ST. LOUIS – Life behind bars is difficult no matter what your background. But when you are a successful politician who ends up facing prison time, a whole new set of challenges presents themselves. Former State Senator Jeff Smith can attest to that but says there is life after lockup and you need to be ready to handle it all.
Smith burst onto the St. Louis political scene more than a decade ago by running for Congressman Dick Gephardt’s seat.
A documentary was even produced about his rise: “Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?” He was riding a political wave that few up and coming lawmakers hope to see. But then it came crashing down as he ran afoul of campaign finance laws and ended up in prison.
We are seeing a similar situation play out in St. Louis County where former county executive Steve Stenger will soon be heading off the prison for upwards of four years. And despite what some might think, Smith says that politicians don’t go to country club jails.
“In federal prisons, such as the one I went to, even low-security prisons, most of the people there are people who started out in higher security levels,” Smith says. “He’s not going to be playing tennis every day. He’s going to have a job that he has to go to 8 hours a day and lights out at a certain time.”
Smith says his peer group is about to change dramatically as well.
“He’s going to have to learn how to fit in with people who are predominantly drug dealers,” he says.
The former Missouri state senator says the hardest part for high profile people who end up behind bars is trying to lay low.
“When you’re little, your grandma tells you, 'You’ve got two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use them in proportion,’” Smith says.
He says that’s a good lesson for anyone going to prison but especially white-collar prisoners who are going to jail for the first time.
Smith says that one of the keys to staying safe behind bars is to eventually make alliances but not to try too hard. He says inmates are already looking at you because they will already know what you did to end up with them in lockup.
“Don’t try to buddy up to people,” he says. “Just keep to yourself and don’t be seen talking to the guards. You were already part of the government that put people behind bars and if people see that you’re still buddy-buddy with the prison administration, that could get you hurt.”
One of the most important lessons that Smith says he learned before checking in to prison is to appreciate what is really important to you.
“When you’re in politics you often lose sight of what’s really important in the world,” he claims. “I think the time before you go to prison is time to take stock and reflect on what is really important and what your priorities should be in life, and spend time with people who should be on that list, most notably, your family.”
The next key is knowing how to survive and thrive once you are back on the outside.
“Humility is really important for anyone who may have had power or status before they were incarcerated,” Smith says.
He says that it will be incredibly difficult to land a job once you’re out because people are afraid to take on the liability of hiring an ex-con.
“So I think having an attitude of gratitude, I know it’s clichéd, but more than anything coming out of prison, that’s my takeaway,” Smith says.