Samuel Smith was incarcerated for 20 years at multiple facilities in multiple states, including New York and South Carolina, as well as Washington D.C.
He served time at Clinton, a maximum security prison in New York, and ended up, at the end of his time, at Sing Sing (also a maximum security prison in New York). He feels he got lucky because he ended up at Sing Sing, which is a maximum security facility that offers education to inmates.
Throughout his time he educated himself and recently, he earned his Master’s degree. He currently works two jobs, and lives in New York.
His son, who is now 28, is also now incarcerated.
Smith talked at length about his time in prison over two decades, solitary confinement, family, and sacrifice.
Q: Which prisons did you go to?
Smith: I’ve been to lot of prisons, Lori.
Q: Which ones in New York?
Smith: Clinton, Sing Sing, and Franklin.
Q: For how long did you serve in total?
Smith: Over 20 plus years in prison.
Q: What was your first day like? Do you remember it?
Smith: I first went to max. - everybody when you’re going to a max. facility you go through Downstate. I came up through Downstate. I left early that morning, it was a Friday morning, and rode the bus up to Dannemora, New York [the town where the Clinton maximum security prison is located]. So you ride on this bus for hours, while your hands are in shackled to your waist. Your legs are shackled and your hands are handcuffed to a chain to your waist. So that you can only extend them about 4 inches in front of you. And the cuffs are secured by a black box with a chain in the middle. So you can’t really move.
So I rode up there and when I got up there. They take your property. You don’t get your property that day. They put you in the cell. You have to wait to talk to a sergeant. The next day, if you’re lucky, you’ll talk to the sergeant. And the sergeant clears you -- he says okay, you don’t have any enemies, you’re not in any gangs or anything like that.
I went back and got my property. They called yard. I didn’t know who I would know in there, but I thought I would know somebody. Because I had been going in and out of jails since I was 13, so I knew I would know somebody in the jail.
So when I went to the yard, I was standing in the middle of the yard because I didn’t know what section belonged to who or who dominated what section. People were coming out and I saw a guy walk past me. He walked past me going to the rear of the yard and then he walked past me again. And he was holding his jacket to his face. It was kind of cold outside, so I thought he must be cold. Then he went and sat on a picnic table, and as he sat on the picnic table, he took the side of the jacket to his face. When the officers came, they realized that he had been cut. He had just got his face cut open. And I was like: Aw man, this is where I’m at? This place right here? I haven’t even been out here for 10 minutes yet, and already it’s on.
It wasn’t a shock to me because I had been in and out of prisons throughout my teenage years up until my adult years. But I was like, man, okay, this is serious here. They’re not playing here.
Q: Did you leave family behind and what was that like?
Smith: The last time I went to prison in 2007, I had actually gotten married. And I left my wife behind and I also had left my two children behind. My son and my daughter. And unfortunately now, my son is incarcerated.
He inherited it -- he followed the same steps. He went through the same thing. Right now, he’s in Bare Hill Correctional Facility.
***His son is now 28 years old. And his son has been in and out of the system since he was 14 or 15.
Q: How old were you when you first went into the prison system?
Smith: My first real prison sentence I got when I was 18, and that was in South Carolina.
Q: You’ve been in a lot of different facilities. Did you think some were worse than others?
Smith: Yes, a lot of them are worse than others. For me, Clinton was the most violent.
When I was down South -- South Carolina was violent, but the propensity for violence was there because the access to weapons was so easy.
Q: Did you ever go to solitary confinement? Can you describe it?
Smith: Yes, I did. They have different forms of solitary. There’s a form where they only let you out of your cell for 1 hour a day [so you’re in your cell for 23 hours], but you’re still in general population.
Then they have the box. The box is just a whole lock-up unit, where everyone in there probably has 50 days or more SHU time. And the new boxes that they have in upstate -- they have a shower in the room, so you don’t ever really need to come out of your cell -- everything is connected to your cell. So you never come out of there.
Q: Do you ever get outside time?
Smith: You get outside time, but at the back of your cell -- there’s a door. And they buzz that door at a certain time of the day and you walk out to a cage and that cage is where you get your hour a day outside of [the cell].
You can see in front of you, but you can’t see to the sides of you. There’s no human contact.
Q: The time you spent in solitary -- was it ever more than a couple of days?
Smith: Yes. The longest time I ever spent in solitary was 8 months.
Q: Eight months in solitary. That seems like a long time. Can you describe what it felt like? Did it feel like you were going crazy?
Smith: It is crazy. It is like you have to learn to actually be comfortable with yourself. You have to learn things that get you through the day. You start making up things to do. At one time, I just wrote on the walls. I just started writing on the walls and the floor.
It was hard. It was very hard.
It made me claustrophobic. And I think the thing that really broke me was the one time I had been acting out so much that for a week straight, I wasn’t allowed to go to the restroom, I wasn’t allowed to take a shower. All I could do was get fed through the flap. They had me on what they call the “loaf.” It’s like a bunch of food smushed into a bread-like loaf and they bring it to you. And that was it. And that literally made me almost lose my whole mind.
You hear stories of people who will put feces in their mouth, so when people walk by they can spit it at them. Do you know how crazy you have to be to put feces in your mouth?
It’s the most primitive thing in the world.
You hear [stories of] people [guards] who -- will open your flap and if you don’t move quick enough, they will close your flap and close your hand in the flap. It’s really crazy. I’m talking about insane. Insane to the point like that even now -- if I’m in an elevator, and the door takes too long to open, I get a bit panicky.
You have to realize, people react to the box differently. Some people try to hurt themselves. That’s the most common. Others try to get sleep meds [to be medicated while they do solitary time].
Q: Day-to-day, what was it like on regular days?
Smith: I had a program. My day was set. I managed to become a program aide and an aide in computer repair [he had two jobs]. So that was my day. And at night, I went to school.
It depends on what you’re into.
At one time, I would gamble and sell drugs inside of prison -- that was my whole day. Play poker, sell drugs.
I think everyone has an event that happens in their life and that event puts you at a solid crossroads. And that crossroads is: If you do this, there’s no coming back from it.
And that’s what happened to me. I was selling drugs in prison -- someone went to get my drugs, but didn’t tell me he got my drugs [someone was stealing his drugs].
When I found out, I went to the yard, and I knew we were about to have this big conflict, and I realized then -- that if I proceeded with this, someone was going to end up dead. This man has stolen my drugs, and in order for me to sell drugs in prison, I had to make an example of him. And I had people on my side who were like -- Yeah! You need to make an example out of him!
But I was at an impasse. And I said, you know what, I’m not going to go through with this. And when I said I wasn’t going to go through with it, I realized I could never sell drugs in prison again. Because if I tried to go back to selling drugs, because I let him go steal my drugs, everybody would steal my drugs. So after that happened, I knew I had to do something different. And that was how I got into school. I started school.
I didn’t want to die in jail.
Q: What within the U.S. prison system needs the most fixing?
Smith: One of the things is people you can relate to. The prison population and the people maintaining the population don’t really share the same experience. They don’t have anything in common at all. It hinders the progress and it causes a disconnect.
Q: What else should the public know?
Smith: Nothing in prison is free. You have to work -- sometimes I think people think people are just sitting around. But you have to work. And you’re paying with the biggest payment of all -- that’s your life.
Q: You’ve now earned your education. Can you talk about that?
Smith: I recently got my Master’s degree. And even with my Master’s, many employers want years of experience or I’m automatically excluded. The job pool often becomes so tiny and small that a lot of us end up returning back to the same place we came from. We end up in the same socio-economic situation again.
[To strive for better things] it takes a lot of sacrifice. It’s hard, it’s very hard. They don’t realize how hard it really is. My life didn’t get easier. But it did get better.
It takes finding that point in your life, where you can say, I can sacrifice for something better.