Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

‘The Senator Be Embezzling’

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Politico offers an interesting look inside our criminal-justice system by Jeff Smith, a former state senator:

The first correctional officer I saw had two teeth. I came in with a young black guy who mumbled and a 40-ish Chinese man who spoke broken English, but at least I could decipher their words. The correctional officer, or CO, was impossible to understand. Manchester Federal Correctional Institution is tucked in a desolate Southeastern Kentucky mountain hollow and sits snugly in a crater atop a former coal mine; this CO had apparently not traveled far.

He sent me to a heavyset nurse, who had a battery of questions.“Height ’n’ weight?”

“Five-six, 120 pounds.”

She frowned at my slight frame. “Education level?”


She shot me a skeptical look. “Last profession?”

“State senator.”

She rolled her eyes. “If ya wanna play games, play games. You’ll fit right in here. We got ones who think they’re Jesus Christ, too.”

Another CO escorted me to a door-less bathroom. “Stree-ip,” he commanded. I did. “Turn ’round,” he barked. I did.

“Open up yer prison wallet,” he ordered.

I looked at him quizzically.

“Open yer butt cheeks!”

I did.

He manhandled me roughly. “Alright, you’s good to go.”

The final stop was the counselor’s office. He was a compact, sandy-haired man wearing a light blue shirt and a wispy mustache. He flipped through my presentencing report, pausing briefly to absorb the case summary and shook his head. “This is crazy,” he said quietly, without looking up. “You shouldn’t be here. Complete waste of time. Money. Space.”

Exactly, I thought. Finally, someone agreed with me. 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. A vaguely familiar man inside smiled slyly and asked, “Gonna run for Congress again, Mr. Smith? Or City Hall?” My heart pounded—it hadn’t stopped since the Feds had thumped on my door at 7 a.m. that morning. I numbly replied, “Right now, sir, I’m happy in the state senate.”

But I realized I would never reach Capitol Hill or City Hall. The walls were closing in, and it all stemmed from my first, much-ballyhooed political race, back before I was a state senator. In 2004, as a 29-year-old political nobody, I had challenged the scion of Missouri’s most beloved political dynasty for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, coming up just short of the Democratic nomination. Media accounts had named that campaign one of the nation’s most surprising, featuring the young, 650-strong volunteer army that had powered our team from literally zero support to a near-win. An award-winning film chronicling the race, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, would earn a cult-like following.

But the campaign had a dark underbelly the filmmaker hadn’t seen. A few weeks before Election Day, two of my aides had been approached by a shadowy man who wanted to produce a postcard highlighting my leading opponent’s dismal legislative attendance record in the state legislature. I was pretty sure campaigns couldn’t legally coordinate with an outside party. I was also pretty sure it happened every day, without consequence. After a brief discussion, my aides asked if they should move forward.

Whatever you guys do, I said, I don’t wanna know the details. Understand?

They nodded.We agreed to never speak of the matter again.

The postcard dropped in the campaign’s last week. It was a 3×5 picture of my opponent on a milk carton. “MISSING: RUSS CARNAHAN,” it read, and in tiny print detailed his absenteeism. The design was totally amateurish—a joke, really. We laughed and shook our heads. ButCarnahan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that my campaign illegally coordinated with the postcard’s producer.

Long story short: Five years after losing the election, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation Carnahan had initiated. But I requestedan unorthodox sentence: two years of home confinement and full-time community service during which I would be allowed to leave my house only to teach civics and coach basketball at a St. Louis charter school I’d co-founded a decade earlier. It would’ve saved taxpayers about $175,000: two years of a teacher’s salary, plus the cost of housing a federal prisoner, since I would’ve paid for my electronic monitoring. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of the state’s top elected officials, wrote public letters to the to the judge requesting clemency and arguing that—as the prison counselor in Kentucky would later note—locking me up would be a waste. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption” and pushed for a harsh sentence at the top of the federal guidelines. The judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.

Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks—a professor-turned-politician-turned-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Among other areas, I’d studied and taught criminal justice policy as a political scientist for a decade. But in prison I would be the student, not the teacher.

This is the story of what I learned—about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. It is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me—and didn’t—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 a prescription for how America can begin to decarcerate and harness the untapped potential of 2.2 million incarcerated people through programs that will transform offenders’ lives, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, increase public safety and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates.

As a senator, I’d authored and passed legislation to reform Missouri criminal statutes, without consulting any correctional officers. But once the gates slammed shut, the tables were turned: COs had the power and exercised it ruthlessly. They—along with the prisoners—were the ones who knew the score, and my education in the so-called “convict code” would be rocky. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2015 at 12:25 pm

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