Mr. Smith Goes to Prison

On April 5, the Initiative hosted an evening with Jeff Smith, an engaging speaker and fascinating person whose unusual career path has earned him the titles of Senator, Convict, and Professor (in that order).

Smith discussed his recent book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. Based on his first-hand experience and insightful analysis, he offered his suggestions for achieving meaningful prison reform.   

Book description of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison:

The fall from politico to prisoner isn’t necessarily long, Smith—a former Missouri State Senator—learned, but the landing is a hard one.

In 2009, Smith pleaded guilty to charges related to seemingly minor campaign malfeasance and earned himself a year and a day in Kentucky’s FCI Manchester. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is the 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 prisoner Big C and his pals 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 correctional 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 exploits racial tension and bias, building 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 race-based cycle of poverty and crime that sets inmates up to fail. Now an urban policy professor, Smith’s blend of academic training, real-world political acumen, and insights from a sometimes harrowing year on the inside help him offer practical solutions to jailbreak the nation from the crushing grip of its own prisons, and to jumpstart the rehabilitation of the millions behind bars.

Early praise for Mr. Smith Goes to Prison:

Mr. Smith Goes to Prison joins Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as essential reading on America’s greatest failure: our prison system. I was transfixed by this book: a middle class white politician goes to prison for some hard time and turns out to be a great writer and a keen observer and interpreter of all he sees. Anyone who wants to work on fixing the prison system ought to start by reading this riveting book.” -Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean
“This eye-opening book reminds us that prison can be steps away for anyone, no matter what the profession. This book is needed to jump-start a national conversation about over-incarceration and rational criminal justice reform.” -U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

Watch an interview with Jeff Smith on Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.    

Photo of Jeff Smith and the "Warehouse Crew" - his co-workers at the loading dock at the Manchester Federal Correctional Institution in rural Kentucky

Photo of Jeff Smith and the “Warehouse Crew” – his co-workers at the loading dock at the Manchester Federal Correctional Institution in rural Kentucky