Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is a memoir by Jeff Smith about how a senator from Missouri ended up behind bars for one year, and what it taught him about America's prison crisis (available September 1, 2015).
In 2009, Smith lied to the Feds about seemingly minor campaign malfeasance and earned himself a year and a day in Kentucky's FCI Manchester. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is the fish-out-of-water story of his time in the big house; of the people he met there and the things he learned: how to escape the attentions of fellow inmates, like a tattooed Klansman and his friends in the Aryan Brotherhood; what constitutes a prison car and who's allowed to ride in yours; how to bend and break the rules, whether you're a prisoner or an officer. And throughout his sentence, the senator tracked the greatest crime of all: the deliberate waste of untapped human potential.
Smith saw the power of millions of inmates harnessed as a source of renewable energy for America's prison-industrial complex, a system that aims to build better criminals instead of better citizens. In Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, he traces the cracks in America's prison walls, exposing the shortcomings of a racially based cycle of poverty and crime. Smith blends a wry sense of humor with academic training, political acumen, and insights from his year on the inside. He offers practical solutions to jailbreak the nation from the financially crushing grip of its own prisons and to jump-start the rehabilitation of the millions living behind bars.
Read this exclusive excerpt of the Introduction and Chapter 2 of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison and then comment for a chance to win a copy!
The first correctional officer had two visible teeth. I came in with a young black guy who mumbled and a Chinese man who spoke broken English, but at least I could decipher their words. The CO was harder to understand. Manchester, Kentucky, is tucked in an Appalachian mountain hollow, and he had apparently never left. When he sauntered into the austere holding room and asked the Chinese man his name, the man replied, “Shoi-ming Chung.”
“Sesame Chicken?” replied the CO, laughing uproariously and then repeating it twice as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
He sent me to a heavyset nurse for a battery of questions.
“Height and weight?” she asked.
“Five feet, six inches, a hundred twenty pounds.”
She examined my slight frame and frowned. “Education level?”
She shot me a skeptical look. “Last profession?”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll put it down if ya want. If ya wanna play games, play games. You’ll fit right in. We got ones who think they’re Jesus Christ, too.”
Another guard escorted me to a bathroom without a door. He was morbidly obese and spoke gruffly in a thick Kentucky drawl. “Stree-ip,” he commanded. I did. “Tern ’round,” he barked. I did.
“Open up yer prison wallet,” he ordered.
I looked at him quizzically.
“Tern ’round and open up yer butt cheeks.”
He manhandled me roughly. “All right, you’se good to go.”
The last stop was in the office of the counselor, a wiry, compact, sandy-haired man named Mr. Sims with a light blue polo-style shirt and a wispy mustache. He flipped through the presentencing report, pausing briefly to absorb the case summary, and shook his head. “This is crazy,” he said quietly, without looking at me. “You shouldn’t be here. Complete waste of time. Money. Space.”
A complete waste! Exactly!
Finally, someone agreed. But now it was too late.
* * *
Six months earlier, with a nervous spring in my step, I’d bounded onto the elevator up to my lawyer’s office. Like most politicians, I had a uniform. Blue shirt, sleeves rolled-up, yellow print tie, slim-fitting khakis: the picture of a young, energetic state senator with a bright future. Five years earlier, I’d challenged the scion of Missouri’s leading political dynasty; I came within 1,700 votes of toppling him and reaching Congress at age twenty-nine. An award-winning film chronicling my efforts titled Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? earned a cult-like following among young politicos around the country. And now, the vaguely familiar man in the elevator up to my lawyer’s office smiled when he referenced the film. “Gonna run for Congress again, Mr. Smith? Or city hall?”
My heart pounded and I told the man in the elevator, “Right now, sir, I’m happy in the state senate.” I knew I wouldn’t be going to Capitol Hill or city hall any time soon.
When I left an hour later—having learned that (a) my political career was over, (b) my best friend had been taping our conversations for months, and (c) the contents of these tapes would be splashed across the front page of the newspaper—I realized I was going to prison.
Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks—an academic-cum-politician-cum-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Instead of the quiet, uneventful post teaching GED courses I’d expected, I was assigned to unload food trucks at the warehouse. In prison I would be the student, not the teacher.
Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is the story of what I learned there—about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. My story is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me for prison—and how prison prepared me for life. But more broadly, it is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens. And finally, it is a prescription for how we can address our nation’s prison crisis and harness the untapped potential of 7 million people now enmeshed in the criminal justice system, 2.3 million of whom are behind bars. I meld my own experience with research and interviews with scholars, policymakers, ex-offenders, and innovators who are rethinking prison to produce a blueprint to address our nation’s mass incarceration problem through new programs that can transform the lives of offenders, make prisons safer, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates.
My research approach might be called “involuntary participant observation.” The product suffers from all the flaws inherent in ethnographic work; the main flaw, of course, was my total lack of objectivity. In prison, despite simmering racial tension and petty disputes, there are really only two teams: the prisoners versus the prison. I never had any doubt about which team I was on.
Books such as Dwayne Betts’s A Question of Freedom, Marie Gottschalk’s Caught, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; documentary films like Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In; a recent PBS Frontline series on mass incarceration—all have used divergent approaches to illuminate the same problem: the U.S. prison population has grown eightfold since Ronald Reagan’s inauguration at the beginning of 1981; one in three black men has been locked up, helping give America the largest (and most expensive) prison population of any nation in history.
While I offer my own perspective on the problem of mass incarceration, I also focus on solutions. First, how do we improve the odds for millions of prisoners to successfully reenter society? Second—given the pervasive waste and debilitation, as opposed to rehabilitation, of people in prison—how do we change the mentality of a system that dehumanizes those within it? As an activist, a scholar, a former policymaker, and—regrettably—a felon, I have a unique perspective: when most other researchers, authors, and filmmakers have concluded their interviews and shot their B-roll, the prison gates clanged shut behind them, and they were able to go home.
“Have Some Respect, Mr. 90210”
A Crash Course in Prison Life
I remember leaving for college with some clothes stuffed into a suitcase and a Cardinals trash can after a last-minute change of plans meant that I would be flying instead of driving down with my family. The Raleigh-Durham airport had none of the Southern charm I’d heard about. I’d never actually been to North Carolina and didn’t know anyone there except an orientation counselor who had written me a welcome letter. For the first time in my life, I felt alone. I was eighteen then, and I don’t recall feeling alone for another eighteen years, when Teresa dropped me off in Manchester, Kentucky, on January 5, 2010.
I’d met Teresa, a newly minted Washington University MSW-MBA, about a year earlier, and we’d quickly fallen in love. I’d visited her at work that fateful day on the way from my parents’ house to meet my lawyer. She had moved into my house two days earlier.
“Listen, baby, I have some bad news,” I’d begun. “I don’t have time to go into the details, but I’m going to resign from the senate. And I’m probably going to prison. And it’s going to be all over the news soon, and so everyone at your office and your friends and your family—”
“What happened? Why? What’s going on? Are you serious?”
“It’s a long story. But right now I gotta go see a lawyer. I just wanted to tell you that I’m not coming home tonight. I want to give you a chance to move your stuff back out without me around. Or if you want, I can help. But maybe it’s easier for you if I don’t? And if you want to be friends … but I mean … prison … you didn’t sign up for this.”
Her eyes moistened. An eternity passed. “Come home tonight,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.” But the next month had been tough; she fell into despair and returned home to Texas, and I doubted she would return.
Now, outside the barbed-wire fence of the intake building, I looked at her one last time and waved good-bye. I’d heard the stories of guys who went in with wives and then the next thing they heard from them was a letter from a divorce attorney. Unlike some of those guys, I had only a year and a day. Still, her friends thought she was crazy for staying with me. I hoped we’d make it, but I wasn’t sure that I’d see her again.
* * *
Issues of crime and prison weren’t completely foreign to me. As a senator, I was able to do a dozen all-night police ride-alongs during which I saw crime up close. This gave me a bit of insight into the city’s high crime rate.
Because of the stagnant economy, a sky-high dropout rate that left many unprepared for jobs and lacking networks to find them, the widespread availability of handguns, and the nihilism of some young men who saw far too much violence and didn’t expect to see thirty, the crime rate rose sharply in summer 2009. The neighborhoods that experienced the most murders in the city lay within my senate district.
I wanted to understand what the city was doing to address the rash of violence and how we could improve our efforts. So one night I asked an officer if I could join him on his beat, and he agreed. At the outset I asked him if there were any ground rules. He asked if I’d signed the waiver releasing the department from liability if I was injured or killed.
“Yep,” I replied.
“Then do whatever you want,” he said. I laughed uneasily.
Almost immediately, the wire crackled, and we responded to a succession of stabbings, robberies, car thefts, prostitution, drug dealing, and gunshots fired. The dispatcher’s description did not always resemble what was actually happening at the scene, fueling the mix of adrenaline and anxiety upon arriving. Police did their best to comfort victims, listen to witnesses, and deal fairly with suspects. Particularly challenging were the victims and witnesses who painted vivid portraits of a crime but refused to name the offender, some terrified of potential retribution, others simply because they neither liked nor trusted the police.
I accompanied officers nearly every night for two weeks. At 4:00 A.M. on my last night, a woman reported that her nephew had stolen a $20 tax rebate check and a bag of marijuana from her safe; she wanted the police to return them to their rightful owner. We arrived at a chaotic scene; children streamed out of a first-floor unit and scurried in all directions. Two women—sisters, we gathered—berated each other, one accusing the other’s son of thievery. The cops interviewed several witnesses, who offered varying accounts of what had transpired. A woman who seemed to be the grandmother circled the periphery in a sort of fugue state, loudly bemoaning her family’s strife. Several children snuggled in the backseat of a car, confused. I thought about how scared I’d have been if my family’s house had been surrounded by cops at 4:00 A.M. I asked one of the kids if he was okay. He looked at me, numb to the screaming, the uniforms, the squad cars’ mesmerizing lights. “I just wanna go back to sleep,” he said.
I also began to receive invitations to dramatic performances put on by a local nonprofit called Prison Performing Arts, which produced theatrical performances by prisoners, and I invited the rest of the senate to join me. None actually did, but it seemed important for prisoners working to better themselves to know that elected officials saw them as people with potential, not just costs on a ledger.
There was always a post-performance social hour, often more compelling than the play, where we got to meet the actors and hear about their pre-prison lives, their mistakes, and how the theater program had finally given them something “to live for.” They were strikingly reflective about their lives and their mistakes; many expressed what appeared to be genuine remorse for their crimes, with one crying as he spoke of the children of a man he had killed decades earlier. They seemed at peace with the sins for which they had atoned and believed that even if they died in prison, life was worth living if they could nurture their minds and souls through theater. The juxtaposition of the chaos I saw on the midnight patrols and the humility and peace I saw in prison obsessed me.
Now, six months later, I wasn’t riding along with cops looking for criminals. I was about to live with them for a year, but not in the way that I had once briefly lived on food stamps to make a point about poverty and nutrition. No, this wasn’t a social experiment.
* * *
I walked into the dank intake center wearing a gray T-shirt, mesh shorts, white ankle socks, and tennis shoes. A guard with what seemed to be twenty pounds worth of keys ordered our eclectic group of three—black, white, and Chinese—to sit in a concrete-slab holding cell that smelled vaguely of urine. A few minutes later, I was ordered to strip down for a search. As described earlier, I passed only after revealing my empty “prison wallet.”
Teresa had read the guidelines online, and prisoners were allowed to bring in a soft-cover religious text, a religious pendant such as a cross, dentures, eyeglasses, a plain wedding ring, and relevant legal paperwork. Not in possession of any of these things, I held only a driver’s license in my hand, which was held at the desk to await my release in a year and a day—ten and a half months if I earned “good time” by avoiding serious infractions.
After the strip search, the prison counselor, Mr. Sims, looked over my case file. When he told me point-blank that my incarceration was a complete waste, my hopes rose; it would be months before I taught myself to block such thoughts. Although I took care not to betray it, I was practically giddy. This was all just a big mistake! Maybe they’d come to their senses and send me back on the first bus home in the morning for a year of home confinement and teaching!
My hopes were dashed a few minutes later when two overweight correctional officers led me and the other men in the holding cell out into the yard, unlocked three layers of gates, and motioned for us to pile into a pickup truck that would carry us to the compound. But during the ride I remained optimistic. I had intermittent visions of Mr. Sims, who was obviously more educated and civilized than the regular COs who had handled me, recruiting me to teach college-style public policy courses to other inmates or even to help the prison administration analyze policy issues with which they grappled. It had taken only a five-minute conversation for me to see that he understood the ridiculousness of my sentence, the value I could bring to the prison, the many ways in which I was different from the other men I came in with.…
“WAKE UP AND GET OUT, INMATE!” screamed the CO, who was now waiting behind the truck for me to jump down, jarring me out of my reverie. Mr. Sims wasn’t going to save me. In fact, he’d probably already forgotten about me.
* * *
We sat in silence for an hour until two COs ambled in and walked us out of the intake center toward a truck that drove us about a half mile past the shooting range to our new home on the other side of a huge hill.
In a few minutes we reached the facility, which sat snugly in a hollow, framed by cliffs and rocky inclines that seemed to substitute for an actual fence. We got out of the truck, and a CO brought us around the front of a nondescript one-story building toward a side door—no prisoner, I would learn, was ever allowed to enter the front door of the administration building. The CO opened the side door, leading us into a caged laundry room that reminded me of the liquor stores and chop suey joints in my old senate district, the ones with glass windows or bars between the customer and the cashier. A prisoner who was working behind the cage nodded at me. “First we’ll do your jacket, then your greens,” he said. Obviously the public associates prison with orange jumpsuits, but the two prisons at Manchester outfitted residents in khaki and green. “You want a large or an extra large?” That was a question no one had ever asked me, but I understood why prisoners didn’t favor formfitting clothes.
Once we picked out our greens, two COs and a veteran prisoner escorted us up the compound. A few dozen prisoners working out on free weights and another dozen or so doing push-ups on a sidewalk spotted us and begin circling, drawing a larger crowd of men, who started hollering at us, just as I’d seen in the movies. “Yo, Popcorn!” yelled someone in a long line of men waiting outside a low-rise building, and an overweight guy walking next to me with a plastic hair pick protruding from his uncombed Afro nodded back and pounded his chest.
“My nigga!” he replied.
Amid all the inmates hollering, one massive, mustached white guy stood out. “’Sup oh-seven-six!” he kept shouting at someone in my group. I later learned that the incoming inmate receiving the shout-out was from Memphis: the final three digits in the inmate number of anyone convicted in the Western District of Tennessee were zero-seven-six.
One of the saddest things about prison hit me within minutes of arriving. It’s the way in which new prisoners—most of them newly transferred from other prisons—treat their introduction onto the compound not unlike people on the outside might treat a high school reunion, greeting old friends from other prisons or from their hometown, updating one another on the time they had remaining. It strikes a neophyte as incongruous, but placed within a context in which two-thirds of inmates re-offend, it begins to make sense. Very few of these men had ever attended a high school graduation, and many have spent the majority of their lives locked up. For most, this was as close as they would get to a reunion.
Some sociological research has described a “normalization” of the prison experience among some subgroups, suggesting that relentless police harassment (see, for instance, the 2015 Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri) and ubiquitous surveillance in black neighborhoods conditions residents for incarceration. But in rural Kentucky, this normalization wasn’t limited to blacks. One white inmate named JT, who came in shortly after me for dealing oxycodone, seemed to know everything about the way prison worked and even talked to the guards as if they were old friends. He’d been locked up at some point every year for seventeen years on a dizzying array of charges, and bragged about it as if it were Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak.
We continued up the compound on a narrow strip of sidewalk, walking past the weight pile toward the housing units. I noticed that all the prisoners crowded onto the sidewalk, despite the large swath of exquisitely manicured grass nearby. I would soon learn that the grass was “out of bounds”—forbidden territory that prisoners cultivated, mowed, and then received disciplinary sanctions for walking on in the presence of a CO.
I kept moving toward a passel of men in a semicircle near the back of the line who were occupying the entirety of the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” I said. Most ignored me. Two glowered at me. None moved. I met their eyes and nodded at them.
“Self-surrender,” said one.
I was confused.
“Yo! I’m talkin’ to you, white boy! You self-surrender?”
“Have some respect, Mr. 90210!” he said with finality, and they all broke up laughing. In some ways prisoners were on the leading edge of pop culture, pioneering saggy pants and slang terms. And yet in other ways, as the allusion to the 1990s television show suggested, they were twenty years behind. I was just hoping the nickname wouldn’t stick.
I needed to change the vibe. “What’s the line for?” I asked a black guy walking with me, less out of curiosity than a vain attempt to appear to the crowd as if I actually knew someone.
“Chow,” he said, as if I were ignorant.
I wasn’t sure what meal people were eating at 4:15 P.M., but as we continued up the compound toward the unit where we were assigned, I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t ask any more questions. The three of us had merged with four other new inductees, and with the exception of the Chinese guy, the inductees continued to catch up with the crowd, providing updates on guys at other facilities. I was surprised at the genuine warmth among prisoners—they treated one another almost like family. Since I had no friends, no family, and no clue what to do, I kept my mouth shut.
* * *
The largest “families” in prison are, of course, racial ones. There are blacks, whites, and “Spanish” or “Mexicans,” which are the catchall terms for anyone of Latino descent. Gang affiliation, hometown, and cell block matter, too, but race is predominant. Black inmates in particular doubted the fairness of the criminal justice system, which isn’t surprising. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks constitute 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession despite being outnumbered five to one by whites and reporting nearly equal usage rates. At Manchester FCI, black inmates’ racial resentment was likely magnified by the fact that all the prison administrators and COs were white and many of the COs were openly racist; they would often joke with veteran white prisoners but were generally all business with black ones. All of this likely reinforced or exacerbated extant divisions between the various racial families.
Part of being family means that you protect your kin and the elders mentor the youngsters under their wing and teach them the codes. The racial codes are strictest in maximum-security prisons and get slightly more lenient with each drop in security level. Even at lower security levels in which codes are both less elaborate and less brutally enforced, they inform nearly every aspect of prison life. For instance, as David Arenberg observed in an essay on race and prison, people of different races attend church together as there is often only one Sunday service, but with the exception of Muslims, they do not pray together outside of church. People of different races routinely join the same softball teams but rarely the same basketball teams, and they definitely do not lift weights together; the people you lift with—those “in your car,” per prison lingo—are considered your closest allies, the people who would shank somebody for you.
Somewhat paradoxically, the apartheid-like rules actually work to reduce the likelihood of major racial fights. Violations of protocol earn a reprimand from the “shot-callers,” who are themselves exempt from most rules, despite the fact that they often earn leadership positions by distinguishing themselves in battles against other racial groups. Interestingly enough, as I would soon learn, breaches involving food can be among the most serious of all.
* * *
Each of us new prisoners was taken to his bunk, but by the time it was my turn, there were no more bunks available in all but one of the units. I was taken to a unit that had been opened the prior week to accommodate an influx of inmates from other prisons.
I was steered to the second cell on the right-hand side of the unit. A forty-something-year-old guy in a black do-rag was leaning up against the bunk, talking about his culinary skills and the money he’d earned through his cooking hustle at his last spot; he’d apparently just been transferred from someplace in Florida, where he had a CO smuggling spices and other ingredients to him.
As the only white guy on my cell block, I immediately became a source of curiosity. My cellie sized me up, then curled his upper lip. “White collar?” he asked, with a mix of disdain and bemusement.
“Yup.” I didn’t know quite what to make of him. He definitely had some attitude, but I wasn’t about to start the relationship off by giving him any of it back.
“Whatchu done did?”
“Lied to the feds.”
“Damn, how dey gintchu?” asked a guy in the next cell with dreadlocks, a Rasta cap, and a Jamaican accent.
“My best friend was wired.”
A chorus of “Day-um,” “Sheeeet,” and “Bitch-ass nigga” rained down.
Then somebody said, “That nigga need to get chalked.”*
A chorus of “Mmm-hmms.”
Less than thirty seconds, and there was unanimous agreement in my cell block that someone should kill Steve Brown. I made a mental note not to get on these guys’ bad side.
“So what they give you?” asked my cellie, whose freckles gave him a striking resemblance to Morgan Freeman; sure enough, guys called him “Red” after Freeman’s Shawshank Redemption character.
“Year and a day.”
“Man, I done did more time in this place on the toilet than you got time.” He laughed.
“Really?” I asked. “How long you got?”
“Shit, I’m gettin’ out on Friday if my halfway house come through.” I would soon learn this was common: everybody was getting out Friday, if only their halfway house came through as staff “promised,” if only their conviction was overturned as their lawyer promised, if only …
The Jamaican guy with headphones on started singing a reggae song, and my cellie rolled his eyes. “He sing that shit all day.”
Not wanting to risk a value judgment, I changed the subject. “How long you been down?” I asked, having overheard that expression on the march up.
“This time, ’bout seven years.”
“Hell, naw. I been at Butner, Edgefield, Coleman … this place ain’t shit. ’Specially next to the USP, where I done did my first bid.” USP, the U.S. Penitentiary—maximum security. In a low- or minimum-security prison, that was impressive: anyone who had done time at a USP commanded respect.
The Jamaican guy stopped singing. “How yo’ mattress?” he asked.
“Pretty thin,” I replied.
My cellie looked at me and deadpanned, “What you think, you had a year and a day at the Ritz?” Everyone broke up laughing.
My cellie, who was six feet and two hundred pounds of equal parts muscle and paunch, had been locked up for most of the past thirty years on a variety of charges, most involving crack. Since turning eighteen, he’d done state time, fed time, and—the worst time according to him—about three years cumulative in county lockup, where he claimed to have been in a holding cell with one toilet and thirty-five other men for over a week without a shower.
Like Freeman’s character, Red was often wise, always wary. He advised me and other newbies how to tie our bedsheets to minimize dirt accumulation, how to dress so as to avoid scrutiny from COs, how to stay out of fights, and most important, how to avoid getting a “shot.” A shot was an infraction that led to denial of privileges. Low-level violations, such as removing food from the cafeteria, resulted in the loss of phone privileges, recreation, commissary, or visits; higher-level violations such as possessing steroids, a cell phone, or a woman’s panties earned inmates ninety days in “the hole”—solitary confinement—transfer to a higher-security facility, and a delayed release date due to revocation of “good time”—the time off for good behavior at the end of a sentence. Outside of disciplinary violations, one surefire way to irritate prison staff was to file formal complaints against them using forms called BP-9s or BP-10s. If a warden or a captain (the number two position in the prison hierarchy) was so inclined—and they usually were when faced with inmates who lodged frequent complaints—he might make a prisoner’s transfer especially miserable via “diesel therapy.” That meant sending a prisoner on a six-month multicity tour of squalid county jails and holding facilities, thereby rendering contact with loved ones impossible and forcing the prisoner to adjust to new settings and new threats every week or so. Traveling around in buses, handcuffed and chained to a line of other prisoners, is no way to see the country.
Red knew more about criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines than most legislators whose job it was to write them. He enjoyed showing off his knowledge, especially to someone who had once been on the other side. And he gave me the lowdown on many of our fellow inmates—what they did, where they’d done time, how long they had left, and most important, whether they were “miked up” or “hot” (that is, known snitches). Red knew the sentencing guidelines so well and had connections at so many other prisons that he always seemed to be able to tell when new guys came in if they’d snitched on their suppliers. Anyone who snitched had an unusually short sentence, so they sometimes lied about the length of time they’d served at their prior spot. Red would check with his sources and often found their stories to be exaggerated. As the eldest on our cell block, Red was the informal enforcer of a no-snitch policy through which he demanded to see every newbie’s “papers.” Within a week or so the new neighbor would receive his belongings from his last prison, including the paperwork from his case, and Red would examine it to see if the guy had cooperated with prosecutors and to what extent. If the guy refused to show his papers, Red sent the word out loud and clear: “Do NOT fuck wit’ dis new nigga,” he once warned me about a guy who’d just moved in, “he so muthafuckin’ hot he put halfa Memphis in the feds.”
It was bad enough to be known as someone who had ratted out a close associate, friend, or relative to finagle a reduced sentence on the way in, but far worse to be a known snitch inside prison walls, once the teams (prisoners vs. the prison) were firmly established. Those were the prisoners who would send an anonymous note (called “dropping a kite”) to a CO informing on a fellow prisoner’s violation or illegal hustle. Except for suspected child molesters, who face the constant threat of beatings, snitches occupy the lowest rung on the prison hierarchy. (Most child molesters were housed in separate wings of correctional facilities, but there was constant scuttlebutt about certain men having slipped through the cracks of the system, or having dual sentences for drugs and child pornography, etc.) Suspected pedophiles were beaten and extorted, and faced other humiliations, such as having their cells or belongings sprayed with urine. Snitches sometimes faced similar threats but were mostly treated as lepers.
Above those groups, there was a generally understood hierarchy that moved upward from “inmate” to “camper” to “prisoner” to “convict.” “Inmate” is a very derisive term inside prison because it is the term that COs typically use to address prisoners. Inmates are prisoners who identify as much (if not more) with the institution as with their fellow prisoners. Inmates feel superior to other prisoners; they don’t deserve to be incarcerated, especially not with these other hardened criminals. They follow rules and express concern when others break them. An inmate might inquire about the CO’s family, prior job, or hometown or casually joke with the CO about something; once other prisoners leave the vicinity, an inmate might allude to a fellow prisoner’s messy cell, laziness on the job, or questionable activity. This is called “dry snitching”: not directly ratting someone out, but offering self-aggrandizing information, especially through invidious comparison, that could cause extra scrutiny of others. An inmate would never “buck,” or resist direction from prison staff. Inmates value their proximity to prison staff, and even if they aren’t snitching, COs rest assured that inmates will help them maintain order. In return, COs might provide inmates with small perks—a second helping of meatloaf, help getting a favorable prison job placement, a superficial search after the inmate receives a visitor.
A “camper” is not nearly as insidious as an inmate, but is considered soft by “convicts.” Campers are generally incarcerated in low- or minimum-security facilities and are typically first-time offenders with relatively light sentences. Campers might “eye-fuck” strangers (that is, look at them for more than a fleeting moment) or even greet them, something a true convict would never do. Campers back down from possible confrontations, especially those with convicts. During the evening leisure time, a camper might quietly watch a softball game or enjoy a sudoku puzzle sent in by a relative. Campers are neither actively liked nor disliked by convicts, though they are pitied for their vulnerability to convicts’ schemes and bullying. Campers just want to go home and may whine about being locked up.
Inside prison, “prisoner” is probably the least used of these terms, precisely because it is the most neutral; it indicates neither derision nor reverence. Prisoners simply put their heads down and do their time without bitching, which was my objective. They don’t antagonize other prisoners, though they disdain snitches; they don’t instigate fights, though they are quick to respond to provocation. They might speak briefly to COs, but never with the obsequiousness that an inmate would use or the bravado used by so-called convicts.
“Convicts” are the people who in some ways run the prison, or at least the prison’s underground economy. Convicts, who have typically served long terms and are accustomed to prison life, adhere strictly to what is called the “convict code,” which is very intricate but founded on a few simple truths: might makes right, weakness deserves predation, snitches get stitches, and prison staff are the enemy and must be defied when they try to encroach on prisoners’ already-constricted zone of freedom. A convict rarely speaks when other means of communication will suffice; when he passes a fellow convict on the compound he might silently bump fists, but he ignores pretty much everyone below him on the spectrum. He would never shoot the bull with a CO or speak at length to one, unless he was either cursing the CO or conspiring with him to smuggle contraband. Any prisoner who forgets that prison staffers perform full-cavity searches, arbitrarily tear up people’s belongings in search of contraband, and generally view prisoners as subhuman is just as deserving of bile as the COs themselves. COs may see convicts as truculent but maintain some level of respect for them—a respect they don’t have for inmates, whom COs leverage to get information about various illegalities happening out of their view.
COs usually steer clear of convicts, understanding that they have far more to lose than long-term prisoners, and they are usually judicious in their use of overwhelming force. On the street, the fear of prison keeps most people in check, but once someone is locked up—and this is especially true of convicts—the only real consequence of inciting violence is solitary confinement. COs often form tacit détentes with convicts whereby convicts are allowed more leeway to commit small infractions than other prisoners in return for maintaining relative peace on the yard. They are aware that in the event of a riot they are woefully outnumbered and could easily die before reinforcements arrive.
Nearly all convicts started out in maximum- or high-security prisons, where the so-called convict code is strictly enforced. There are subtle distinctions as one travels down each security level, from maximum to high to medium to low to minimum. Perhaps the biggest difference is that in low- and minimum-security facilities, prisoners have more general freedom of movement and are rarely cuffed when moved from place to place, except after fights. This freedom allows for more potential violations of the code.
According to several prisoners who’d started out long sentences in high-security facilities, the mix of people at Manchester FCI actually made it more conflict-prone than a typical medium-security facility, because a lot of those who’d never been to prison were ignorant of or even flouted the code. Most of the prisoners started out in higher-security facilities before coming to Manchester after their Bureau of Prisons–calculated “threat level” had fallen based on age and time served without a major incident. As these prisoners mixed with the minority who were either coming from county jail and couldn’t make bail or had originally been sentenced to Manchester, the prison was like a road on which some people are driving thirty miles per hour, some fifty-five miles per hour, and others eighty miles per hour. Indeed, one of the most vicious fights I observed began with an old-head veteran of high-security facilities telling a newbie, “You ain’t no convict. You a camper. Go roast some motherfuckin’ marshmallows.” As you might imagine, the youngster on the other end of that comment did not respond well and ended up bashing the older man’s head with a slock—a padlock or jagged rock wrapped in a sock.
* * *
During my first week, I spent a lot of time watching and learning. Since I had no official job, I was temporarily put to work cleaning the unit alongside Red, who showed me how to make the floors shine and gave me a crash course in prison culture. It seemed as if, after two decades on the inside, he knew it all. I felt lucky to have someone with so much experience showing me the ropes.
One of the first things Red explained was the prohibition on asking people about their case. (Apparently the fact that I was short and slight mitigated people’s apprehension about asking me this question.) Of course, he grilled new inductees, because select old heads like him and the shot-callers asserted rights that few others had. (Nobody except the newest guys full of bravado even used the word “gang” because they understood that gang association would get you thrown in the SHU—the Special Housing Unit, i.e., solitary.)
As Red noted, nearly everyone at Manchester was convicted for dealing drugs—approximately two-thirds for coke, one-third for methamphetamine or oxycodone. This was not unique. According to the Department of Justice, the federal prison population has increased tenfold since 1980. And even though half of the drug-trafficking offenders were in the lowest criminal history category, their average sentence in 2010 was 45 percent longer than the average sentence for other offenders: seventy-eight months versus fifty-four months.
All had been caught with enough of their chosen drug to receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five or, in most cases, ten years. Most of them also had a gun on their case, leading to a five-year enhancement. That left them with fifteen-year bids, where they typically started at high-security institutions (depending on their age) before transferring to successively lower security levels and ultimately reaching the Promised Land of the federal prison system, minimum security. Even after a decade without Internet access, they avidly followed pending legislation that could ameliorate their plight. Most knew by heart the relationship between crimes and their corresponding offense levels according to federal guidelines (along with the additional point values of various “enhancements” sought by prosecutors), as well as the exact sentencing range for each offense level.
Contrary to popular belief, very few prisoners actually claim innocence. However, most refer to “catching” their case as if they had caught the flu (“I was in Georgia with my old lady when I caught my case”). This, of course, serves to shift agency away from themselves and toward the system. Surely, some were caught up in circumstances beyond their control; many made mistakes that were compounded by the actions of others. And guilt and innocence come in many shades of gray. The government pursues certain cases but not others: young black men who sell crack are targeted more aggressively than Hollywood heiresses who share blow with their friends, and prominent elected officials (see Edwards, John) are prosecuted more tenaciously than others guilty of similar crimes. U.S. attorneys want to please their bosses in Washington, who want high numbers and high-value scalps. This works overwhelmingly to the detriment of racial and ethnic minorities and those who can’t afford private legal representation—and sometimes public officials.
Despite an interest in the law, of course, few of my fellow prisoners claimed to be pristine. Red, for instance, had been in and out of federal, state, and county incarceration on a dizzying array of charges, from drugs to assault to robbery. When the conversation turned to taxes, he gazed out the window. “Shit, I been locked up so long I don’t know when the last time was I filed taxes,” he said wistfully. “They don’t give you no muthafuckin’ W-2 when you slingin’ dope.”
In addition to being my cellie, Red was my teacher and protector, against other prisoners and the prison staff. He explained what types of provocations would be shrugged off and what types would get me shanked; what kinds of infractions would get me a wrist slap and what kinds would earn me a year in the SHU. He pointed out which showers had hot water. And fortunately for me, in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of the system, Red was one of Manchester FCI’s better chefs. He taught me how to make a “nacho” (a prison delicacy made in a bowl with rice, chips, beef jerky, cheese, beans, and vegetables smuggled from the warehouse).
On my third day, as others languished in the long lunch line, he suddenly pulled me aside and whispered that I should follow him. As we snaked through the line I was a bit irritated at having lost my place. But then we arrived at a small storage room. He slid a slim metal object into the lock and winked at me. Inside was a pile of mattresses slightly less shitty than the paper-thin one I had inherited; this small act of kindness would make it significantly easier to survive my bid.
* * *
One of the first prison codes I learned from Red involved dining etiquette. There were only eight of us in the cell block, which had the capacity to hold about seventy. Since we lived in a newly occupied unit on the compound, we were the last to be counted during afternoon count, which meant that we had to wait in line together for nearly forty-five minutes as all the inmates from other blocks dug into their dinner. By the time we started eating, most of the other inmates had finished, and the chow hall was filing out. On my first full day, I proceeded through the line, and since the guys on my cell block were the only people I knew other than the guys with whom I’d gone through processing, I sat down to eat with them. Immediately a couple of guys at the table glanced at each other. Red put down his fork and fixed his eyes on me. “Listen, cellie, is you tryna start a muthafuckin’ riot on yo’ first day?”
“Huh?” I was confused.
“Look around, cellie. What you see?” he asked.
He shook his head. “How many white folks you see eatin’ with the kinfolk?”
“Thaz right. Thaz cuz if you do, you gon’ hear ’bout it from yo’ people. They might give you a break cuz you ain’t never been down. But you pull this shit at the USP, you wouldn’t see day 2, man. They be callin’ yo’ old lady, ‘Yo, Miz Senator, they done put the senator in the ICU!’”
The table had a good laugh at that, but Red had made his point. “Ain’t nobody jumpin’ in to save yo’ nigga-lovin’ ass neither.” More laughter from everyone except Red, who scowled derisively at my naïveté.
As I walked back to the unit alone, a beefy white guy with a red goatee and a shaved head approached. He had a thick Southern drawl and a chest completely covered in tattoos. “Listen heah, boy, is yew some kinda nigguh-lovuh?” he demanded. Apparently the guys from my cell block weren’t the only ones to notice my break with form.
“No,” I said, figuring it wasn’t an opportune time to reveal my African American Studies major.
“Then sit wit’ y’own kind tomorrow at chow.”
“Okay, my bad, see, that was my cellie. I just got here today.”
“Huh. They putja wit’ a nigguh?”
“Why they do that?”
“Well, look here, ya need to see Lamorie and fix that. They oughta know not to do that.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll fix it. I’m Cornbread. Y’holla y’need sum’n, y’hear?”
“Lemme find out yew’se eatin wit’ the nigguhs again,” he concluded with a sneer.
I’d gotten off easy. As others have noted, violating this fundamental rule of prison life could lead to harsh consequences. Eating with members of another race could get you hurt; eating from the same tray as someone from another race could lead to a hospital visit; eating from the same actual food item as someone from another race could get you killed.
When Cornbread walked away, I flashed back six months to a meeting I’d had while preparing for my reelection campaign with a few white politicos—guys who weren’t with me in my first race but were with me now that I was a senator. One of them asked if I was planning on doing my signature 3-on-3 tournament again. Of course, I replied—every year.
“Look, Jeff, have you thought about maybe doing a soccer tournament on the South Side?” he asked. That was the whitest third of my district.
“Um, nah, that wouldn’t really be me.”
“I thought you played soccer in high school.”
“I did, but still … you know, those kids’ parents sign them up for leagues, and you know, it just doesn’t seem necessary.”
He looked at the other guy and then back at me. “Maybe not for them, but it might be necessary to get you reelected. Look, whether you like it or not, you can’t ignore your base. Man, politics in this town is like prison—there’s two teams, and the free agents don’t survive very long. So before you spend too much time on the North Side, if I were you, I’d lock down the South Side and make sure you don’t get a primary from there.” A white primary opponent to split the white vote combined with a single strong black opponent would complicate my reelection in the majority-black district.
Cornbread was essentially repeating what I’d heard six months earlier in a very different context—the consequences were now more severe than an election loss, but the basic racial dynamics remained the same.
* * *
Other than the lack of freedom, race was probably the most salient factor shaping life at Manchester. A slight majority of the prisoners were black, about a third were white, and the rest were Latino or Asian. Blacks seemed to complain far less about being incarcerated than whites; I heard many more blacks than whites claim that they could “do an elbow” (a life sentence) with no problem.
I heard far more whites express disbelief that they were locked up with “people like this.” Take, for example, Kyle, who was in for burning crosses outside black churches and became a sort of lone wolf on the compound. I met him shortly after he arrived; he beefed with a black guy before seeking support from whites with Aryan Brotherhood affiliations and was largely abandoned by veteran whites who didn’t want to be dragged into racial warfare without cause. Kyle’s saving grace was that he was the compound’s only white barber—a practice too intimate to be performed interracially. Accordingly, I traded him two beef logs for a haircut. But as soon as he started talking, I regretted it. “Guys like us shouldn’t be here,” he told me. Other than our whiteness I didn’t see much commonality between a cross-burner and a Black History major, but I didn’t respond. Kyle alternately claimed that he was tight with the Klan; that the cross burning was just a prank; and that he had nothing to do with it but just happened to be in the car when the “actual” cross-burner was apprehended.
White prison veterans could parade around with giant KKK tattoos and share jokes with black guys, but a young white newbie like Kyle—all of twenty years old—with no ability to navigate prison would have a different experience. He was soon roughed up by a black prisoner and threatened with more. A certain level of ethnic identification within prison was understood as necessary for protection, but for someone to have proactively targeted blacks on the street was gratuitous and offensive. Sensing that a beating was coming, Kyle soon requested a transfer into protective custody, which, in Manchester at least, meant solitary confinement. Few actions brought more disrespect than the act of requesting PC. (Conversely, some said that few actions brought more respect than a highly regarded convict checking himself into the SHU after recognizing that he would likely kill or maim a CO and wanting to avoid an elbow.)
Perhaps because of continuing societal inequalities—that is, comparative white power and privilege—whites seemed to have more trouble than blacks handling prison’s daily humiliations. Red, conversely, claimed to be at home in prison. He often reflected about the similarities between prison and his old life on the street. “Other than pussy, shit ain’t that different in here,” he sneered. “That yard jus’ like my stoop. I run shit in here jus’ like I did out there.” While this sentiment comported with criminologist Leo Carroll’s early theory that black street life, with its emphasis on cunning, toughness, and racial solidarity, bears some cultural similarities to incarceration, it was certainly not true for other black prisoners, and later research reveals far more nuance. Kevin Wright, for instance, studied New York State inmates and reported the following findings.
1. Blacks and whites had exactly the same average number of assaults on staff and other inmates.
2. Inmates of both races ranked financial support as their highest need and emotional feedback as their second highest.
3. Inmates of both races who had gone beyond high school and had less experience “in the streets” (aka “lambs”) were more likely to be hurt.
4. Unemployed inmates were shown to be more aggressive than inmates who were employed previously, suggesting that economic marginality regardless of race influences prison adjustment.
5. Race plays a small role in determining adjustment to prison, but it is less important than prior incarceration and “street” experience.
Though opposing images of the “typical” black prisoner emerge in ethnographies—the aggressor who physically and psychologically dominates others versus the “chill” guy who hones “a defensive, vigilant posture … conceal[ing] feelings behind a façade” of serenity8—the folly of ascribing a prisoner’s traits to his race became quickly apparent. Indeed, I would soon see Red’s posture toward me swing wildly from one pole to the other.
Prisons are but a microcosm of society, so no one should expect them to be a postracial paradise. Our nation’s prisons bear the scars of more than a century of racially tinged drug law enforcement often rooted in the white American male’s deep-seated fear of race mixing. The country’s first antidrug law was an 1875 San Francisco law banning opium, which many believed Chinese men were using to lure white women into opium dens for sex. When Congress passed a similar law decades later, racial inequities remained: the law carved out an exception for drinks with traces of opiates then popular among affluent whites. Soon came a 1914 law prohibiting cocaine use, catalyzed by media accounts linking cocaine to black violence, while the Literary Digest blamed the “cocaine-crazed Negro brain” for “most” sexual attacks against Southern women. Similar dynamics facilitated marijuana crackdowns, with Mexicans as the original scapegoats, and later blacks, as data from New York, Chicago, and California show. Blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, and whites use cocaine more than blacks. Yet arrest rates for blacks were 3.5 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates every year from 1983 to 2007. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to be prosecuted than whites and to receive much longer sentences for similar crimes, thanks to the disparity in mandatory minimum sentences applied to crack cocaine and powder. Powder is the drug of choice for most whites, whereas crack is used predominantly by blacks; the two are simply different forms of the same drug, yet a defendant must possess eighteen times as much powder as crack in order to receive a comparable sentence. (The ratio was 100:1 until August 3, 2010, a day of jubilee in federal prison.) Even as research illuminates these inequities, they have actually worsened in recent years.
It would be folly to think that somehow black prisoners leave all of this at the prison door when they walk in. Adding insult to injury is differential treatment blacks receive once they arrive at their destination. Historically, prisons were racially segregated by state law and this carried over into job assignments as well. Just as on the outside—where black unemployment rates have typically hovered around twice that of white unemployment rates—white inmates are more likely to hold a job and are able to enjoy the benefits of working while in prison, namely, wages that afford them a slightly easier lifestyle via purchases at the prison canteen. White inmates have also typically been awarded higher status and higher-paying jobs within prisons, a hierarchy that certainly existed at Manchester FCI. And as others have described, prison staff endorse this racial hierarchy by ensuring that white participants navigate the system more easily. Although I clearly had a lot of advantages over most black prisoners—most notably, enough money to buy what I needed from the canteen* and stay in touch with loved ones—I would soon learn that the standard prison racial hierarchy wouldn’t always apply to me.
Copyright © 2015 Jeff Smith.
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Jeff Smith is a former Missouri State Senator who represented the city of St. Louis from 2007 until 2009, when he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a previous campaign. Having served a yearlong sentence in Kentucky's FCI Manchester, he is now an assistant professor at the New School's Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Planning. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two young children. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is his first book.