Courtesy Jeff Smith
The first correctional officer I met at Federal Correctional Institution, Manchester, which is tucked into a desolate Kentucky mountain hollow, had two visible teeth. He was nearly impossible to understand. I came in with a young black guy who mumbled and a Chinese man who spoke broken English, but at least I could decipher their words. After calling the Chinese man “sesame chicken”—and laughing uproariously at his own wit—the correctional officer, or CO, sent me to a nurse. She had a battery of questions for me.
“Height ’n’ weight?”
“Five six, 120 pounds.”
She frowned at my slight frame. “Education level?”
She shot me a skeptical look. “Last profession?”
She rolled her eyes. “If ya wanna play games, play games. You’ll fit right in here. We got ones who think they’re Jesus Christ too.”
Then a CO escorted me to a doorless bathroom.
“Stree-ip,” he commanded. I did.
“Turn round,” he barked. I did.
“Open up yer prison wallet,” he ordered.
I looked at him quizzically.
“Open yer butt cheeks!”
The final stop was the counselor’s office. He flipped through my presentencing report and shook his head. “This is crazy,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here. Complete waste of time, money, space.”
Exactly, I thought.
My Road to the Big House
Six months earlier, in July 2009, I’d gotten onto the elevator up to my lawyer’s office. A man inside smiled and asked, “Gonna run for Congress again, Mr. Smith? Or city hall?” My heart pounded—it hadn’t stopped since federal authorities had thumped on my door at 7 a.m. I numbly replied, “Right now, sir, I’m happy in the state senate.”
I realized the walls were closing in. Back in 2004, I’d challenged the scion of Missouri’s most beloved political dynasty for a congressional seat, coming up just short of my party’s nomination. The media named my campaign one of the nation’s most surprising, featuring a young volunteer army that powered my team to a near win.
A few weeks before Election Day, two aides were approached by a man who wanted to produce a postcard highlighting an opponent’s dismal legislative attendance record. I was pretty sure that campaigns couldn’t legally coordinate with an outside party—and I was also pretty sure it happened every day, without consequence. After a discussion, my aides asked if they should move forward.
Whatever you guys do, I said, I don’t wanna know the details. Understand?
The postcard dropped in the campaign’s last week. My opponent filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that my campaign had illegally coordinated with the mailing’s producer. Five years later, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation into my involvement. As punishment, I requested two years of home confinement and full-time community service, during which I’d leave my house only to teach and coach at a charter school I’d cofounded a decade before. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of state elected officials, wrote letters requesting clemency. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption,” and the judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.
Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks—a professor turned politician turned felon. As a state senator, I’d authored and passed legislation to reform Missouri criminal statutes. But once the gates slammed shut, the tables were turned: The COs had the power and exercised it ruthlessly. They, along with the prisoners, were the ones who knew the score, and my education would be up to them.
“See, This Ain’t No Senate”
After intake, we received our uniforms. A CO took me to the second floor and nodded at a cell containing a guy in a black do-rag. I was the only white guy on the block. My cellie, whose freckles gave him a striking resemblance to Morgan Freeman—guys called him Red, after Freeman’s Shawshank Redemption character—sized me up. “White colla?” he asked with a mix of disdain and bemusement.
“What you done did?”
“Lied to the Feds.”
“Damn, how’d they get you?” asked a guy next door with dreadlocks.
“My best friend was wired.”
Somebody said, “Dude need to get chalked,” referring to the outline around bodies at crime scenes. Other inmates agreed. Under 30 seconds, it was unanimous: Someone should kill my ex–best friend. I made a note to stay on these guys’ good side.
Red had spent 25 years in and out of federal, state, and county jails. One of the first prison codes he taught me involved dining etiquette. The next day, I sat down to eat with the guys from my cell block. People stared.
Red said, “Listen, cellie. Is you tryin’ to start a *&(#! riot on your first day?”
“Look around, cellie. What you see?” he asked.
I shrugged, confused.
He said, “How many white folks you see eatin’ with the kinfolk?”
I looked around. “None.” I ate quickly and left the chow hall.
As I walked back to the unit, a beefy white guy with a sleeve of swastika tattoos approached. “Boy, is yew some kinda n—r lover?” he demanded.
“No,” I said, figuring it wasn’t the time to reveal that I had majored in African American studies in college.
“Then sit with y’own kind at chow.”
“OK. My bad. See, that was my cellie … I just got here.”
“They put you with a n—r?”
“Uh, yeah.” That was not the kind of language I tolerated on the outside, but since there was no gang of lawyers who had my back, I let it go.
“Don’t worry, I’ll fix it. I’m Cornbread. Holla if ya need somethin’, ya hear? But lemme find out you’ seatin’ wit the n—rs again, you just lemme find out,” he warned with a grin.
I’d gotten off easy. Violating this rule could have harsh consequences, I’d learn. Eating with members of another race could get you hurt; sharing food items could even get you killed.
[pullquote] The biggest threats came from the myriad daily interactions that could go horribly wrong. [/pullquote]
This was the reality of prison. The biggest threats weren’t from the obvious places—the sex-crazed guy or the muscle collecting debts. The biggest threats came from the myriad daily interactions that could go horribly wrong, like the time an argument in the TV room escalated into a full-blown fight over whether the TV should be tuned to basketball or to women’s track.
A week later, I was summoned to the administrative building. I hoped it meant either that my request to teach GED courses had been granted or that I’d received mail requiring my signature. The only recent glimmer of good news had been a literary agent’s interest in my story. I’d asked her to send a contract if she wanted to represent me.
I was led into a large, barren room. A stocky man with a shaved head and a goatee identified himself as the prison captain—if prison were school, the captain was its dean of discipline.
“Inmate Smeeth,” he sneered. “How long was yew in politics?”
“About a decade.”
“Well, then, yew prolly know more about politics than I do, dontcha think? How long yew been in prison?”
“About a week.”
“Well, I been workin’ in prisons 18 years now. So who yew think knows more ’bout prison?”
“Probably you,” I said.
“Yeah, prolly so. And so I got a lil advice. Yew know what blendin’ is? Cuz yew ain’t blendin’ so good. And this book yew’se writin’ ain’t helpin’.”
“Well, I hope to make the most of my time and write it while I’m here.”
“Hm. Yew knew its rules against conductin’ a business outta here. We been re-viewin’ some things, and we think yer ‘negotiations’ with this agent might be against the rules.”
So they were monitoring my e-mails. “I read the rules. They said inmates can’t operate a business. The way I interpreted that, I’m not conducting a business, like selling cigarettes or tattoos. I wouldn’t receive a penny while I’m here.”
“That how yew interpret it? See, Inmate Smeeth, thing is, this ain’t no Senate. Ain’t no Supreme Court. This the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] … If I think yew’se conductin’ business, then yew’se prolly conductin’ business. And if yew ain’t, ya might find yerself in the SHU [solitary confinement] while we figger it out.”
“The Senator Be Embezzling!”
The next afternoon, I received my work detail: unloading trucks in the food warehouse, one of the most grueling jobs in prison. Four of my colleagues there were twice my size, while the other two were three times my weight. We moved the food deliveries in and out of freezers—35,000 to 40,000 pounds a day in packages of up to 80 pounds each. Much of the meat had expiration dates of 2006 or 2007. It was 2010. That we were fed such stale food reminded us what the system thought of us: We were not quite animals but not quite human.
Miss Horton, a chain-smoking CO with a sailor’s mouth, was our supervisor. She told the three of us starting together that if we didn’t steal, she’d feed us well. Despite her words, all the warehouse vets and both new guys left that day with chicken patties Saran-wrapped around their chests and produce stuffed into every nook and cranny, to be sold in the yard. Bodybuilding, which is so central to prison culture, requires extra nutrition.
[pullquote] That we were fed such stale food reminded us what the system thought of us: We were not quite animals but not quite human. [/pullquote]
I’d promised my family that I wouldn’t break any rules, but soon, another prisoner said I’d better start stealing because if I didn’t, one of my colleagues was going to plant raw hamburger meat in my coat, since they feared I’d rat them out.
There were four levels of formal violations, or shots. Series 4 shots were the prison equivalent of jaywalking—for example, possessing more than four books in a cell might result in denial of phone privileges for 90 days. Series 2 and 3 infractions—fighting, bribing a CO—were more serious and could earn you several months in the SHU and transfer to a medium-security facility. Most serious were Series 1 breaches, which included inciting a riot and murder. Because of fears about E. coli, theft of raw meat was a Series 1 shot, resulting in new felony charges and transfer to a high-security prison.
Prisoners who survived solitary described claustrophobia, rage, depression, hallucinations—slow-motion torture. Now the possibility of my being put in SHU was real. Should I trust the guy who warned me about my colleagues? Or was he trying to lead me to steal so that he could rat me out?
One day, I waited for Miss Horton to take a smoke break, dug into a box of peppers, and stuffed one in each sock and another in each pants pocket. My colleague ’Ville guffawed. “Y’all check out the senator. He think he slick!”
Our inmate supervisor, K.Y., shook his head. “Senator, take them peppers out yo’ pocket,” he said. But he didn’t notice the peppers in my socks—which I showed the crew after work.
“Damn!” exclaimed ’Ville. “The senator be em-BEZZ-ling! He a regular convict now!”
There was no higher praise. Calling someone a convict was the equivalent of endowing a professor. And not only did my foray into hustling keep me safe, it introduced me to a defining feature of prison culture: ingenuity.
Unlocking Prisoners’ Potential
Prison was full of ambitious, street-smart men who had instincts not unlike those of the CEOs who had wined and dined me. Using jargon you’d never hear at business school, they discussed incentives (“I don’t never charge no first-time user”) and supply-chain management (“You always got to stock up a few days before Santa Claus come”). Ingenuity was necessary for prisoners to survive on sub-poverty wages—I made $5.25 a month, or around 3 cents an hour, for working 40 hours a week—and buy hygiene products, pens, paper, and stamps.
And ingenuity took many forms. Whether it was concocting ice cream out of vanilla pudding, creamer, ice, sugar, milk, and bananas smuggled from the chow hall, cutting hair with nail clippers, or making weights out of boulders in laundry bags to be used when the room was closed, inmates figured out how to do more with less. Many hoped to start barbershops, restaurants, or personal-training businesses after they were released, but they received no preparation to make their ideas a reality. And there was zero staff interest in rehabilitation. “You’ll be back, dips—t,” one CO liked to tell men as they left, embodying the system’s attitude about the potential for redemption.
Upon release, 650,000 men show up each year to try to succeed in communities where they failed—with the burden of prison records. Two thirds reoffend within three years, and the main reason is financial struggle. Most are unemployed, making them far more likely to commit a crime than those with jobs. Seeking legal employment is challenging when most businesses won’t hire ex-offenders.
Prison education programs could help overcome this. But society must first stop seeing prison as a warehouse for the nation’s throwaways and start seeing it as a costly waste of human potential. In so many of the men I met, I saw an entrepreneurial passion that embodied the best of America—but was likely never to see daylight.
At Manchester, I saw firsthand how the human spirit can triumph in the most adverse environments, whether it was an inmate running a website from his cell or K.Y. spending evenings with me learning to read as we worked on his plan for a trucking business. Many of the guys had only the GEDs they’d earned in prison, some hadn’t had a visit from a friend or family member in years, and few had any savings. They’d be coming back into a world in which four of five landlords and nine of ten employers run criminal checks on candidates to screen out felons, a world in which many can’t vote or even use food stamps, and a world in which they have to find the funds to pay for housing and urinalysis tests when they can’t afford clothes for a job interview.
[pullquote] Society must first stop seeing prison as a warehouse for the nation’s throwaways and start seeing it as a costly waste of human potential. [/pullquote]
I spent less than a year in prison, and I had every advantage upon reentry: I was a white guy with a PhD, family and community support, and savings. Yet getting a decent job was still a struggle. The criminal-justice system is not, as many people claim, broken. It’s more like a well-oiled machine that keeps millions of individuals out of the economic mainstream.
I hope that everyone reading this strives to reconnect with anyone he or she knows who is behind bars or recently did time. And if you don’t know anyone, please consider volunteering to help people in those situations. Even my mother, who was so impatient with my mistakes, is doing that, and in four years, she has helped turn around one ex-offender’s life, and she recently signed up for a second mentee. Until we achieve broad reform, my mom offers an example of a grassroots strategy to solve our incarceration crisis: one person at a time.
Originally published by Politico. Adapted from the book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Jeff Smith, Copyright © 2015 by Jeff Smith, published by St. Martin’s Press.