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Michelle Smith experienced life in a Missouri prison. Now she’s pushing for change

Michelle Smith (right) listens during a discussion forum held at the Missouri Justice Coalition's town hall event in St. Louis on Saturday 18, 2023.
Danny Wicentowski
Michelle Smith (right) listens during a discussion forum held at the Missouri Justice Coalition's town hall event in St. Louis on Saturday 18, 2023.

The Missouri Justice Coalition is crisscrossing the state, with stops already in Kansas City, to raise awareness about conditions inside prisons and build support for reform legislation.

More than 13,000 people entered Missouri prisons last year, but the lives of those who are incarcerated – and their families' experiences – are often hidden behind walls and red tape.

Michelle Smith founded the Missouri Justice Coalition in 2022 because she knows what it’s like to feel degraded by the conditions of incarceration.

Smith has spent time in both federal and state prisons. “I was in a women's prison in Missouri from 2012 to 2015,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “There's so many people I left behind that I continued to advocate for. And creating this organization is really that combination of me trying to do something about the issues I saw firsthand.”

Smith said she created the coalition after realizing there was no statewide advocacy group for people in prison and their families. Earlier this month, the group launched a town hall tour of the state. Starting in Springfield, Smith and other advocates have already held events in Kansas City and St. Louis.

The effort comes at a time when Missouri prison officials are battling the spread of drug use and related deaths in prison facilities. At least 105 people have died in state prisons this year, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. Last week, a 27-year-old man died in the Farmington Correctional Center.

“We are so focused on the fact that our incarcerated loved ones are not getting humane treatment,” Smith said. “I've talked to wives and mothers of people incarcerated who are being abused, that are being traumatized with extended solitary confinement, there are so many things going on. And the main issue is that there is very little focus on actual rehabilitation and humane conditions within our prison system.”

Smith, who is also co-director of the Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, is hoping the town halls build support for legislation and policy changes.

“I decided that I'm going to get in my car, drive around the state, and connect with these people, talk to them, bring forth the fact that we need to have a unified prison advocacy movement, and invite them into the space with me,” she said.

The group’s tour continues next month, with stops planned for Dec. 2 in Charleston; Dec. 3 in Rolla; Dec. 16 in Columbia, and Dec. 17 in Hannibal. More information about the events can be found on the Missouri Justice Coalition website.

To hear more from Michelle Smith about the conditions of Missouri prisons, and details about upcoming town halls, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Danny Wicentowski
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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