The Magazine

Mr. Compassionate Conservative

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas considers a run for president. So why is he spending a night in prison?

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Ellsworth, Kansas

On the last day of May, at 5:30 P.M., Building 5 of the Ellsworth Correctional Facility is filled with joyful noise. More than 200 prisoners--roughly a quarter of the inmates at this state prison--have gathered for the midweek worship service. They're taking part in a program run by InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an affiliate of Prison Fellowship, its purpose being to effect such change in the heart of a prisoner that he will, upon release, go and commit crime no more. The men, clad in the standard correctional attire of blue jeans and blue shirt, many holding well-thumbed Bibles, are serving time for crimes such as assault, battery, and rape. Led by a band of fellow inmates, they've been singing praise and worship songs. They reach the end of Mark McCoy and Andy Park's "I See the Lord" when a special visitor arrives, accompanied by an intense late afternoon thunderstorm. Wearing a blue shirt and red tie, Sam Brownback, Kansas's senior senator, soon steps to the front. He begins speaking with an ease that suggests he has been here before, which he has, three times.

"So good to see you guys, and so good to see this program," says Brownback, who moves quickly to his main points. The country spent the '80s and '90s building more prisons and incarcerating more criminals, he says, noting that "we needed to do that." But now the U.S. prison population exceeds two million, "the biggest number we've ever had." Once released, most go back to "the old group"--to the "bad company that corrupts good morals," he says, using a passage from the first letter to the Corinthians. Many are rearrested and wind up back in prison. Brownback mentions a Justice Department finding that almost two-thirds of those released from prison are rearrested within three years. He says he'd like to see that number, the recidivism rate, cut in half over the next five years.

The senator talks about how to achieve that goal by pointing to the program his audience knows well. IFI and other prerelease programs, says Brownback, can help inmates break their "bondage" to the past and prepare for a new life with people who can "pull you up, and not down." He also discusses his Second Chance Act, which would authorize $40 million to help newly released prisoners with housing, drug treatment, counseling, job training, and education. Brownback says reducing the recidivism rate is not only about turning around the lives of those who have committed crimes but also about "breaking the generational curse . . . so that it doesn't go to your kids and grandkids."

During the Q&A, some prisoners choose to make statements, especially about the importance of IFI, which includes daily Bible and life skills classes. Brownback listens intently, occasionally posing questions. At one point he brings up "another topic I've been working on," namely "how the welfare system actually penalizes [poor] people for getting married." Brownback finds this perverse, since studies show that if you get married and stay married, you are less likely to remain poor. Brownback mentions the hearings he's held on this topic, and how he'd like to eliminate from federal law what he calls "the disincentives" to marriage. The session ends with more than a dozen men crowding around Brownback, praying. And Brownback's visit has only just begun.

After a dinner prepared by one of the inmate chefs, Brownback visits a work area, where prisoners fix broken bikes and renovate wheelchairs and learn to build houses. Then it's over to Building 4, where InnerChange prisoners are assigned. The building is laid out in "pods"--several individual cells, locked at night, arranged around a common area. Brownback moves from pod to pod. Sort of a meet and greet. Many of the inmates are watching Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, between the Pistons and the Heat. You can see on their shelves various books, including Bible concordances and commentaries.

Leaving Building 4, Brownback goes to the spacious (9,167 square feet) Spiritual Life Center, recently built to accommodate a growing inmate demand for religious programs. On its website, the Kansas Department of Corrections describes the center as providing "opportunities for inmates from diverse faiths to develop and restore relationships with God, their families, and crime victims." In a conference room, Brownback engages a dozen inmates in an hour-long conversation about their post-prison hopes. He tells one who calls him "Mr. Brownback" to change that to "Sam." And "Sam" it is. To another prisoner he says, "Your experience sounds like my own. You don't recognize temptation when you should." A prayer by Brownback closes the meeting, and then the senator retraces his steps to Building 4 and then to G-pod, cell 42, where, locked down, he spends the night.