Not Your Typical Campaign Stop

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.

The cellblock was quiet except for the nightlong sounds of toilets flushing and the gate to the cellblock opening and closing as guards came to patrol. At 6 a.m. Brownback awoke and said the night was "OK for the circumstances. Woke up, went back to sleep, woke up. Had to roll around a little to get comfortable."

Then it was on to Death Row. Brownback walked by 15 dimly lit cells, saying hello to inmates. One was politically curious: "Do you look beyond the fight against gay marriage?" Brownback replied, "I am pro-life and I do think marriage should be between a man and a woman, but we need to expand our vision." He spoke of his defense of the residents of southern Sudan and Darfur, and his advocacy of effective malarial treatments elsewhere in Africa.

The prisoner condemned to die commended him for his help in keeping others alive. That "look beyond" challenge is the key to Brownback’s success in the upcoming campaign. If he can differentiate himself both from standard GOP candidates and from the Bush administration by espousing Bible-based compassion tied to small government and fiscal responsibility, he could add to a conservative base those voters who do not want to ignore our Angolas.