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Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  357 ratings  ·  77 reviews
The fall from politico to prisoner isn't necessarily long, but the landing, as Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith learned, is a hard one.

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;
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published September 1st 2015 by St. Martin's Press
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Trevor Cornwell
Sep 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read this book through and through in one reading. It first takes you through a victory and some mistakes that take on a life of its own and hard to imagine. The insights--and the waste--into prison life are both mesmerizing and painful. Jeff's prescription for how we can do better are not pious or pedantic. They flow from a very well told story.
Just finished early release copy. While it is tagged as literature to help support prison reform, one need not worry about policy jargon. It is a highly readable account of one man's venture into a world where the rules are very different from the outside. Jeff Smith helps to put a face on a forgotten faction of our society...glad he shared it with the masses.
Oct 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Not often you get a peek behind the bars of a prison. Prison should make sense-especially when you hit a minimum security facility and it doesn't -- at least in this KY institution. It was horrifying that people's true strengths (and we all have them) aren't being nurtured in a setting like this--these men were all close to being released to join the rest of us--with no marketable skills.

They had a guy like Smith and should have taken advantage of his teaching ability for the good of all of us-
Jennifer Stringer
Dec 08, 2015 rated it liked it
3.5-4 stats. As a St. Louisan, Jeff Smith helped to hone my supremely cynical attitude toward politicians. I remember his campaigns and always appreciated his views regarding the broken St. Louis school system. When it turned out he was another crooked politician with broken moral barometer, it only served to further my distrust of those attempting to improve our lot. What's in it for them after all? It was very interesting to read his version of what went down, as he describes prison reform fro ...more
Sep 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
It actually didn't take me as long to finish the book as it looks - I just wanted to read the epilogue and acknowledgements and give it my full attention. This book sucks you in from the get go and takes you on a surprising trip from the trenches of grassroots state and local urban politics to the cold, hopeless reality of a federal penitentiary. I'll admit I chose to read this book because I work with Jeff (and had followed his quick political rise and fall over social media and local news), bu ...more
Feb 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent book that provides a valuable perspective on the criminal justice system. I hope this book catalyzes much needed reform.

This country needs to decide what the objective of the justice system should be: deterrence, retribution/punishment, restitution, future protection (of society), rehabilitation/behavior modification, or some combination thereof, and then restructure the system to meet those objectives. As it is now, the entire system is a mess. An expensive, vic
May 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
A total must-read for every forward-thinking American. If you don’t think that our criminal justice system is completely flawed, then this is the book for you.

A progressive liberal who was out to protect his poorest constituents is jailed after a five year investigation into a fairly not-shit campaign violation makes one wonder about our legal system. He went to jail, actual hard time for what seems to any sane person to be a minor infraction.

Then he goes to prison and th
Oct 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
Jeff, you are a truly inspiring individual. You take responsibility for your actions (I think those charges were ridiculous) and somehow manage to not just survive prison but claim to be a better person for it and undertake the prison system as a cause. It's all very impressive. Maine doesn't send nearly as many people to prison as other states do (probably because the population is so old!) but it is still depressing to think about how prison is just a path to recidivism and these institutions ...more
Sep 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jeri by: an NPR interview
Not just another report on the crime that is our current prison system. Rather, this is a well-written and easy to read memoir of a young and privileged white man who had to serve a year in prison (and not a 'country club' prison) for mistakes he made while pursuing public office. He was fortunate to have skills (he could play basketball with anyone), which helped him survive within the mostly black prison population. Additionally, he was 'punished' and put on the most difficult work assignment, ...more
Joanne Otto
Oct 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
But for the overuse of epithets and the unnecessary inclusion of irrelevant but embarrassing details, I'd have given this book five stars. It reveals, in a most engaging and insightful way, the weaknesses of the American prison system, its enormous financial cost to our taxpayers, and its devastating (and in many cases needless) emotional cost to the prisoners and their families. Smith's use of street language when writing dialogue with inmates gave the book a ring of authenticity for me (though ...more
Sep 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Engrossing read. Smith's take on the US prison system includes his own story and the prevailing academic literature. It is very readable. I grew to care about the guys he befriended. His suggestions for helping people once they are released from prison are interesting.

I really enjoyed his social commentary. I hope he writes a lot more.

My only issue I have with him and his book is his propensity for basketball and to a lesser extent, softball. He did go on about it a bit too much for my liking.
Ashley Deeter evans
Dec 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I never read nonfiction, just doesn't hold my interest. I saw this book at the library and picked it up, and once I started reading I was hooked! Very well written, and an interesting look at what prison looks like. I too thought there were "country club" prisons for low level/white collar offenders, and was surprised to read what conditions were really like. Be ready to be mad about how me are "rehabilitating" offenders, in a system which is custom made to make sure they return, and be ready to ...more
Adam Schwadron
Sep 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Very quick and easy read. Storytelling keeps you engrossed in the book. Opens your eyes to what is happening on the inside without TV or movie dramas embellishing some details of it. I hope there is a public policy follow-up to this book that will list out and detail what exactly should be done to reform our prison systems that can appeal to both sides of the aisle.
Pam Mooney
Aug 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
I liked the trial by fire edginess of the description of the "intro to prison" experience. I felt the frank and honest way the author told the story of getting sucked into the prison system could be a start of reform discussions. A mile in the shoes of a prisoner is worth a thousand debates - a good read.
Laknath Gunathilake
Jan 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Absolute page turner and a must read if you watched "can Mr. Smith get to Washington" about his unsuccessful congressional campaign. The first half of the book is about his rise in the Missouri political scene and subsequent downfall. The second half is about surviving prison, and his policy prescriptions to dismantle the carceral state and the prison industrial complex of the US.
Dec 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Mr Smith writes beautifully about a topic we all need to know more. This book is an important book. Not sensational, but very revealing. Well-edited, concise. Weaving Jeff's story with the sobering reality of the current prisons' situation.
Oct 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A worthwhile and easily digestible read with valuable and important insights on the prison system. Appreciate Jeff smith for sharing his experience.
Sep 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book covers 90 percent of my experience. Eerily similar in some respects.
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
If you've already read The New Jim Crow, you probably won't learn much from this book about the corrosiveness of the prison–industrial complex. That said, the author lets his characters speak with a rawness that you don't often see, and it's worth reading for those portraits alone. The low rating stems from my uneasiness with the author himself, who seems to have imbibed a great deal more prejudice (whether behind bars or long before) than he wishes to admit. Almost every person the author meets is d ...more
Debbie Millett
Mar 05, 2016 rated it liked it
Jeff Smith was MY state senator. He was one of those people whose energy and ideas gave people hope for politics and politicians. And then, next thing we knew, our state senator was caught up in a big scandal and going to prison. Prison! I'm glad I read this book, getting Smith's take on what happened that landed him in the clink (which really, was so very minor, especially when there are many true crooks in politics who skate by seemingly unscathed!). But I also appreciated his insights on pris ...more
Dec 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
My husband and I both enjoyed this book over Christmas break. Smith spends a short time explaining how he ended up on prison, then more than half the book is devoted to house time in prison, organized into topical chapters. The final quarter is Smith's opinions on how to improve the mindset of politicians and the BOP regarding ways of lowering recidivism and helping offenders after they're freed. His ideas are good, though it is clear that he writes from a liberal perspective. The language is in ...more
May 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Far, far too many of our fellow citizens have served time in prison when alternative sentencing would have served them and us better. Many of them have written books about their experiences but few with the abilities of Mr. Smith. He did not serve much time but he brings multiple talents and experiences to this book: a former public officials who had worked on criminal justice issues; a rare ability to connect with and befriend people very different from himself; a PhD scholar with the ability t ...more
Jan 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
I found the writing and the story generally okay. Very informative. Really illustrates some of the most critical failings of our criminal justice system. Both political parties share much of the blame for making our prisons anything but costly and wrong-headed, but perhaps the biggest culprits are the prison guard unions who work hard to increase the prison population to secure their jobs. They seem to be one of the biggest obstacles in preventing reforms.
Right now I’m reading Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Jeff Smith. Smith is a former Missouri senator (and Political Science PhD) who, after being nabbed for campaign finance violations, served a year and a day in federal prison in Kentucky. The book is a memoir of his time “on the inside” coupled with reform proposals based in part on what he saw there, including, most prominently, an embarrassing waste of human potential. —John Rappaport
Trevor Maloney
Jan 24, 2016 rated it liked it
I picked up this book and I was like, "Who cares what this rich white bro thinks about prison?" But, I was pleasantly surprised. I skimmed a lot of the discussions of policy and explanations of the growth of the prison industrial complex, b/c I've already read a lot about that stuff, but the stories he tells about his year in a federal minimum security* prison are really compelling.

*No, this does not mean that it was a "country club" prison.
Jan 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
A must read, overall.
It is an interesting look at the prison-industrial society from the inside and outside. The epilogue offers some hope that reform may be possible based on an alliance between right wing Libertarians and liberal Democrats.
Mar 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Interesting memoir about the prison system; found all the research included about recidivism rates to be intriguing - the political discussion at the end was enlightening since you rarely hear both parties talk about comprehensive political reform - it's mostly knee-jerk reactions
Mar 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Jeff Smith's personal experiences within prison are eye-opening to the general public (which has probably never been jailed before).
A clear, bitterly honest review of the United States' incarceration system which, undoubtedly, NEEDS work.
Al Menaster
Dec 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Best book on life in prison I've ever read. Smith was a state senator convicted of lying to the FBI. He combines life in prison with specific policy ideas to eliminate mass incarceration and help inmates succeed when released.
Taylor Robinson
Sep 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Jeff Smith's lifetime of advocacy and civil service make him perfectly suited to write this insightful and damning account of our Criminal Justice System. If you can judge a society by how they treat their prisoners, we deserve nothing but scorn.
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A former Democratic member of the Missouri Senate, representing the 4th district from 2007 until 2009, Smith is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Advocacy at the New School's Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy in New York City. He has also been a contributing writer for Politico, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Atlantic, Buzzfeed, and other news sources; and he was the the ...more