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A millennial duo’s ambitious goal to make prison reform go viral — and be a top issue in 2016

Bill Smith, a former meth dealer, displays his tattoo for the camera. (via Strong Returns/screenshot)

Bill Smith displays his tattoo for the camera. (via Strong Returns/screenshot)

Bill Smith rolls up the sleeve of his plaid shirt, revealing a tattoo of a goateed devil whose ice-blue eyes look down his forearm. “My tattoo, I got shortly after I went into recovery,” he says into a video camera. It symbolizes the demon of addiction lying in wait behind the surface of his skin.

Two fresh faces half of Smith’s age (50) sit across from him: Scott Johnston and Pete Davis, recent Harvard grads whose only knowledge of the meth-dealing underworld to which Smith once belonged seems to come from “Breaking Bad.” They’re floored before they manage a couple of utterances.

Really hardcore . . . Wow.

Davis, clad in a black leather jacket and blue Keds, is perched on a stool and does the filming. Johnston, an energetic brunette with spiky hair, is the one asking most of the questions. And there are a lot.

“How do you find people …?” he begins tentatively. “Because I’m so not in this world at all, I just don’t even know how you would go about approaching someone to sell them a drug like that.”

A few minutes later: “Could you walk us through the actual—doing of meth?”

Smith replies with a short lecture about the drug and its use—crank vs. ice, snorting vs. smoking—and describes his own “tweaker ritual”: how he would buy St. John’s Worts capsules from Walmart, empty a couple hundred, and “sit there religiously with a Q-tip and clean them out, then pack them with methamphetamine.”

It’s a gritty past that landed him on the wrong side of the law. But Johnston and Davis are here in the Staunton, Virginia Public Library to get the story about what happened to Smith once he was placed under arrest — the type of redemption story they want to use to galvanize young voters.


The two men are behind Strong Returns, a project that aims to make prison reform “the” millennial issue in 2016. They are eager to hear about Smith’s experience with his local drug court, an alternative to incarceration. They’re both taking their “gap year” between their college graduation and law school to promote the effort.

As an advocacy organization, Strong Returns is unique. They don’t promote specific reforms, for example: “We want it to come organically out of the conversation, not come from two dudes who came ridin’ through your town in a Corolla,” Davis explains, dismissing the “20th century” way of doing things. “We’re building a millennial prison reform network.” In their minds, that network will go on to form a concrete agenda—a sort of crowd-sourcing for policy fixes.

“Pete and I don’t have any interest in doing a top-down organization,” says Johnston. “We don’t believe that millennials on college campuses need that. We think they all need to be connected…but we don’t believe that millennials need someone over them telling them all what to do. “

So instead of writing white papers and lobbying Congress, they tour colleges and share stories. This time, it’s at Washington and Lee, a small, private university in west-central Virginia with under 2,000 students. As with any other campus they visit, Davis and Johnston begin recruiting student volunteers with the intent of having them help interview people like Smith, a man with first-hand experience of the broken prison system.

They spend hours interviewing these people, unpacking their pasts and picking their brains on how to improve the system. With their volunteers’ help, they later condense it all into short video presentations, which they put on for the school at-large. Storytelling, and its ability to go viral and drive politics, is a crucial aspect of the project’s vision.

“Connecting prisons and campuses. We think that’s where the magic happens,” says Davis.

Why prison reform? According to Davis, there’s both a moral and a political argument for choosing this particular battle.

“The moral side is, if you care about any of the major issues that you’re called upon in most religious and moral systems to care about—poverty, violence, families being ripped apart—you’ll find that the system that touches all of them and that has a hand in all of them…is the prison system.”

As for politics at the national level, Davis argues that the issue bridges the partisan gap. “It’s a left-right issue. Nothing else is going to pass in Washington except for this.” (Johnston and Davis themselves embody the left-right alliance: Davis from a liberal background, and Johnston from a conservative Mormon family.)

But at the even more crucial local level, prison reform is an issue that doesn’t require a vote from an ever-embattled Congress to make progress.

“Some judge brought drug court to this region,” Davis says. “Not even the state. He didn’t need to wait for Nancy  Pelosi and John Boehner to agree with him…A college could change the experience of dozens of people just on the local level.”

Smith shows Davis and Johnston the spot of his arrest. (via Strong Returns/screenshot)

Smith shows Davis and Johnston the site of his 2010 arrest. (via Strong Returns/screenshot)

Smith was arrested in July 2010 for dealing methamphetamine. “I was looking at five years in prison for drug charges,” he recalls. That’s when someone from the defender’s office contacted him about drug court, where he would undergo treatment for drug addiction and answer to the court for a strict regimen of drug tests. Participants’ progress is tracked meticulously by the judge, and they are rewarded or punished accordingly. The National Institute for Justice has found that these programs can both reduce recidivism and lower costs, by treating the cause, rather than merely the symptoms, of drug crime. In one long-term assessment, they determined that drug courts saved an average of $6,744 per participant when reduced recidivism was factored in.

At first, Smith scoffed at the idea, but he took the deal to avoid incarceration. He had been taking drugs since the age of 13, and at the time of his arrest was doing one or two 8 balls of methamphetamine a day. He had no interest in getting clean.

Now he’s been clean four and a half years, has a steady job, and mentors others in the drug court program.

“I’m a father. I’m a boyfriend. I’m a grandfather. I’m a productive member of the community,” he says. Had he gone to jail four and a half years ago, he argues he would still be there today—costing taxpayers money, and likely emerging with more drug connections. Prison is “a breeding ground” for them, he says.

“I had one friend, he went in, he was a local dealer. He came out, and he was an east coast drug dealer.”

Smith speaks passionately of how drug court changed his outlook on the legal system—seeing judges and lawyers, for the first time, as people who helped rather than punished him. He calls his local judge who oversaw drug court “the honorable judge,” with special reverence, recalling how the official’s door was always open for him.

But members of his community remain skeptical of programs like this. He notes that, in this very conservative area of Virginia, the “tough on crime” mentality is difficult to break.

Davis, Johnston, and their two student volunteers listen to all this and prod him with questions—they even get his opinion on “Breaking Bad,” of which he is also a fan.

Smith tells his wide-eyed audience in detail about the day he was arrested, when a “wall of police” collapsed on him in the Kroger parking lot and handcuffed him on the ground. He describes the day recovery “clicked” for him, walking home from a support meeting on a crisp October night, and wondering, “How many nights of my life have I missed like this?”

He’s proud to now be a mentor in his local drug court, where, in 2008–the last year with official data available–the success rate was 78 percent. “I stay close to the drug court program because this program literally changed and saved my life,” he says. “I’m 50 years old, but I honestly feel 18. For the first time in my life, I’m not shackled to drugs, the disease of addiction.”

When the interview is over, Smith excitedly asks Johnston and Davis to keep in touch, saying he’s inspired by their work and wants to be involved.

“Campus-to-prison bridges” are a central idea for Strong Returns. Two of the key ingredients to a successful transition after incarceration are education and healthy relationships outside the system. “What is the other institution that can provide college education and relationships with passionate people that are ready to have an open heart and be there for people?” Davis asks. “A university campus.”

So far, Strong Returns’ vision of an organically emerging order seems to be working–they’ve already had students reach out to them and volunteer to host programs at their campuses. After Johnston and Davis leave, they’re on to visit Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Ferguson, Missouri. They’ll encourage their new “student ambassadors” to start groups and host follow-up meetings, and figure out the best way to initiate unique reforms in their own communities.  They’ve recently launched the “Millennial Prison Reform Network,” a hub for wiki databases and email lists where interested parties can all connect and share their stories.

“This is the way our generation likes our politics,” their mission statement reads. “Authentic, viral, and bottom-up.”


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