On a recent September evening, Jeff Smith, a former political rising star from St. Louis with an anchorman’s head of hair and a Hill intern’s blue blazer, sat before an audience at Dupont Circle’s Kramerbooks to talk about his year in prison.
“I was ordered into a bathroom without a stall,” he said about the inmate induction process. “A heavier man said: ‘Strip.’ So I did. He said, ‘Turn around.’ So I turned around. He said, ‘Let me see your prison wallet.’ I said, ‘What?’ ”
It was time, the guard explained in less delicate terms, for Smith’s first cavity search. “So that,” said Smith, “was my introduction to federal prison.”
His audience laughed nervously.
Just a decade ago, Smith had one of the brightest futures of any Democratic politician in Missouri. He was a progressive state senator with a budding national profile, whose narrow defeat in an election for Congress was chronicled in a well-received 2006 documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”
Well, he got to Washington. But because of a small mistake turned huge during his 2004 campaign, he didn’t make it to town as a congressman. Instead he teetered on a stool in a neighborhood bookstore regaling the modest crowd with tales of life in a rural Kentucky correctional facility. Clearly his days of being a politician are, at least for the moment, behind him.
But Smith has made the most of his ordeal. He has penned a book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison,” and launched a tour to get his voice heard in a larger debate about a prison industrial complex that has run amok.
Talking points from life behind bars? He’s got ’em.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t show up another inmate on the basketball court.
Lesson No. 2: Don’t accept candy from a new acquaintance unless you’re looking for a date.
Lesson No. 3: The American criminal justice system has been built on a business model that profits from recidivism and is operated in a brutal way that keeps inmates from rehabilitating themselves into useful, law-abiding citizens.
Smith is not the only person making this point. It’s a conversation that has moved beyond think tanks and into the larger culture, fueled by the popularity of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” which similarly tells the story of an “unlikely” person (read: white, upper-middle class) whose eyes were opened by a (relatively brief) stint behind bars — and if there’s some discomfort about these protagonists being the heroes, well, at least they’re drawing some attention to an overlooked world in crisis.
“I don’t just want to tell my story,” Smith said. “It’s about more than that.”
How Smith ended up serving time is one of the wildest and most convoluted sagas in recent political history. In 2004, he was a little-known adjunct professor with a dedicated campaign staff of political naifs and surprisingly good basketball skills who dared to take on Missouri’s version of a Kennedy: Russ Carnahan, whose father had been governor and mother had been U.S. senator.
For a total nobody, Smith lost by a mere 1,800 votes. Two years later, he was elected to the state Senate — a pol with a future. Until 2008, that is, when a shady political consultant named Skip Ohlsen was caught trying to kill his ex-wife’s lawyer with a car bomb. The investigation turned up evidence that Ohlsen had, years earlier, conspired with a certain golden boy’s congressional campaign to mail some anonymous anti-Carnahan postcards.
It was a relatively minor violation of federal election law. But Smith was subsequently caught on a wire by his former best friend proposing ways to cover up the mess — even agreeing to a suggestion that they blame it on a staffer who had earlier committed suicide.
“It’s unspeakably horrible,” a shame-faced Smith says now. He remains mortified by his actions, angry at his friend, and frustrated by a campaign finance system that busted him while letting so many presidential hopefuls coordinate with dubious outside groups.
But in a strange way, it could have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Smith jokes that because he looks like a Boy Scout, it’s easy for people to think his stint in prison was just a field trip. But the experience took a toll.
He found himself frustrated that he was unable to get a job teaching and was forced instead to work in the warehouse. He had to transfer cells when his cellmate started threatening him. After embarrassing a fellow inmate in a prison-league basketball game, he got clocked in the face.
But Smith also found prison to be a land of untapped potential, of witty banter and life lessons. The most important thing he learned: stop obsessing about the people who put you there.
“You can’t do time like that,” a man nicknamed KY told him. “Your boy with the wire, man, you can’t even think about the [expletive]. It’ll make you crazy.”
So Smith threw himself into prison life as best he could. He stole vegetables from the warehouse to participate in the underground economy, a system that convinced Smith that his fellow convicts were no different from “business students at Wharton,” just using different lingo and pushing different products.
If there was a villain in Smith’s story, it was the system that was built to beat them down.
“Indeed, upon closer inspection one might say that mass incarceration isn’t the product of a system that is broken but rather the result of a well-oiled machine,” he wrote. He calls out an industry that he says relies on ex-cons cycling back to prison, that would rather teach inmates how to grow tomatoes than offer them business classes, and makes it extremely difficult to maintain ties to family on the outside.
He began keeping notes, scribbling on napkins and small notebooks when no one was looking. If he was going to be locked up, he figured, he might as well make something out of it.
The book occasionally betrays a tin ear, as does Smith when he talks about it. He can sound like he’s trying too hard when he reminisces about his “cellie” (cellmate) or drops his G’s when doing impressions of fellow inmates. (“Smith shows poor judgment in using plantation dialect to render black speech,” the St. Louis American wrote in a review.)
Smith said he knew there would be critiques of the language. In the forward, he preemptively apologizes for using the n-word in quotes from other people.
It can also be hard to trust a protagonist — even one as charming and self-effacing as Smith is, in the book and in person — knowing how cutthroat he sounded on those wiretaps. But it’s hard to imagine such a thing as a perfect narrator in a saga about the prison experience, which is why advocates for prison reform believe that every voice counts.
“It’s funny, it seems like all of us who go to prison feel like we’re experts all of a sudden, like there’s a former prisoner industrial complex,” said Kevin Ring, who went to jail for his involvement with the Jack Abramoff scandal and now works as an advocate trying to reduce prison sentences. “But you know what, I think it’s a good thing to have more and more people talking about this. Each person can reach different audiences.”
On his trip to D.C., Smith was still the same human pinball whom fans may remember from the documentary. He bounced from meeting to meeting, unsure of his exact location at any given moment, a little confused about where he had to be next.
But he definitely has places to go — and he may well be more in demand than he was before he went to prison.
He met with a Capitol Hill chief of staff who is eyeing a run for office and wanted advice. Smith advised him to look at his home state legislature if he wanted to get stuff done, given the paralysis of Washington. He took a call from a former Pennsylvania lawmaker who just did 18 months in prison and wanted to know how to get back into public life. Smith told him to consider writing about the experience and that he’d be glad to look at a proposal. He popped over to the Politico offices to meet with an editor and ended up chatting with a reporter about the big-time candidates who get away with more dubious campaign coordination than Smith ever imagined.
Smith was always a man in a hurry, and that hasn’t changed. Today he teaches political science and a course about incarceration at the New School in New York. He has two children with his wife, Teresa, and is busy with the book tour. He’s getting himself out there, with TED talks and TV punditry. Even he thinks that his life is better now than when he had a political future.
Which is not to say, of course, that he would do it again the same way. All things being equal, he would rather have not broken the law, nor spent that deeply educational year at Manchester Federal Correctional Institution.
“But I also recognize that I am a much better person today than I was before,” Smith said after the reading attended by so many of his idealistic former campaign staffers, now climbing the ladder with jobs on the Hill or in federal agencies. “I just wish I didn’t have to go to prison to be the person I am today.”