Business TEDTalks

Jeff Smith: The rest of his political incarceration story

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Jeff Smith was blown away by some of the brilliant business ideas he heard while spending 366 days in prison between 2009 and 2010.

“[Prison] was teeming with smart, ambitious men whose business instincts were in many cases as sharp as those of the CEOs who had wined and dined me six months earlier when I was a rising star in the Missouri Senate,” says Smith in today’s talk, filmed during the TED@NewYork stop of the TED Talent Search. “Ninety-five percent of the guys I was locked up with had been drug dealers on the outside … They talked about it in a different jargon — but the business concepts they talked about were not unlike what you’d learn in a first-year MBA class at Wharton.”

In this talk, Smith shares that he made just $5.25 per month in prison, working in a warehouse. And yet, he had to navigate an underground economy of majorly marked-up goods. As Smith shares—in prison, a cigarette costs $3, a flip phone goes for $300 and a dirty magazine can fetch the upwards of $1000.

“We learn to hustle,” says Smith of the prison experience. “One of the defining aspects of prison life is ingenuity, whether it was concocting delicious meals from stolen scraps from the warehouse, sculpting people’s hair with toenail clippers or constructing weights from boulders in laundry bags tied onto tree limbs.”

The tragedy, says Smith, is that none of this creativity and business acumen is harnessed. In this talk, Smith posits the idea: what if we trained inmates in business basics like how to write a business plan? Could this change the startling statistic that 2 out of 3 released prisoners reoffend within five years?

“I lied to the Feds. I lost a year of my life from it,” says Smith. “When I came out I vowed that I was going to do whatever I could to make sure guys like the ones I was locked up with didn’t have to waste any more of their life than they already had. The best thing we can do is figure out ways to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and tremendous untapped potential in our prisons.”

Smith’s powerful talk begs a few question: what was the lie he told and how did he end up in prison? Below, a look at how Smith got there, as well as a look at the writing and political commentary he’s been doing since his release.

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In the This American Life episode “Mortal vs. Venial,” which aired in April of 2012, Smith shares the story of how a relatively small sin compounded into three big offenses that led not only to the end of his political career but also to his incarceration.

In 2004, Smith — then a 29-year-old political science professor — ran for the U.S. Congressional seat vacated by Dick Gephardt. Smith built a grassroots campaign to challenge front-runner Russ Carnahan in the Republican primary. While he ultimately lost the primary, his vibrant campaign was chronicled in the documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?.

As Smith tells This American Life, during the course of this campaign, he was approached by a media consultant who offered to send out an anti-Carnahan mailing as an “independent expenditure.” Smith’s campaign staff provided this man with information for the mailing. This is a violation of election law — as those funding independent expenditures, which are exempt from campaign finance limits, are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.

Russ Carnahan noticed that Smith’s campaign seemed to be in cahoots with the mailing, and filed a Federal Election Commission complaint. While Smith did have loose prior knowledge of the mailing, he signed an affidavit saying he didn’t.

Years later — after Smith had been elected to the Missouri state Senate and formed a reputation as a force to watch in the legislative body — the incident came back to haunt him. To hear exactly how a strange series of coincidences, and a wiretap, lead to Smith pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, listen to the episode.  It’s a truly fascinating story — and one that highlights the complexities of running for political office.

Since being released from prison in 2010, Jeff Smith has rebooted his life — he’s now a  professor of politics at The New School in New York City and actively campaigns for the prison reform he outlined in his TED Talk. At the same time, Smith has been writing prolifically as a political commentator and advice columnist, while also working on a memoir. Here, a selection of his recent works, all of each which seed more of his powerful story.

Some of Smith’s recent columns from website The Recovering Politician:

Some selections from Smith’s “Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column,” on City & State NY:

And Smith’s recent posts from Politico’s commentary space, The Arena:

Some extra credit reading:

Interested on what life is like in prison and how we can avoid people ending up there? Here, some TED Talks on making prison a more rehabilitating experience:

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