Jeff Smith messed up big-time. He was a young man, who with a little more time in the Missouri state legislature behind him in 2009, would have likely been ready to make a run for a seat in Congress to represent his state. Instead, here he was headed to Manchester FCI, a prison in rural Kentucky, convicted of lying to federal agents about a political dirty trick he pulled during his first (failed) run for political office. For the next year and a day, Jeff Smith would be just like any other prison inmate trying to blend into the prison population well enough to survive his sentence with as little physical and mental damage as possible.
And it’s not like Smith didn’t stick out in prison like a sore thumb. For starters, he was white and he was short, two physical attributes that put him at a distinct disadvantage in a prison predominately populated by blacks and Hispanics heavily into weightlifting and physical intimidation as a means of judging each other – and themselves. Just as importantly, for almost all the other inmates, Manchester was what they hoped would be their final stop in a long line of prisons they had served time in for crimes a whole lot more serious than underhanded political trickery. Prison has a language and a culture all its own, and for Smith it was like moving to a foreign country he knew nothing about. One wrong word or gesture could lead to conflict before he even suspected he might have offended someone. Everyone was a native in prison-land but him.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, Smith tells what it was like suddenly to be one of the people locked up instead of being one of those responsible for setting prison and sentencing policy in his home state. He learned the hard way that seating for meals was divided along racial lines and that crossing over would not be tolerated; how to smuggle little extras out of the prison food warehouse (where he worked) that could be bartered for personal favors and protection; how not to signal inadvertently to some prison Romeo that he was sexually available; why weightlifting was the most important social activity in prison; and that prison officials saw him simply as a meal ticket, not as someone with past or a future.
Even though Smith would not be allowed to use his teaching and coaching experience in prison to help other inmates, the year he spent behind bars would not be a wasted one. His eyes were firmly opened regarding the relationship between keeping millions of men locked up in prison and a healthy American economy. Thousands and thousands of jobs are dependent on the need to build more prisons; to staff those prisons with guards and service people; to produce, package, and deliver the amount of food necessary to feed millions; and to provide all the bedding and clothing required for people who can’t do it for themselves.
Jeff Smith was appalled at the waste involved in the process, especially the wasted potential of the prisoners themselves who were so often deliberately left unprepared for life outside prison walls. Smith is now a public-policy professor, and he has filled Mr. Smith Goes to Prison with ideas and solutions to help solve the problems he observed firsthand in Manchester FCI. Maybe, just maybe, going to prison was one of the best things that ever happened to Jeff Smith.