ANGOLA, La. -- "Hi, hon. I'm heading for prison." That's what Sam Brownback, Kansas senator and just-announced GOP presidential candidate, told his wife when she called him on his cell phone last Friday evening.
The infamous state penitentiary here has been featured in such movies as "Dead Man Walking" and "Monster's Ball." Brownback spoke with prisoners, then slept in a cell and walked Death Row the following morning. I slept in the cell next to his, and my neighbors on the other side were a serial rapist and a drug cartel killer. It was the beginning of what is likely to be an unusual presidential campaign.
The big public event was Brownback's talk in Angola's packed, 700-seat chapel. As the sound of a rollicking 30-member gospel choir bounced off cinderblock walls, Brownback strode in wearing blue jeans and a Kansas State sweatshirt. A prisoner introducing him skipped the political biography and emphasized basics: "He grew up on a farm. He understands what it's like to smell manure all day long."
This wasn't a time for political wonkery, and Brownback did well with call-and-response: "I'm coming here to see what you're doing. Because we've got a problem." Yes we do. "Two million people in prisons and we're building more prisons. How do we break the cycle?" Tell us. "That's why I'm here. Good programs have this in common: They're dealing with the heart." Amen. "There aren't a lot of votes for me here. There can be a lot of prayers.
Prisoners then asked questions, with Brownback walking into their midst and worrying a guard. Many wanted him to be their advocate for changing Louisiana's tough sentencing policies, but the senator did not cooperate. Instead, he offered multiple variations on "you did the crime, now do the time."
It was a tough audience for a tough-on-crime Republican: Brownback has long favored mentoring programs to fight recidivism, but not shorter sentences. Angola's warden concluded the event by saying, "He gave you some answers you didn't want to hear," and Brownback whispered as we left, "I feel I kind of let them down." But several prisoners murmured that they respected a politician who did not pander to them.
Following the meeting it was time for lockdown in the unit, where he would spend the night in a 7-by-11 cell with a sink and toilet, a bunk with a thin mattress and a hard pillow, and a table with little bars of soap, OraLine fluoride toothpaste and a small New Testament. Mounted on the wall across from the cell was a continuously playing television tuned to Fox News and audible via earphones.