There’s something mesmerizing in the tale of the fall of the powerful. So Jeff Smith’s new book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, which recounts his fall from rising political star to felon serving a year and a day in federal prison is a riveting read.
Jeff Smith was a Missouri state senator who had nearly won an upset victory in a Congressional primary that he entered as an unknown 29-year-old graduate student. The story of his near-victory was turned into an acclaimed film, marking him as someone to watch in Missouri politics.
Turns out that some of people watching him worked for the FBI. The FBI discovered that Mr. Smith had lied repeatedly to federal authorities about an elections violation and, then, when the violation came to light, he blamed it on a young campaign worker who had died tragically and couldn’t contradict his false testimony.
Mr. Smith was sentenced to a year and day. Having been indicted and convicted himself, Mr. Smith tries to turn the tables and indict the prison system for failing to treat prisoners humanely and to prepare inmates for successful reentry upon release. Just consider:
- We’ve criminalized so much activity that 8.6% of the adult U.S. population and nearly 1 in 3 African American men are convicted felons—a much higher fraction of the population than in America’s recent past, according to a Princeton working paper (take a look at figures 4 and 5). Do we really believe that one in twelve Americans today has acted so badly he deserves to be a labeled a felon, with all the disadvantages attached to that status?
- And, do we really think that it’s acceptable that, in spite of the well-intentioned 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, more rapes occur inside of U.S. prisons than in the general U.S. population?
- And that although it costs a fortune to incarcerate prisoners—nearly $30,000 per inmate annually in the federal system—prisons are doing very little to ensure that prisoners are better prepared to hold a lawful job than when they entered prison?
Mr. Smith is particularly eloquent on the last point, describing the meager educational opportunities for prisoners trying to get something of an education while incarcerated. (Although Mr. Smith is actually “Dr. Smith” with a Ph.D. from a Washington University, his requests to teach in prison were repeatedly denied. Only after he was injured in his warehouse job was he assigned to work in the prison’s education department—as a janitor.)
In a very small way, I know about the challenges to offering education in prison first hand, as I serve on the board of a nonprofit that supports a college program at Maryland’s only prison for women and one of its men’s prisons, where about 70 incarcerated students are pursuing college education with the support of private, philanthropic dollars.
There’s understandable resistance to providing free college education to felons when so many struggle to pay their own, or their children’s, college bills. This sentiment put a quick end to New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 proposal to restore college programs in New York prisons, even though education in prison reduces recidivism and likely saves taxpayers money in the long run. One petition against the proposal made its opposition pellucidly clear by its title: “Hell No to Attica University.”
The understandable resistance to criminal justice reform means that it’s hard for politicians to muster the political will for reforms to the criminal justice system, although some are trying. That’s why nonprofits and philanthropy have a key role in changing people’s minds and funding programs privately to build support for urgently needed reforms.