Review of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Senator Jeff Smith

What a book! This indepth, candid memoir depicts a prominent man’s epic fall from being a young hot shot politician with a sky’s-the-limit career staring him in the face to a convicted felon serving hard time in a federal prison among some of society’s most degenerate criminals. And yet, this 5′ 2″ suburbanite with a Ph.D was able to not only successfully conform and navigate his new survival-driven surroundings, but also thrive in numerous ways while coming away with a wealth of knowledge that has spurred his efforts to reform the criminal justice system from, once again, a position of prominence and privilege.

It’s not everyday that a politician is convicted of a campaign indiscretion (well, an illegal act in terms of campaign laws) and sent to federal prison, but Smith acknowledges and admits fault for his poor judgement, despite the fact that most who commit such crimes do so routinely and with impunity. He does not dwell on this fact, however, but instead chooses to focus on how he can best utilize his time — and that he does.

In his book, Smith takes his readers through a vivid depiction of prison life by narrating many personal anecdotes of his prison experience, relationships, and the peculiar dynamics that characterize prison life. He provides succinct translations of all institution jargon that he uses throughout the book for his readers’ comprehension, giving the full effect of his experience. We learn about his awkward adjustments to certain situations that could potentially get someone beat up or even killed, his run-ins with Aryan Brotherhood members who detested his association with black inmates, and his resourcefulness in using his superb athletic prowess to make friends while simultaneously building alliances. But this book is so much more than a memoir of intriguing tales of prison exploits and riveting episodes of survival among career criminals — so much more.

Former State Senator Smith was astonished to discover the plethora of untapped human talent locked away in state and federal prisons while he served time for a year. He began to draw the many connections between the prison population and the political world: both require a fierce tenacity in order to gain an advantage over others; both demand assertiveness and attentiveness to details in a world where complacency can be one’s literal or figurative demise. But even more than that, says Smith, there lies a mountain of human potential in the drug dealers who possess inherent, extraordinary entrepreneurial attributes, the embezzler who has superb accountant skills, and the con artist who is charismatic and possesses the gift of gab better than most. The issue, however, is the illegal ways they have used their gifts.

Smith advocates for rehabilitative mechanisms to be implemented in the criminal justice system that would not only educate and transform these men into productive members of society, using their gifts for the benefit of us all, but also demonstrates how investments in such resources would save the American taxpayers billions of dollars over time. He cites many studies that substantiate his claim, bolstering the legitimacy of his proposed solutions and causing the average, rationally-minded reader (regardless of where ones stands ideologically or politically) to think critically about the issue of mass incarceration and our philosophy as a nation on the criminal justice system.

This man’s tumultuous, unlikely journey is a compilation of entertaining stories of how anyone who didn’t grow up in a criminal environment might successfully adjust to the violent, predator-prey, perpetually volatile prison setting they are thrust into. It is also a very insightful, thoughtful manifesto of what is glaringly wrong with our current prison (and political) system and how it can begin to be rectified, benefiting all of America at the same time. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is one of my favorite books this year, and I am confident it will be one of yours. Give it a read — you won’t be sorry you did.