Shall We Be Released?

AP Photo/David Goldman

Prisoners faces the wall inside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison Tuesday, December 1, 2015, in Jackson, Georgia. 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here.

Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis
By Jeff Smith
St. Martin's Press
Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control
By Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver
University of Chicago Press

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 résumé 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. While there is growing consensus around shortening the prison terms of “nonviolent” offenders, Smith acknowledges it isn’t easy to determine which inmates fit into that category. “Many prisoners with drug and gun charges described incidents in which they put those guns to good use: they just hadn’t been caught doing so,” he writes.

Solitary confinement is a form of torture that leaves an inmate mentally unstable, medically sedated, and doing “the Thorazine shuffle … walking slowly with his head tilted at an angle.” But Smith admits it is so feared among inmates that it is also an “effective behavior modification tool.” Indeed, research suggests it is impossible to reduce or eliminate solitary without meaningful buy-in from correctional officers, who rightfully fear losing control. Cutting the use of solitary also requires funding for the sorts of psychological, educational, and vocational services that can be effective in changing a prison’s culture and reducing recidivism.

Smith argues for those types of programs, and for using electronic monitoring and home confinement as alternatives to incarceration. He goes further than most current elected officials in calling for the elimination of all mandatory minimums, not just a reduction in their lengths. Perhaps unwittingly, he has also produced a cautionary tale about the dangers of hyper-masculinity. Throughout the book, he compares politics to prison life, finding that in both realms, gendered forms of aggression and self-aggrandizement are prized over ethical behavior.

Two nights before he is set to be released from Manchester, Smith chooses to play in the semifinals of the prison basketball league, even though the court is a notorious breeding ground for fights, and fighting can result in solitary confinement or a delayed release. Sure enough, he is knocked unconscious by a player on the opposing team who is irritated by Smith’s “showboating.” Lying in his bunk later on, Smith reflects. “The way I had antagonized people on the court shocked me. … All I’d thought about was flaunting my slick moves. I’d never even considered how it would feel for somebody with eight more years to see a guy leave after eight piddly-ass months, and then have that guy—a little white politician, for chrissake!—embarrass him in front of the whole prison as the runt waltzes out the door.”


IN ARRESTING CITIZENSHIP: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control, political scientists Amy Lerman of Berkeley and Vesla Weaver of Yale observe the mind-sets of more typical former prisoners and their neighbors, those who are struggling to find service-sector jobs, not teaching college classes.

The American incarceration rate quadrupled between 1970 and 2010. Over that period, the bipartisan popularity of “tough on crime” policies meant the criminal justice apparatus expanded as the social welfare state shrank. Problems like drug addiction and the urban segregation of the poor and nonwhite were dealt with through police and courts more often than through increasing access to health care or quality housing. The United States became the lone democracy to permanently bar some former felons from voting. Ex-offenders were also banned from accessing welfare, food stamps, veterans’ payments, and federal financial aid for college.

Naomi Murakawa, Marie Gottschalk, Bruce Western, and Michelle Alexander are among the many scholars who have sketched that narrative. Now Lerman and Weaver make a significant contribution. They use survey results and interviews to reveal the civic attitudes of the group they call “custodial citizens”: not just those behind bars, but also those on probation, on parole, or who simply reside in heavily policed neighborhoods. “A large and growing swath of citizens has been made members of a pariah class by the policies and practices of the carceral state,” Lerman and Weaver write.

The authors’ interview subjects in Charlottesville, Trenton, and New Orleans, most of them poor people of color, describe avoiding a huge range of normal behaviors lest they trigger police interest, from standing on the sidewalk texting to carrying a backpack to wearing a white T-shirt to hosting a large gathering at one’s home. (All of these actions can be construed as evidence of drug dealing.) In Ghettoside, the journalist Jill Leovy showed that while police work hard to prevent and punish drug sales in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods, violent crimes that take place in those same areas often remain unsolved. Lerman and Weaver’s subjects echo that complaint. Carlos, who grew up in northern New Jersey public housing, reports rampant “stealing and robbing and killing.” Yet, he tells them: “You call the police, an hour later they come. … Here, they don’t care about you.”

Unsurprisingly, these experiences breed cynicism toward government and even toward democracy itself. Black “custodial citizens” are less likely than black individuals without a history of criminal justice contact to vote, register to vote, or join a civic organization. They report less hope that society will overcome racism and more personal experience of being racially discriminated against. Lerman and Weaver cite the Black Youth Project’s 2005 survey of black and Hispanic 15-to-25-year-olds, which found that more than 70 percent of respondents without significant criminal justice contact felt like “full and equal citizen[s],” compared with less than 60 percent of those ever convicted of a crime or arrested.

The book’s major weakness is an accident of timing. Although the lives of the book’s subjects are shaped by inequality and discrimination, Lerman and Weaver also observe a strong ethic of “personal responsibility”: an essentially conservative belief in the ability of the individual to persevere regardless of structural barriers. The authors conclude that the combination of individualistic thinking and cynicism toward government makes it unlikely that this group of citizens will effectively organize and agitate for change.

The research for Arresting Citizenship seems to have been completed before the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. Cell-phone videos of police brutality on the streets, at parks, and in schools have helped ignite a protest movement that has altered the criminal justice agenda of presidential candidates, college administrators, the media, and Washington policy-makers. It remains to be seen whether Black Lives Matter will lead to sustainable policy change. Still, in 2015, any discussion of cynicism around criminal justice reform should be tempered by hope. 

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