The first time Jeff Smith appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?,” which chronicled his 2004 campaign for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt. Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, but his surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy for an election law violation tied to the 2004 campaign. Smith was sentenced to one year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison.
He chronicles his experience in his new book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis, which he calls “a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens.” We speak with Smith, now an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, about what he learned in prison and his thoughts about criminal justice reform.
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The first time our next guest, Jeff Smith, appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? The year chronicled in the film was 2004. Jeff Smith was a 29-year-old unknown college professor vying for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt.
JEFF SMITH: So, this woman who was a friend of my grandma’s, she got the first solicitation letter we sent during the campaign, and she calls my grandma says, “Ida, this is wonderful. Your grandson is running for Congress.” And my grandma, who’s 96, said, “No, I don’t think he’s running for Congress. He’s running for the state Legislature.” And the woman said, “Ida, I’m looking at the letter right here. He’s running for U.S. Congress.” And my grandma said, “Well, if he’s really running for U.S. Congress, you ought to save your money.”
JEFF SMITH’S GRANDMOTHER: I don’t think the things that a person with the mind that he has should waste it on politics.
JEFF SMITH: You know, my dad just pretty much laughed in my face.
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