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“Mr. Smith Goes to Prison”: After Year in Jail, Former State Senator Condemns Mass Incarceration

StorySeptember 01, 2015
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The first time Jeff Smith appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?,” which chronicled his 2004 campaign for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt. Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, but his surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy for an election law violation tied to the 2004 campaign. Smith was sentenced to one year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison. He chronicles his experience in his new book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis,” which he calls “a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens.” We speak with Smith, now an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, about what he learned in prison and his thoughts about criminal justice reform.

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Web ExclusiveSep 01, 2015Ex-Politician Jeff Smith: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The first time our next guest, Jeff Smith, appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? The year chronicled in the film was 2004. Jeff Smith was a 29-year-old unknown college professor vying for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt.

JEFF SMITH: So, this woman who was a friend of my grandma’s, she got the first solicitation letter we sent during the campaign, and she calls my grandma says, “Ida, this is wonderful. Your grandson is running for Congress.” And my grandma, who’s 96, said, “No, I don’t think he’s running for Congress. He’s running for the state Legislature.” And the woman said, “Ida, I’m looking at the letter right here. He’s running for U.S. Congress.” And my grandma said, “Well, if he’s really running for U.S. Congress, you ought to save your money.”

JEFF SMITH’S GRANDMOTHER: I don’t think the things that a person with the mind that he has should waste it on politics.

JEFF SMITH: You know, my dad just pretty much laughed in my face.

JEFF SMITH’S FATHER: He said, “I’m going to run for Dick Gephardt’s spot in the U.S. House of Representatives.” And I said, “What? Are you nuts?”

JEFF SMITH: The system is fundamentally flawed. It is broken.

UNIDENTIFIED: Normally a pollster will fudge a little and say, “Well, Jeff, you got five,” or, “You’re at three.” And, I mean, this pollster said, “You’re not even on here.”

JEFF SMITH: My name is Jeff Smith. I’m running for the congressional seat that Dick Gephardt is leaving.

JO MANNIES: I was surprised to even know who Jeff Smith was. So you begin to kind of wonder, “Well, maybe there’s something out there.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, the scion of a Missouri political dynasty. His father, Mel, was governor, running for Senate when he died in a plane crash. His mother, Jean Carnahan, became the senator.

But Smith’s surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Jeff Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009. That’s when he pled guilty to conspiracy for lying to federal investigators about his involvement in creating a flier critical of Carnahan in the 2004 congressional campaign. Jeff Smith was sentenced to a year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison. He chronicles his experience in his new book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. Smith writes, quote, that the book “is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Jeff Smith. Now he’s an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School here in New York, yes, former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, on the board of the nonprofit, Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP. He’s also author of the e-book, Ferguson in Black and White.

Jeff Smith, welcome back to Democracy Now!

JEFF SMITH: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, let’s start out with how you ended up in jail. How did you end up in prison?

JEFF SMITH: OK. So, it was my 2004 congressional campaign, and it was about a month out from Election Day. We had about 700 volunteers. We were moving in the polls. We could feel it. But I didn’t think we had enough to get over the top. At that point, two of my aides were approached by a third party, who said that he wanted to put out a postcard highlighting my opponent Russ Carnahan’s dismal attendance record in the state House. My aides came to me, and instead of telling them, “I don’t think we’re supposed to deal with a third party,” I said, “Look, I don’t want to know any details. Just don’t tell me what you do.” And they didn’t.

The postcard came out a few weeks later just before Election Day, and Mr. Carnahan filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against me alleging coordination. I responded by signing an affidavit denying any knowledge of the postcard, even though I knew my aides met with the third party. Five years later, when I was in the state Senate, my best friend wore a wire for two months and got me to admit that I knew about a meeting between my aides and the guy who did the postcard. And the prosecutor basically gave me a choice: I could either cooperate and help them get other people or go to prison. And I want to prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Why wouldn’t you cooperate?

JEFF SMITH: The people that they were interested in were not bad people, I didn’t think, and I didn’t want to help them in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So you went to prison, what, 500 miles away from where you lived. Where was the prison?

JEFF SMITH: The prison was in what The New York Times has called the most miserable county in the country, Clay County, Kentucky, one of the poorest places, one of the most drug-addicted counties in the country, former coal-mining area, but the coal mines are all gone now, and they’ve had a lot of deep problems with unemployment and drug use.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you sent there? Are there no other prisons closer to where you lived?

JEFF SMITH: No, there were several prisons closer to where I lived, but I wasn’t exactly on good terms with the prosecutor when I didn’t cooperate. So I think that might have had something to do with it, but I don’t know for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: There was a 500-mile rule.


AMY GOODMAN: You had to be within 500 miles of home, and so you were on the 500-mile mark.


AMY GOODMAN: So talk about prison. What did you find there? What surprised you most?

JEFF SMITH: What surprised me most was the incredible untapped human potential in prison that we’re wasting. I saw guys whose business instincts were as sharp as those of the CEOs who had wined and dined me the year before, when I was a state senator, guys that were selling something that was illegal in a past life, but understood the same concepts that you’d learn at Harvard Business School—risk management, territorial expansion, new product launch, quality control. They intuitively grasped all these concepts from running successful drug businesses, and, if nurtured properly, as a couple different nonprofits are working to do now, could be very successful business people on the outside when they finish.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the stories, of Catfish, of BJ, some of your fellow prisoners.

JEFF SMITH: OK. Well, you mentioned BJ, and he was a—he was an interesting one. He had been a successful drug dealer in Detroit for about 15 years and then got caught up. He had two passions. He was passionate about luxury sports cars and about women. And from the inside, his 19-year-old son—he had directed his 19-year-old son to start a company that would—a website that was pornographic and featured women having sex on top of luxury sports cars. He had bought the domain name. He had appointed his 19-year-old son vice president for talent development, and they were auditioning people. And he was running all of this from the prison. This was just—

AMY GOODMAN: Did he have big car sponsors?

JEFF SMITH: You know, I’m not exactly sure, but he had a business plan that he had written. He asked me to look through it. It was very impressive. And this was not unusual. I highlight that story because of the humor in it, but there were many men who had already written out business plans for personal fitness businesses, where they would train people; for restaurants; for landscaping businesses—all sorts of things. There was just a tremendous amount of both entrepreneurial potential and passion and desire to get back in the world and fly straight.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, I want to ask you about how you feel prisons encourage prisoners to be prisoners for the rest of their lives or commit crimes rather than to be rehabilitated. We’re talking to Jeff Smith. He is author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. Back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Damian Marley, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We are talking to Jeff Smith. He’s author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My [Year] Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. He writes that the book is “a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens.” Explain, Jeff.

JEFF SMITH: Well, first of all, prison is an incredibly dehumanizing experience, and it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s other countries, particularly in Europe, in Scandinavia, where prison is treated like a break from society, where you can acquire a skill, and then you can come back out into the world and be successful. That’s not how we do things in most of this country. There was almost no rehabilitative component or educational possibilities where I went to prison. In one year, there was a GED course taught once and then a hydroponics course for two weeks. That’s how to grow tomatoes in water. Right? So not a lot of real practical training to be able to come back and successfully re-enter society.

Another way that prison, I would say, is criminogenic is that one thinks—

AMY GOODMAN: Criminogenic?

JEFF SMITH: Encourages more crime—is that when—when we want to reduce recidivism, we know one very simple way to do it is to keep people in close contact with their loved ones and community support. And yet everything about prison makes that difficult. You know how expensive it is to make phone calls home in prison? These phone companies—I know you guys have done some stuff on these private phone companies that are gouging prisoners. Sometimes it could cost $3 or $4 a minute to talk to a loved one. You don’t have any money in prison. Most guys in there still owe court costs, you know, from before they came in. And people are just hustling to try to get by. If—

AMY GOODMAN: How much did you make? What did you do in prison?

JEFF SMITH: I worked in the food warehouse. I unloaded trucks, about 35,000 or 40,000 pounds of food every day, with six other men at the prison. And I made $5.25—not an hour, but per month of full-time work. So, when you make $5 a month—and it’s a big misconception about prison: They don’t give you things. You have to buy your own soap, your own toothpaste, just things for even basic hygiene. And that means that inmates are forced to hustle, you know, find ways to try to survive, whether it’s cooking or cutting other guys’ hair. There’s all types of prison businesses going on and a thriving underground economy.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, when—you served a year and a day. But talk about what happens to people when they get out of prison. You talk about prisons being criminogenic. How it—outside life, because of the restrictions on people who have been in prison, it forces them right back in.

JEFF SMITH: That’s exactly right. When you’re in prison, you’re probably not getting any job training. You don’t even—you come out of prison in the year 2015, you don’t even know how to point and click or use the Internet. And then you come out, and there’s all types of background checks for employment. About 90 percent of employers use background checks, and the majority say that they would never hire an ex-offender. Landlords, about four out of five landlords in this country use background checks and won’t rent to ex-offenders. And then you can’t even get public assistance in most states in this country, you know, if you were convicted of a drug crime. So, there’s all—

AMY GOODMAN: Food stamps?

JEFF SMITH: Food stamps, that’s right. So there’s all—

AMY GOODMAN: You cannot ever, for the rest of your life?

JEFF SMITH: For the rest of your life. Now, that was part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Some states have waived that ban. Texas, actually, just today, has decided to waive that ban, wisely. But most states still have some version of that ban on the books.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, if you wanted to vote out the legislators who have passed these very restrictive rules, in a lot of states you can’t, because you can never vote again.

JEFF SMITH: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: Though it varies across states. In some places, I believe, like Vermont, you can vote from prison.

JEFF SMITH: That’s exactly right, but a huge variance. And, Amy, you make such a great point. We ask people when they re-enter society, “We want you to fly straight and become good citizens again.” And yet the most fundamental tenet of citizenship—being able to vote—we deny in many states. And that makes no sense.

So, there’s a lot of respects in which prison actually causes more crime, and a key one is that when people come out, and they’re already in debt, they probably don’t have any community or family support, they don’t have a place to live, and then we’re making it even harder for them to get jobs—unless they’re states or municipalities that do Ban the Box legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Ban the Box.

JEFF SMITH: Ban the Box bans the right of employers to discriminate against people who have criminal records.

AMY GOODMAN: To force a person to check a box that said whether or not you served time in jail.

JEFF SMITH: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you make your way from—well, you were a politician, you go to jail for a year and a day, to becoming a professor here in New York at this illustrious university, The New School?

JEFF SMITH: Well, first of all, I’m very lucky. Second of all—well, again, I am blessed with a great education. I have a doctorate from—in political science from Washington University in St. Louis, and so I had some academic background beforehand. But look, when I came out of prison, I was a white guy who had 300 people who wrote letters on my behalf to the judge, including Missouri’s attorney general, lieutenant governor, House speaker and Senate majority leader. I had savings. I had family support. I had a—you know, and a great degree. Most people come out of prison with none of those things. Even I had a tough time getting a job, you know, when I was applying for academic positions and other jobs. I was struggling. Imagine how hard it is for people who have none of the advantages or privileges that I had.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re a professor of urban policy now at The New School. What do you think would be the proper urban policy to avoid the mass incarceration crisis that we see in this country today?

JEFF SMITH: Well, the first thing we have to do is get rid of mandatory minimum sentences. Right? We’re tying the hands of judges around the country who don’t want to put people away for 15 years. You know, if you’re caught with drugs, with enough crack cocaine, which along with heroin is a plague in many of our cities, including St. Louis, my hometown, if you have a certain amount, then the judge has to give you 10 years in federal court. If there’s any—if there’s a gun in your house or your car, they’ll add on another five. That 15 years. You’ll probably do 13 of that if you’re in the federal system. And for a 19-year-old kid, you know, caught with drugs one time, to be away for 13 years, it doesn’t make any sense.

So the first thing we should do is get rid of federal mandatory minimums. And the second thing is get rid of these three strikes laws. So, first we have to look at the front end: sentencing reform. Then we have to look at what happens in prison, and give more opportunities for vocational and educational programs inside of prison. And then, third, we have to look at re-entry and ease the process of successfully re-entering by making sure that employers cannot discriminate against people with criminal backgrounds.

AMY GOODMAN: In this last minute we have with you, I last had you on after Ferguson, and you had a lot to say about what was going on in Ferguson, being from St. Louis. Last week, a judge in Ferguson withdrew as many as 10,000 arrest warrants as part of a series of changes in the court system. Explain the significance of this, but also just overall where we are today in Ferguson.

JEFF SMITH: So the significance of this is that in Ferguson, and in many of the towns—because I want to stress that Ferguson was the town that got the most attention, but there’s a lot of even worse violators than Ferguson in North St. Louis County in terms of the targeting of young black males and a very harsh municipal court system—in Ferguson, this is significant because Ferguson had one of the highest percentages of anywhere in the country of the number of people living in the town having arrest warrants on them. And once people get locked up, often, even if they’re only locked up for a week, they’ll lose a job.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JEFF SMITH: And this is very significant because it will give tons of young people an opportunity to make their way in the world without a criminal background.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Jeff, for joining us. The book is fascinating. It’s called Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. Jeff Smith is a former Missouri state senator, now professor at New School here in New York.

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Ex-Politician Jeff Smith: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis

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