Angola, La. 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 get 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."
On Monday, Brownback formed an exploratory committee that allows him to raise money for a possible run for president. He kicked off a multistate tour with a more conventional trip to Iowa on Tuesday before traveling to the prison.
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.
"We don't want to build more prisons in the country," he said. "We don't want to lock people up. We want people to be good, productive citizens."
Sidney Deloch, an inmate who is 28 years into a life sentence, said faith-based programs also have made life better inside the prison.
"This prison used to be one of the bloodiest in the country," said Deloch, a Baptist minister at Angola. "It's still bloody because it's covered with the blood of Jesus Christ, and this blood is saving people's lives."
Brownback, an opponent of abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research, long has been a champion of religious conservatives. He also 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 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 may face long odds against candidates with much better name recognition, but he hopes to broaden his appeal by accentuating issues such as prison reform and AIDS. He recently took an AIDS test with Sen. Barack Obama - an Illinois Democrat considering a presidential run, too - to encourage others to be tested.
Brownback, who also has stayed overnight at a Kansas prison and at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., 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.
"I didn't sleep the best," he said. "But to go and feel and smell it, I think it gives you a feel for something you just can't read about."
When he addressed the inmates on Friday, he assured them he is not "soft on crime." On Saturday, as he shook hands and 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."
"I only support it in cases where we can't protect society from a person who perpetuates the crime," he told the inmate.
Brownback was introduced to the inmates by Jorge Valdes, a convicted drug trafficker who earned a master's degree and a doctorate in New Testament studies after 11 years in prison. He now frequently counsels inmates at Angola.
"I would like to one day see an article that says, 'From the Big House to the White House.'" Valdes said, urging prisoners to get on their knees and pray for Brownback.