Jeff Smith: How Much Entrepreneurial Potential Lives Inside Our Prisons? | KUOW News and Information

Jeff Smith: How Much Entrepreneurial Potential Lives Inside Our Prisons?

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 7:49 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Hidden Potential

About Jeff Smith's TED Talk

After serving a year in prison, Jeff Smith realized his fellow inmates were just as business savvy as many on the outside. He now works to help inmates harness those skills when they leave prison.

About Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is an executive vice president of Concordance Academy, an organization dedicated to restoring individuals, rebuilding families, transforming communities and advancing the field of re-entry services.

Smith is a former Missouri state senator who was convicted in 2009 for lying on an official FBI affidavit about a 2004 campaign violation. Smith served one year and one day in jail. Since being released from prison, Smith served as assistant professor at the New School's Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy. He has also published a memoir, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So back in 2004, Jeff Smith was a state senator representing St. Louis in the Missouri Senate when he decided to run for the U.S. Congress.

JEFF SMITH: I did. My first campaign - I ran for the U.S. House. I was in a 10-way primary. I lost by a little more than 1 percent to a guy named Russ Carnahan whose father was our governor and mother was a U.S. senator.

RAZ: And you were sort of a - kind of a rising star in the Democratic Party at one point. That's what they said, I guess (laughter).

SMITH: That's what they called me. Yes (laughter).

RAZ: So I'm assuming that when you were in the Missouri state Senate, you - in the back of your mind, you must have thought maybe one day - I don't know - governor. Maybe something like that.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I definitely didn't get the congressional bug out of my system. So when I was in the state Senate, you know, I thought about running for Congress again and dreamed of being a U.S. senator someday. Yeah. Maybe running for mayor of St. Louis. You know, I didn't know. But given the term limits in Missouri, you can only serve two terms in the Senate. So I certainly, you know, thought about other things, you know? Like most politicians do even though they usually lie and say they aren't.

RAZ: So I guess it all kind of came crashing down in 2009. What happened?

SMITH: So in 2009, my best friend, who was then a member of the state House of Representatives, called me - said he wanted to talk to me about something. And I said, what is it? He said it's kind of sensitive. We better talk in person. And he wanted to talk to me about a postcard that had been put out in 2004 - five years earlier - in the last few weeks of my U.S. House campaign. Back then, five years earlier...

RAZ: OK. So long story short, Jeff had allowed an outside advocacy group to send postcards criticizing his opponent during his congressional campaign. Now, that's something that is perfectly legal today because of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling. But back in 2004, it wasn't allowed. The Federal Election Commission investigated, and Jeff denied knowing anything about it on an official affidavit even though he did. And that, under U.S. law, is a crime. And what Jeff didn't know was that the FBI was secretly investigating him, and his best friend was the bait.

SMITH: I never dreamed that - that entire time I was talking with my best friend about it, he would be wearing a wire.

RAZ: He was wearing a wire. He was wearing a wire on behalf of the FBI...

SMITH: Correct.

RAZ: ...Who were investigating you for essentially lying on an official government form.

SMITH: Correct. So I pled guilty to obstruction of justice. And it's a long story, but the federal government was interested in me cooperating on higher level political officials than me. Some of whom were, you know, good friends and people I thought had a lot of integrity and were good public servants. So ended up not being able to do that, and so I was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison in eastern - southeastern Kentucky.


RAZ: What was your first impression when you got there?

SMITH: So the one thing you never forget is the gates kind of clanging shut behind you. Walked into the intake facility. There's kind of a middle-aged woman. She says - I'm in deep, you know, Appalachia. She says, you know, name? I tell her my name. She says height and weight? I said 5'6", 117. She said education level? Ph.D. She kind of raised her eyebrows at that. Last profession? State senator.


SMITH: All right. You want to play games? You could play games all you want. We got ones here that think they're Jesus Christ. So that was my first impression - was that I was going to be even more of a fish out of water than I thought.


SMITH: I was pretty fortunate 'cause I had less time than anybody at that prison. Everybody pretty much had 10 years or more 'cause almost everybody was in for drugs. And they were - had a federal mandatory minimum sentence.

RAZ: Who were your - you say many of your fellow inmates were convicted of drug crimes. Tell me about the kinds of men who were incarcerated and in the prison.

SMITH: Well, about two-thirds of them were in for crack. About a third of them were in for selling meth or oxy. I'd say all but maybe 1 percent of them were there for drug-related crimes. There were maybe five white collar people in the prison out of everybody there. So it was, you know, an education for me certainly. Racially, it was the most segregated place I'd ever lived. And I'm from St. Louis, so that's saying something.

RAZ: Jeff also learned that those people inside the prison were just as business savvy as many of the people he knew on the outside - the people who were pillars of the establishment, people with years and years of formal education and training - because in prison, the options and resources were limited. You had to do more with less, and you had to be smart about it. Here's Jeff Smith on the TED stage.


SMITH: So how do you survive? We learned to hustle - all kinds of hustles. There's legal hustles. You pay everything in stamps. Those are the currency. You charge another inmate to clean his cell. There's sort of illegal hustles, like you run a barbershop out of your cell. There's pretty illegal hustles. You run a tattoo parlor out of your own cell. And there's very illegal hustles, which you smuggle in or you get smuggled in drugs, pornography, cellphones. And just as in the outer world, there's a risk-reward tradeoff. So the riskier the enterprise, the more profitable it can potentially be. You want a cigarette in prison - $3 to $5. You want an old-fashioned cellphone that you flip open, and it's about as big as your head - $300. You want a dirty magazine - well, it can be as much as $1,000. So as you can probably tell, one of the defining aspects of prison life is ingenuity.


RAZ: What did you - I mean, it sounds like - very quickly - you started to realize that there were some - there's some guys in there who were really smart - who were really savvy.

SMITH: There were guys who were extremely smart. You know, when I was in the Senate, I got wined and dined by some of the wealthiest CEOs in the state of Missouri, right? And I will tell you they're entrepreneurial and their business instincts - they had nothing on the guys who I did time with. There's not a single concept that you'd learn at Wharton or Harvard Business School that you couldn't learn inside federal prison.


SMITH: Whether it's promotional incentives or new product launch or supply chain management, barriers to entry, customer service, territorial expansion - every one of those concepts I heard lucidly explained inside the prison just, of course, in the parlance of the drug trade.


RAZ: Now, Jeff knew these guys had the smarts and the ability and grit to make it out in the real world someday. But he also knew they were likely to be overlooked and ignored. So today on the show, we're going to explore those very people - people who have what it takes to succeed even against all the odds, people with incredible hidden potential. And for Jeff Smith, his first real exposure to this idea was when he ended up in prison and saw for himself that his fellow inmates could maybe one day become brilliant businessmen.

SMITH: Well, imagine if you're like a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley or somewhere else. Your main thing you have to figure out is how to make a product that, you know, somebody will buy. When you're a drug dealer, you not only have to figure out how to do that, but you also have to figure out how to avoid getting shot by your competitors and how to avoid getting apprehended by the police. So it requires a level of, like, playing chess instead of checkers - thinking on multiple levels all the time and being extremely alert to everything around you that, I think, would serve a lot of these guys well in the business world. The sad thing is that our prison system provides very few opportunities to help these guys translate their intuitive grasp of a lot of their sophisticated business concepts into a legitimate enterprise.


SMITH: There's no training - nothing to prepare them for that. No rehabilitation at all in prison. No one to help them write a business plan. No access to the Internet even. And then when they come out, most states don't even have a law prohibiting employers from discriminating against people with a background. So none of us should be surprised that 2 out of 3 ex-offenders reoffend within five years. Look, I lied to the feds. I lost a year of my life from it. But when I came out, I vowed that I was going to do whatever I could to make sure that guys like the ones I was locked up with didn't have to waste any more of their life than they already had.


RAZ: So I guess we should mention that since you left prison, you started working with a group called Concordance. And they help people readjust to life when they come out of prison. So how does it work? Do you - like, if I'm in prison, do you contact me and then - and then what happens?

SMITH: So for your last six months of prison, you would meet with one of our counselors and one of our educators. So the first thing you would do is start meeting with a counselor and learn how to feel again. You know, when you go to prison, one of the first things you do is you numb yourself. Then they start working with our educators - we call them pathway specialists in prison - who begin to kind of help them develop a career blueprint for what skills they have and what skills they could use to acquire decent paying jobs when they get home. Then after their last six months of prison, they come home. And they spend their first 12 months post-release as part of the Concordance program. And then after a few months with us every day, we refer them to employment with one of our corporate partners.

RAZ: Wow. I mean, how much of your experience in prison led you to the work you do now?

SMITH: All of it. I mean, you know...

RAZ: Like, when you were in prison...

SMITH: ...And not just my experience in prison but my experience coming home from prison, right? Because I - you know, I came home. And I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with my life. Frankly, I was concerned that nobody would hire me. And I sat for my first interview with a very small, affordable housing nonprofit in St. Louis. And we went around the table, and they asked me all these questions. And at the end, the vice chair of the organization said, look, you've got everything we're looking for. My only question for you is, why shouldn't we let another organization hire you now, and then we could hire you away from them in six months or so once the aroma has begun to wear off a little?

RAZ: Wow.

SMITH: If that's the question that I get with all the advantages I had - a Ph.D. from a top university, a home to come home to. I had family support. I'm white. In almost every way, I was advantaged compared to 99 percent of people that come home from prison in this country, and you know what? I had a hard time finding a decent job. I got lucky. I got that job, and then I got this professorship teaching in a graduate program of urban policy in New York City. I did that for five years. But then when Concordance reached out to me with the opportunity to come back to the hometown that I love and to help give other people the same type of a second chance that I got but almost nobody gets coming home from prison, I jumped at that opportunity.


RAZ: Jeff Smith - he's a former Missouri state senator who now works at Concordance Academy. You can see his full talk at On the show today, Hidden Potential. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.