Magazine article The American Prospect

Shall We Be Released? the Mass Folly of Mass Incarceration and the Road Back to Sane Prison Policy

Magazine article The American Prospect

Shall We Be Released? the Mass Folly of Mass Incarceration and the Road Back to Sane Prison Policy

Article excerpt

MR. SMITH GOES TO PRISON: WHAT MY YEAR BEHIND BARS TAUGHT ME ABOUT AMERICA'S PRISON CRISIS

BY JEFF SMITH

St. Martin's Press

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ARRESTING CITIZENSHIP: THE DEMOCRATIC CONSEQUENCES OF AMERICAN CRIME CONTROL

BY AMY E. LERMAN AND VESLA M. WEAVER

University of Chicago Press

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Politicos first took notice of Jeff Smith in 2004, when the then-29-year-old political science graduate student came within two points of beating Russ Carnahan, scion of an entrenched Democratic family, in a 2004 Missouri congressional primary.

A 2006 documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, offered an admiring portrait of Smith and the grassroots activism of that race. But during the campaign, Smith had partnered with a shady media consultant who sent illegal postcards to voters. The cards attacked Carnahan and failed to include the required text explaining who had paid for them. Two years later, Smith became a state senator representing parts of St. Louis. His career was off to an energetic start. Yet when the FBI questioned

Smith in 2009 about the old campaign postcards, he lied, claiming to have no knowledge about who had orchestrated them. Smith's deception was revealed to the feds after one of his associates wore a wire. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice, resigned from office, and was fined $50,000 and sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Smith served eight months. He is now a professor of politics and advocacy at the New School in New York and the author of a memoir, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me about America's Prison Crisis. I began the book with skepticism. Like Piper Kerman, author of the mega-bestseller turned television hit Orange Is the New Black, Jeff Smith is a profoundly unusual ex-con. Did we need another book about what it's like to be an affluent, college-educated white person behind bars? Black men are six times more likely than white men, and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic men, to be imprisoned. What's more, the first 50 pages of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison are a slog in which Smith recounts his political glory days, sometimes at pains to point out that other campaigns, not just his own, employed dirty tricks.

So I was surprised when the book became utterly absorbing, and poignantly self-aware, as Smith began narrating his time at Manchester Federal Correctional Institution in Kentucky. True to the politician he was, Smith arrived at Manchester with visions of helping his fellow inmates strive toward a better life. "[G]iven my grounding in black history, political experience, and love of teaching, I might be able to do some good if allowed to teach," he thought. But early in his sentence, he angered prison staff by emailing his literary agent, a potential violation of the ban against inmates conducting business behind bars. Instead of teaching, Smith was assigned to unload supplies in the prison's warehouse. At 5 feet, 6 inches, and just 120 pounds, he joined six other prisoners unloading 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of food each weekday, earning $5.25 per month. Though he had promised his family and girlfriend that he wouldn't break prison rules, he found he didn't really have a choice within the prison's social code. He and his co-workers pilfered everything they could, stuffing peppers and chicken patties into their oversized uniforms in order to bulk up for Manchester's chief recreational activity: competitive bodybuilding.

Smith quickly lost his idealism about the rehabilitative potential of prison. A computer skills course consisted of sitting silently in a room with computers for 30 minutes. A nutrition class lasted five minutes. There was, however, a two-week course in hydroponics-growing tomatoes in water. There were no classes in resume writing or parenting.

In between recounting these stories, Smith does some hard thinking about the contours of American mass incarceration, sometimes troubling the narrative of the bipartisan prison reform movement. …

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