt, arguably the most powerful member of Congress in Missouri history, decided in January 2003 to run for president and not seek reelection in 2004, a bevy of ambitious politicians lined up to succeed him. By Labor Day, following declarations of candidacy by six others, I had been bitten by the bug.
I knew a congressional candidate needed three things to be successful: a resonant message, a strategy, and money. I figured I might have the first: I was pissed off at the war in Iraq and a tax structure that seemed tilted toward the rich and was causing deficits that would cripple future generations. As for the second, my experience with the Bradley campaign and Steve's nearly successful run had taught me how to run a grassroots campaign against the establishment. Number three was the problem. Not only did I lack money, but I knew very few people who had it — and those who did were mostly either apolitical or Republicans.
Instead of focusing on my doctoral thesis as my family had urged, I'd spent the summer coaching basketball camps. I was sitting on the deck at the home of my high school coach one Friday night, drinking beer and arguing about which kids at camp had D-I potential, which kid was the laziest, and which kid's mom was most attractive, when my phone buzzed.
It was Steve Brown. "Man, I'm getting impatient," he said. "I hate sitting on the sidelines. I think I'm gonna come in heavy for Claire." Claire McCaskill was Missouri's state auditor at the time. "That cocksucker Holden, the way he fucked me, he's gonna pay for that." Bob Holden, then Missouri's governor, had stayed neutral in Steve's house primary, despite Steve's family having been top fund-raisers for Holden. "Claire called me, she wants to have lunch. I like her style. She doesn't fuck around. She's gonna primary him, and I think she can take him. We're having lunch next week. Whaddaya think? Can she win?"
"Well, yeah, I think she can. The governor is weak enough with the base to make him vulnerable in a primary. As far as you jumping in big, well, I guess you don't have much to lose. After the way you left things with the governor last year, I don't see him doing much for you any time soon."
"He'll never do shit for me. I'm gonna help Claire, but I'm not gonna do shit for anyone anymore without a hard and fast promise — except for you, because you're my friend, and I know you'll be there when I need you. From now on, though, I'm not lifting a fucking finger for anyone until I get an ironclad promise that they'll be with me in a primary — no ifs, ands, or buts."
"I understand, Steve."
"So I'm gonna help her. I don't wanna just sit on the sidelines all my life. I wanna play in some of this stuff."
"Well, there may be another race for you to play in," I blurted out.
"Steve, I know it sounds crazy, but I'm thinking about running for Gephardt's open seat."
"Wow. That's a lot to bite off. Wow. I don't know what to say. I think maybe you can do it. Russ is weak. And Mark Smith? Come on," Steve scoffed. "He's assistant dean for something at the law school, he's a nobody, he's got no juice, trust me." Steve's father served on the board of trustees at the law school.
"Well, if I run, I don't want him in the race. Two Smiths isn't real promising against one Carnahan. Hell, one Smith isn't real promising against one Carnahan ... although hopefully some distant cousin of his will get inspired and run, too."
"Good point." We laughed at the thought.
"Steve, I'm gonna need your help if I do this." This was an understatement. I would need him to get out every country club directory he had — and there were several — to make calls and introduce me to people.
"You know I'll be there for you. You went balls-out for me. I'll be there for you. We didn't quite pull it off for me, but we will next time. And in the meantime, you're gonna make some waves. You may not win, but you're gonna surprise people."
"I'm not running to surprise people. I'm only running if I think I can win. If I can't raise a hundred grand my first quarter in, I won't run." Probably too high a bar, I thought to myself, but it sounded good, ambitious, strong.
Excerpted from Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Jeff Smith. Copyright © 2015 Jeff Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. "THE MISSILE'S ALREADY LEFT THE SILO" How I Went to Prison Instead of Washington,
2. "HAVE SOME RESPECT, MR. 90210!" A Crash Course in Prison Life,
3. "THE SENATOR BE EMBEZZLING ... HE A REGULAR CONVICT NOW!" Inside the Bowels of the Prison-Industrial Complex,
4. "PRISON'S JUST LIKE THE STREET — WITH A DIFFERENT COLOR OF CHIPS" Hustling: The Vibrant World of Prison Entrepreneurship,
5. "THIS IS JAIL, NOT YALE" The Demise of Country Club Prisons,
6. "YOU BEST NOT GO TO SLEEP TONIGHT, CELLIE" Exploring the Prison Psyche,
7. "YOU DON'T WANNA GET A CELLIE WITH BOOBS" Sex and Intimacy in the Cell Block,
8. "THIS AIN'T T-BALL, LITTLE SENATOR, WE AIN'T GIVIN' YOU NO TEE!" Prison Culture, Explained,
9. "YOU'LL BE BACK, SHITBIRD" Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,