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On the Trail: Smith's book reveals the waste and lost promise within America's prisons

Jeff Smith
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
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Former state Sen. Jeff Smith's new book "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison" is less about political rehabilitation and more about shining light on policy inequities behind incarceration.

Updated 2:43 p.m., Sept. 15 with audio from "St. Louis on the Air" - If you’ve developed even a fleeting interest in St. Louis politics, then you probably know the basic story of how former state Sen. Jeff Smith transformed from a rising star to a convicted felon.

After all, usually when Smith’s name appears in print, it’s followed by a comma and the words “who went to prison for lying to federal authorities about a campaign finance issue.” He’s also discussed bits and pieces of his incarcerations in interviews, essays and even TED Talks.

jeff smith
Credit Courtesy of St. Martin's press

But those who thought they knew the whole story behind Smith’s confinement may come away surprised after finishing Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a distinctly revealing look at how the Democratic official’s time behind bars showcased the lost promise and destructiveness of American incarceration. The sharply written book explores how prison can leave people damaged and unprepared for the “outside” – and how some public policy shifts could reduce recidivism.

“People say that the system is broken. But I don’t think that system’s broken. I think the system is like a well-oiled machine that keeps millions of people out of the economic mainstream,” Smith said in a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “When you see the total lack of interest in rehabilitation – not in every prison, but definitely the one I was in and a lot of others – and the attitude of guards that suggests that they have zero interest in helping you not come back. And in fact, they’re constantly taunting prisoners that they will back.”

Smith’s book is by no means an attempt to rehabilitate his political stock or explain away the crime that sent him to prison (he pleaded guilty in 2009 for lying to federal authorities about a postcard sent out during his 2004 congressional race). In fact, the book’s most illuminating moments don’t involve the political titans Smith encountered during his rather brief tenure in office – but rather the tribulations of his cohorts on the prison basketball court or within his cell block. With meticulous attention to detail, Smith injects doses of humanity into people most of American society would rather forget.  

Smith is now a professor at the New School in New York and the executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, a low-income housing advocacy group. Before finishing Smith’s book over Labor Day weekend, I spoke to Smith by phone. Here are some excerpts from our conversation (which, as is standard with Q&As, were edited for clarity and length):

What prompted you to write your book?

Smith: I felt compelled to write it just based on what I saw and the people that I did my time with – and my desire to want the public to understand that our mass incarceration problem, which is driven by a recidivism rate that’s about 66 percent nationally. It is very easily explained when you understand: a) how our prisons operate and b) what re-entry looks like. 

Smith speaks at a Missouri Senate press conference back in 2009, the year he resigned from the legislature and went to prison.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Smith (center) speaks at a Missouri Senate press conference back in 2009, the year he resigned from the legislature and went to prison.

You see all the obstacles public policy puts in the way of successful re-entry, like allowing employers to discriminate based on criminal backgrounds. Or allowing landlords to refuse to rent to people if they have a criminal background. People who come out of prison, they’re usually not employable. They have no skills. They haven’t received vocational training in prison. They don’t know how to use a computer in a lot of cases if they’ve been in for a long time. They have no idea how to look for a job. They still maybe owe money to the court as part of fines.

And so I wrote the book to try and call attention to some of the things that we can do as a country that could reduce recidivism. One of them (is) quality educational programming and vocational training in prison that aligns people’s talents and inclinations and aptitudes with employer needs in the communities to which they’ll return. And another is doing more to reduce the exorbitant cost of staying in touch with your family or your pastor or your support network while you’re incarcerated. 

It seems like when you got out of prison, you were probably in a much better position to be rehabilitated and get another job than many of your contemporaries because of your economic status, your race and your educational background. Is that a fair assessment?

Relative to almost everybody I was locked up with, I came out with huge advantages. I was white. I had a Ph.D. from a top university. I had strong family support. I had a network of friends in the community – like 300 people – who had written letters to the judge on my behalf and kind of stood up for me at the worst possible time. … many were public figures. 

Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was closed in 2004.
Credit Dustin Holmes | Flickr

I had financial savings. I had every advantage you could possibly have relative to the guys I did time with. And even I struggled to get a good job. I had very difficult questions in my first job interviews about my crime. But I was able to have a foot in the door because of my educational background. … My fellow inmates mostly had a GED earned in prison, didn’t have any savings and hadn’t had a visit in years or even a decade. And they’d been locked up for so long, nobody was really riding with them anymore.

Maybe your first few years, people stay in touch. But then they lose touch. And for many them, they didn’t have a single person they could put down as a job reference who was employed. I know this, because I sat with them and tried to help them with resumes. … I’d say ‘You’d have to put a few people who could vouch for you.’ And they’d be like ‘Could I put my uncle?’ And I’d go ‘Well, what does he do for a living?’ And they’d be like ‘Well, you know, nothing. He’s retired.’ I’d go ‘Retired from what?’ They’d be like ‘He did odd jobs.’

So it was really hard. Because you’d have to be like ‘Well, no. You can’t put him as a reference.’ If your uncle was the CFO at a mid-sized firm, maybe you could put your uncle even though it would be a little weird to have your uncle. But no, you can’t put your uncle that did odd jobs as a reference if you want to get a job. That’s probably not going to help you much.

They would rack their brains to think of who they knew that they were still in touch with that had a job. It was really, really difficult.

What are some public policy proposals you think could change the status quo?

The first thing policymakers can do is every time there’s a budget crunch in the state, and they’re like ‘Let’s look at corrections. We’re spending $6 million on vocational training and college correspondence course – or whatever. Having instructors come into prisons and teach.’  [They say] ‘We can cut that. Nobody’s going to complain about that. They can’t even vote anyway.’ 

Democrats are in the super minority in both the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Smith says there are plenty of public policy changes that lawmakers could pursue aimed at reducing recidivism.

We know there will be a massive return on your investment, because they’ll be much lower crime costs. The costs of victimization are huge. ... And then, you’re going to pay another $30,000 a year once the person goes back to prison. Instead, you can pay a pittance to put curriculum inside of prisons or instructor in a classroom. That would just have a huge return on investment – a 6 to 1 return according to an array of studies.

Secondly, refuse to allow private companies to gouge prisoners’ families, which they’re doing both with phone calls and video visits as well – and charging a ton of money that most of these families can’t afford or struggle to afford. It makes it prohibitive for a lot of people to stay in touch with loved ones and get the support that will help them get through prison in tact.

And then there are a number of things policy can on the back end, like “ban the box.” … It would be great if every city in every state prohibited employers from asking that question. Because right now, nine out of 10 employers ask the question. And a majority will not hire with criminal backgrounds. Four out of five landlords in this country do a criminal background. The majority of whom will not rent to people with felonies. How do you get back on your feet against those kinds of odds?

Do you think Republicans are coming around on criminal justice issues – or are they having a hard time shaking off their “tough on crime” mentality?

Broadly speaking, there’s basically like three major wings of the national conservative movement:  libertarian conservatives, Christian conservatives and Wall Street fiscal hawks. And all three of them have a pretty compelling reason to be for prison reform. 

State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, is one of many Republican lawmakers who've questioned the effectiveness of campaign donation limits.
Credit File photo by Tim Bommel I House Communications
State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, led the successful charge to get Jeff Mizanskey. Dogan and other Republicans have started to raise questions about how Missouri punishes people, especially drug offenders.

Libertarian conservatives want drug decriminalization. They don’t want the government having this overpowering surveillance state watching what people are doing in their personal life. They don’t like mandatory minimums. Government shouldn’t hamstring or have dictates about how you have to go away for 15 years if you get caught with enough drugs.

Christian conservatives are interested in souls and redemption and believe that people deserve another chance and they want to save souls. As part of that, they want to reform the often-dehumanizing treatment of prisoners and help them get back on their feet. And then fiscal conservatives led by people like Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, are saying ‘You know what – we can’t afford to keep spending all this money and it doesn’t make sense.’

… So, you’ve really got most of the mainstreams of conservative movement that have a compelling reason to support it. I think we’re at a moment where people of both parties can agree on a lot of this stuff and I’m optimistic. Maybe a little more optimistic on the federal level. But there have been leaders in Missouri.

It seems that every book written by a Missouri political figure conveys an overriding theme or message, such as an embrace of female ambition in Claire McCaskill’s “Plenty Ladylike.” How do you think your book stands out within the sub-genre of Missouri political books?

One theme from a legislative perspective is it could really help legislators to think ‘We spend $650 million a year in Missouri on corrections or something like that?’ Given that it’s like 7 percent of our total budget, how many guys actually know what the treatment’s like? 

You think you maybe know something about an issue. But God, it can sure look real different from the other side when you’re on the inside. It’s maybe a lesson about humility and the legislative process there.

There’s also the obvious theme of ‘Don’t do stupid (stuff) like I did.’ A little mistake in a campaign can really come back and bite you in the butt and have outside consequences. And then there’s just the broader central message that I outlined at the start. Which is: We have this tremendous amount of untapped human potential in our prisons. We have some of the most amazing entrepreneurial minds that are locked up. And they have experience selling illegal things. But if steered in the right direction and if that entrepreneurial fervor were properly nurtured, then they could probably be very successful businesspeople and contribute a ton to the economy.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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