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Sunday
Aug112019

'Prison was a humbling experience': Former federal inmates talk about their time in prison

Chris Maselli(NEW YORK) -- Chris Maselli and Jeff Smith seemed to have it all -- at one point.

Maselli was an up-and-coming State Senator in Rhode Island and Jeff Smith, having gained a "cult like following", was running to be a state senator in Missouri.

But it all came crashing down spectacularly for both of them.

For Smith, it was in 2009 when he plead guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for lying about improper payment for campaign flyers. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. For Maselli, it was in 2011 when he was sentenced to 27 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to eight counts of bank fraud.

Both Chris Maselli and Jeff Smith decided to write a book about their respective experience in federal prison.

Smith's book, "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison" came out in 2015 and Maselli's book, "A New Debtor's Prison" was released this summer.

"Prison was a humbling experience," Maselli, who served his time at Fort Dix in New Jersey, told ABC News in a phone interview.

Smith, who served his time at FCI Manchester, Kentucky, said he didn't go into prison with a lot of preconceived notions even though he had visited a lot of prisons when he was a state senator.

"I had a lot of constituents that were locked up. I represented a court district in St. Louis city with a lot of high poverty areas and a lot of constituent correspondence that I got more from families of incarcerated people," Smith said.

Smith went on to say that the biggest thing that surprised him about prison was the entrepreneurial spirit inside.

"People are just operating all the time ... they got a little business, you know, a little store out of their cell, they got a little tattoo parlor, they've got men making books on prison basketball league, they run the poker league."

Maselli and Smith also said their prison jobs were the opposite of what their day jobs were.

Maselli spent the first six months of his prison sentence building fences outside the minimum security camp while Smith was put to work in the warehouse.

"That was the other thing the prison was famous for, if you were a cook on the outside, they wouldn't put you in the kitchen and make you cook meals. They'd have you cutting grass and they'd have the guy who cut grass, cook the meals," Maselli explained. After six months, he moved to the education department where he would teach English to non-English speakers.

Smith said there was quite often an element of give and take with the prison inmates. For example, he said he was chastised early on by the warden for writing a book in prison and staff would come search his cell for his notes. Smith said that in order to keep the notes, he would give them to another inmate to hide in return for onions he would get from the warehouse where he worked.

Both men spoke about the racial divide in prison and how the television room was a place that was often divided by race and unspoken prison rules.

However, one thing that wasn't segregated was playing sports, and for Smith particularly, it is what got him through the year he spent locked up.

"Because of the bonding, you know, the bonds are forged with with other prisoners through sport and to get a psychological escape," he said.

Smith says that high profile inmates like former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving more than seven years combined over two cases, and President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen who is serving three years in prison, may have mixed experiences.

"Definitely some people are going to want to meet Michael Cohen. And some people that are fascinated by Paul Manafort. You know, he's been on TV every day for the last six months. Now he's, you know, in the next cellblock -- you loved it," Smith explained. "If you are high profile then everyone knows everything about the case."

Smith said that when President Trump called Michael Cohen a "rat" last year, it could potentially hurt him because all the details of his case were so public.

"Since white collar criminals, especially ones with fame, you know, the details of their case are so widely known often, a 'rat is a rat is a rat' rule can bite them," Smith explained.

Smith talked about serving his time with Alberto Vilar, an investment manager who, among other charges, was convicted of money laundering and mail fraud. Vilar also happened to be "the largest donor to the opera," Maselli said.

"I mean, he was living in penthouses in Manhattan. He had a difficult time dealing once in prison," he said.

Maselli said that prison could be quite duplicitous. On one hand, people would treat him poorly because of his association and friendship with Vilar. On the other hand, however, he saw people want to be his best friend because once they got out, they hoped he'd help "take care" of them.

The former congressmen have since developed a cynical view of the criminal justice system and the tactics the government used, especially how financial pressure was placed on defendants to "squeeze" them out of money.

"If you ask me and you look at some other cases, they purposely leak information to the media so it becomes public. So now there's this pressure on, you know, there's this outside pressure of the media and now public opinion about, you know, and you haven't even been charged with a crime," Maselli said.

Maselli stressed that he never ratted anyone out and said federal prosecutors play a "physiological game" as well.

"Lawyers aren't cheap especially when it comes to cases like that. And and then, you know, it was almost when I did get indicted, it was almost like something was lifted off my shoulders. It wasn't like not knowing sometimes what's going to happen is worse than knowing ,you know, what is what the not knowing is worse than anything else."

In his new book, Maselli writes about how the criminal justice system disenfranchises and discriminates against people who can't afford to go through it, and is now an advocate, much like Jeff Smith, for a better criminal justice system.

"I want the public to understand just how disproportionate our country is relative to every other industrialized country in the world in terms of the number of people we lock up. And in terms of the lack of rehabilitated opportunities in prisons. And in terms of the obstacles that hinder the ability of formerly incarcerated people to succeed in all of those respects, you know, we are way, way, way behind almost every country in Europe," Smith lamented.

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