ANGOLA, La. (AP) – Sen. Sam Brownback took his budding presidential campaign to prison this weekend, spent a restless night among inmates and pressed his message that faith can work even to improve the lives of hardened criminals.
The Kansas Republican had no expectation that the drug cartel hit man, serial rapist or other convicts in his cell block would vote for him. After all, about nine in 10 of the inmates are serving life sentences. His mission at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, rather, was to promote religious-based prison efforts to curtail violence and provide inmates with an alternative to crime once – or if – they got out.
On Friday night, Brownback joined hundreds of inmates at a prayer service before prison officials escorted him to his modest sleeping quarters. On Saturday morning, he emerged from his 7-by-10-foot cell to tour the maximum-security facility and take a walk down death row.
"There aren't probably a lot of votes for me here," he said. "There can be a lot of prayers, though."
About 90 percent of the 5,108 inmates at Angola are lifers. Half are convicted murderers. Eighty-five are on death row.
Burl Cain, the prison's warden since 1995, attributed a drop in violence at the prison to Angola's commitment to "moral rehabilitation" programs. The prison has six interfaith chapels, nightly prayer services, four part-time chaplains and a "Bible college" that has trained dozens of inmates to be ministers.
Brownback, 50, said programs such as Angola's can "break the cycle" that sends two-thirds of inmates back to prison after they are released.
Brownback has been a staunch advocate of government's use of religious-based initiatives to combat poverty and crime.
"I believe in a separation of church and state, but I do not believe in a removal of faith from the public square," he told the prisoners. "Our motto of our land is, 'In God We Trust.' "
States with religious prison programs – including Kansas – are watching how federal courts resolve a lawsuit by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the state of Iowa, challenging a program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries. The ministry organization is appealing a federal judge's order to end the Iowa prison program and repay the state $1.53 million.
Brownback, who also has stayed overnight at a Kansas prison and at a homeless shelter in Washington, said his night at Angola was a "little rough." One of the inmates on his cell block was a hit man for a drug cartel. Another was a serial rapist serving 19 life sentences.
When he addressed the inmates on Friday, he assured them he is not "soft on crime." On Saturday, as he chatted with prisoners on death row, one inmate pressed him for his stance on capital punishment. Brownback said he preferred it be "limited in its use."
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