Jeff Smith got his PhD, taught at Dartmouth and became a state Senator. Before that, Smith had run for congress and narrowly lost to the heavy favorite. Even then, he won, as his campaign was featured in the award-winning documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” Indeed, it seemed inevitable that Jeff Smith would indeed get to Washington, sooner rather than later.

And then Jeff Smith got his education – a real, rough and tumble education.

Jeff Smith went to prison. A campaign finance scandal from his lost, seemingly forgotten congressional race cost him his political career – and his freedom. Smith wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and got sentenced to a year and a day in federal lock-up in rural Kentucky. Smith wrote about his experiences in his book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.”

Locked up, Smith – the undersized, white collar, white guy – opened some eyes with his skills  – his basketball skills. Smith’s book is a lot of things. There are some great, unique basketball stories. Not a page goes by without a hilarious or poignant moment. Ultimately, it’s a triumph of the human spirit and a powerful statement against the current prison system in the US.

Jeff Smith took a few minutes to discuss.

POPGATES:

When did you start to play hoops? And what experiences did hoops open you up to that you might not have had otherwise?

JEFF SMITH:

Started when I was 4. First league at 5. When I was around 8, I got on an AAU team that took me into neighborhoods I’d never seen before and which most middle-class people of all colors in St. Louis avoid because of high crime rates. In the realm of basketball that made me a tougher, quicker, better player. More broadly, spending time at the homes of teammates who lived in these neighborhoods and playing pickup on their playgrounds opened my eyes to the region’s stubborn segregation and inextricably intertwined inequality that persisted long after its legal vestiges had been dismantled.

By freshman year, I was the sole white starter on my team in a suburban district that accepted inner-city black kids via the nation’s largest inter-district transfer program. They were mostly in the low track of classes; I was in the advanced track. One day a teammate asked me if I thought he was dumb since he was essentially 2 years behind me academically. “Of course not,” I replied. “Most of the people here do,” he said, which was probably correct. But what they didn’t understand, said my friend, was that the classes he was taking at his pre-transfer City school were using material 3-4 grade levels behind ours. Again that reminded me that several decades post-Brown v. Board of Education, we really hadn’t come very far. And it inspired me to major in Black Studies in college so that I could learn how we got here, as a country.

POPGATES:

Did you consider playing any level of college ball? Were you recruited?

JEFF SMITH:

Yeah. I had some area D-III teams talking to me. But I got into UNC and Duke and honestly, didn’t wanna give that up to play at a small local school.

POPGATES:

If at all, how did basketball – where big men have a distinct advantage – prepare you for politics?

JEFF SMITH:

My senior year of high school, we were one of the best teams in Missouri – lost in triple OT to the state’s #1 team, went on a 16-1 streak, etc.. At the pre-season weigh-in, I weighed 92 lbs. I didn’t weigh myself again that season because given our style of play – modeled after Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell – I was pretty sure that the first digit would be “8.” They listed me at 105 since they figured that listing me at 100 would make it obvious that they’d rounded up.

So yeah, I was little. Sometimes I had to guard guys who were a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. And in those cases the point guard would usually give up the ball at half court, call for a clear out, and try to isolate me on the block. So I developed lots of post defense tricks, like shoving with all my might into somebody’s thighs, and then quickly sliding aside the instant an entry pass was thrown, which often left my man falling backwards and the ball mine for the taking.

When I got into politics, I was again the smallest player on the floor – just like I’d been on nearly every court of my life.

I was in a 10-way primary with the front-runner being a guy whose dad was a 2-term Governor, mom was a US Senator, sister was Missouri Secretary of State, grandpa was a U.S Congressman and ambassador. Our poll showed that his name ID was 99%. My dad wrote ad copy and then started a business with zero in the basement of an apartment building. My mom worked with kids who had special needs. I had no money, no contacts, and name ID of 3% in our initial poll. So, to say I was a longshot is an understatement. But we ran a pretty scrappy, volunteer-fueled grassroots campaign, and I ended up coming within about 1% of winning and going to Congress at 29. I didn’t walk door-to-door; I ran. So instead of hitting 100 doors a night, I could hit 175. And our staff and interns and volunteers took their cues and ran circles around their counterparts on other campaigns. It turned out that the same tenacity I’d acquired as an undersized point guard was also pretty effective in politics.

POPGATES:

Did you consider not playing basketball in prison?

JEFF SMITH:

Hell no.

POPGATES:

When your fellow convicts first saw you play, what was their reaction? I imagine that they were not expecting you to be much of a player.

JEFF SMITH:

No, they definitely weren’t expecting much – and that really wasn’t anything new for me. And frankly, at first, I wasn’t much of a prison player; I weighed 117 pounds and wasn’t well-suited to prison ball, which resembles football as much as it resembles high school basketball. I took an elbow to the mouth my first week which left me bloodied, and I realized that I needed to get in prison playing shape. After working at the food warehouse moving 40,000 lbs a day and hitting the weight pile every day for a few months, I put on 30 pounds of muscle which enabled me to get into the paint and take a bump. Pretty soon my nickname changed from “Senator” to “White Chocolate,” which I loved of course, until I took my hot-dogging a little too far and got knocked unconscious.

POPGATES:

You mention in the book that there were a few athletes with professional sports backgrounds. How high was the level of play at prison? Could the all-stars from your prison play a D 1 team?

JEFF SMITH:

Yes, the prison all-stars could have played D-I ball. There were 2 guys who played professionally in Europe, one ex-NFL player, and 2 ex-Arena football players.

Image VIA Jeff Smith

POPGATES:

When you were a state senator, you were already a prisoner advocate. What’s your current role in the prison crisis? What can other people do to help?

JEFF SMITH:

I’m actually going on leave from The New School to help lead a new St. Louis non-profit called Concordance Academy, which will be the most comprehensive provider of re-entry services anywhere in the country aimed at helping people successfully navigate the transition home. There are so many ways people can help  – pick any that suits you: Be a policy advocate pushing for more sensible sentencing statutes and more humane prison conditions, including correctional educational opportunities. Volunteer inside a prison or with people returning home; people inside need an ear and a friend. Be a pen pal. Mentor the child of an incarcerated parent. Donate money to an organization fighting for criminal justice reform, like Families Against Mandatory Minimums or JustLeadershipUSA, or an organization helping people in the system avoid re-offending, such as the Prison Entrepreneurship Program or Concordance Academy.

POPGATES:

You formed an incredible bond under very tough circumstances with your fellow Warehouse Crew workers. Are you still in touch with them?

JEFF SMITH:

I stayed in touch with a few of them when I came out, writing letters and sending money for Christmas, etc. Lost touch with some when they transferred, etc, but stayed in touch with one. Wish I were in touch with all of them (except for one whose prison nickname was “Charmin” since he was so soft) – it’s one of my biggest regrets.