Cover Story

Cellblock campaign

"Cellblock campaign" Continued...

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

After Brownback was cancer-free he and his wife added to the three children born to them by adopting two more. He also became a Catholic: "I love the evangelical church, I just felt a strong call to Catholicism . . . I don't talk much about it. It would just get both sides mad." (He did mention reading Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian pastor who converted to Catholicism in 1986 and wrote Rome Sweet Home.) On Sundays he goes to Mass early in the morning and then attends an evangelical church with his family.

As we drove on into the night Brownback's wife, Mary, called him on his cell phone and he jauntily answered, "Hi, Hon, I'm heading for prison." He then reassured her that he would be sleeping "in a safe, locked-down area."

Brownback has spoken for years about the need for prison reform. He's also made it a practice to visit both domestic anti-poverty sites and Africans undergoing persecution in Sudan and other countries. So he had the standing to visit the Angola prison and make it seem more than a campaign photo op.

To meet the prisoners, Brownback changed from the proper business suit he wore for the fundraiser to blue jeans and a Kansas State sweatshirt. Instead of entering a dimly lit restaurant, he suddenly found himself in a light-filled and packed 700-seat prison chapel with cinderblock walls off which bounced the sound of a rollicking 30-member gospel choir singing a hymn about Jesus, "He's on Time."

Brownback himself was running late, and 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. He's a bold man. He's running on a platform of reform." The senator bounded to the microphone and announced, "God is good," and the prisoners came back with "All the time." Brownback, joking that "I expected more heat than that," yelled out "And all the time . . ." The prisoners roared, "God is good."

This was the time not for political wonkery but for 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."

An energized Brownback then took lots of questions from the prisoners, most of whom have life sentences (without hope of parole) for murder or other terrible crimes. Some thanked him for coming-"You've heard our cry"-and for leading the fight against Sudanese genocide. But more questioners wanted him to be their advocate for changing Louisiana's tough sentencing policies. The senator did not cooperate, and instead offered multiple variations on "You did the crime, now do the time."

It was a tough audience for a tough-on-crime Republican. But Brownback also praised the reconciliation process begun by Angola warden Burl Cain, an outspoken Christian, by which prisoners meet with the families of those they had victimized to ask forgiveness. Brownback floated the idea of release hearings for those with lifetime sentences who turn 60 and have been imprisoned for at least 20 years.

Cain 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 CCR (Closed Cell Restricted) unit where he would spend the night in a 7-by-11 cell with a stainless steel sink and toilet, a bunk with a thin mattress and a hard pillow, and a table with little bars of soap, a toothbrush, a tube of 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, which could also be viewed from adjacent cells and listened to by headphones.

Brownback's cell was at the end of the cellblock, by the guard's station. Next was mine, and next to me was John Simonis, now 55 and imprisoned for the past 25 years after gaining notoriety as the "ski mask rapist." (He confessed to multiple rapes and armed robberies in a dozen states and is sentenced to more than 2,500 years in prison.) Simonis told me of his new Christian faith and said he realizes that "I'll die here." Down the hall was Miguel Velez, a Medellín cartel killer sentenced in 1987 to life in prison without parole for murdering a drug informant. He was then 37; now he also speaks of his faith in Christ.

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