Jeffrey Smith, a professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator, spoke about his book on reforming America’s prison system in a presentation in the Crane Room on Thursday night.
The event, titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What my year behind bars taught me about the America’s prison crisis,” was hosted by the Department of Political Science as a Frank C. Colcord event.
Smith drew from his year in federal prison to discuss recidivism, the daily trials of life in prison and the challenge of reentering society, all of which are discussed in his book “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison,” which was released in September.
Smith began his presentation by discussing his work as a state senator in St. Louis, which focused on helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society. As senator, he passed a bill that reduced the penalty for child support nonpayment.
Six months later he was sentenced to one year in federal prison for unlawfully collaborating with an outside group during a campaign and subsequently signing a false affidavit, he said.
Smith said that immediately after going to prison, his fellow inmates and the prison’s corrections officers recognized that Smith was out of place there. This was because many inmates were sentenced to 15 years or more, much longer than Smith’s one-year sentence, and most of the inmates had been in the prison system before. Within a week, the prison captain accused Smith of running a business and threatened him with solitary confinement, Smith said.
“Solitary confinement … is basically slow-motion torture,” Smith said. “Everyone I saw who came out of there was clearly psychologically damaged.”
Smith said he worked at the loading dock of his prison, where he noticed that much of the frozen food was expired and labeled “for institutional use only.”
“In the eyes of the prison, we weren’t quite animals, but we definitely weren’t considered to be humans either,” he said.
The central point of Smith’s presentation was his observation that “prison creates better criminals as opposed to better people.”
According to Smith, the recidivism rate in the United States is about 75 percent, which Smith blames on the failures of the prison system.
Prisons encourage recidivism by reinforcing prisoners’ tendencies to break rules and participate in the informal economy, he said.
Smith said that inmates have to pay for essentials such as toiletries. However, wages for prison jobs are so low that they are forced to make money through other means, both legal and illegal. Smith cited an example in which he stole produce from the warehouse and earned respect and allies as a result.
“That experience introduced me to the defining feature of prison life, which is ingenuity,” he said. “There’s not a single concept you could learn at Wharton that you couldn’t learn in prison.”
Smith also said that the prison system fails to channel that ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess into vocational training, explaining that most landlords and employers check criminal histories, and since prisoners in the United States are not retrained properly, they leave prison with no money and few job prospects, which encourages them to reoffend.
In addition, Smith explained that recidivism was also the result of the epidemic of sexual assault in prisons, which he claimed caused inmates to reoffend upon release.
After Smith left prison, he said he was at an advantage compared to other ex-convicts because he had money, some job leads and no major psychological trauma. However, he still had a difficult time getting a job because no employer wanted the stigma of hiring a convicted felon.
“It shouldn’t surprise anybody that three out of four people reoffend,” Smith said. “It should be surprising that one out of four manages not to.”
Smith concluded his talk by lauding President Barack Obama’s recent visit to a prison in Oklahoma, where Obama recognized that everybody deserves an opportunity to reintegrate into society.
“As dehumanizing as prison is … the human spirit consistently triumphed, even in this climate,” Smith said. “That should tell us that we shouldn’t just write off 2.2 million people.”