KCCI / YouTube Former state Sen Kent Sorenson facing...
KCCI / YouTube

 

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Kent Sorenson, R-Indianola, in 2011, pre-prison and pre-empathy for his fellow humans

Why do Republicans get a clue about the horrificness of the policies they push only when those same policies bite them personally in the ass?

They don’t seem to be able to stretch themselves to feel empathy until their own faces are rubbed in the misfortunes they couldn’t have cared less about when others were suffering them.

Tea Party Republican Kent Sorenson had a spectacular rise in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and then a hard fall when the vipers he’d involved himself with in the Republican Party entangled him in financial malfeasance. He pled guilty to obstructing justice and filing a false financial reports for his campaign and was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2017.

While in prison, he had a change of heart on a number of issues that wouldn’t have concerned him before he had to stare the reality in the face, eyeball to eyeball.

[E]motion chokes at his voice as he describes in detail the captive brotherhood forged with the sorts of criminals Sorenson would have once gladly banished from society without a second thought. Now he knows them, their struggles, their stories. There was Ricky, the self-described “pharmaceutical salesman” from Chicago who is doing 10 years for what should have been a petty drug crime—and whose son was shot during his imprisonment. There was Juan, who got suckered into entering a drug house by an undercover fed and was busted inside holding a stack of cash. And there was Chad, who became Sorenson’s best friend at USP Thomson, a Des Moines native who grew up in a meth house and is doing a 20-year stretch for a nonviolent drug crime he committed as a young man….

“There’s no rehabilitation happening in there. There’s no teaching, there’s no training,” he says. Worse, Sorenson adds, were the atrocious conditions: expired food, foul bathrooms, decrepit living quarters. Finally, there’s the underlying sickness plaguing the Bureau of Prisons, race relations—specifically, the entrenched, systemic approach of facilitating and fueling ethnic rivalries in service of the accepted notion that a divided community of inmates is incapable of uniting in the pursuit of a more humane environment….

Sorenson, the Republican state senator and Tea Party superstar with a clear path to Congress, had heard about disparities in sentencing. He had read about the statistical inequalities and crooked economics that are foundational to the American prison system. He had watched the demonstrators on television chanting about the devastation wreaked on minority communities by mass incarceration. And he didn’t buy any of it. Sorenson was a conservative—not just any conservative, but a fiery, in-your-face ideologue who preached punitive justice and individual responsibility. He was a law-and-order dogmatist. And he was, if he’s being honest, “a little bit racist,” with no time for the “bullshit propaganda” being peddled by the likes of Black Lives Matter….

He found himself shocked by the blatant way racism is used in the prison system to control inmates and fend off public investigation of the corruption in the system, even though he was perfectly familiar with the way his own Republican party segmented voters and played them off against each other to gain power and money:

[H]e was struck by the brightness of the racial lines. “It was like stepping back into the 1950s,” he recalls. Soon after he arrived, Sorenson found himself chatting with Officer Hanson, the head of USP Thomson’s Special Investigative Services, the B.O.P. branch that supervises both inmates and officers. Sorenson says he shared his observation about the degree of racial segregation at the MCC and admitted to being surprised at how pronounced it was at his new home. “Racism is good for the B.O.P.,” Hanson replied. “We use it to our advantage every day. The more they focus on hating each other, the less they focus on hating us.”…

Sorenson was blindsided by the remark. Quizzing Hanson further, he discovered that the officer wasn’t just describing efforts to head off a physical confrontation with inmates, but also efforts to preemptively undermine any coordinated push for better conditions and better treatment. The biggest concern for prison officials, Sorenson began to realize, wasn’t riots or violence; it was the airing of dirty laundry, tales of neglect and suppression that could make their way to the public. What Hanson was saying, Sorenson recalls, is that by obsessing over petty beefs and turf wars, the prison’s warring racial tribes could not make a coherent, organized case for reform.

I really hesitate to be too hard on the dude. He’s truly suffered: he was sentenced to a much longer sentence than even the prosecutor asked for (the prosecutor  asked for probation), his family lost their house, and his son committed suicide. The man is struggling to find his way and hasn’t forgotten the promises he made to his fellow inmates to do everything he can to reform the system. (At this point, powerless, moneyless, and disgraced, that’s probably not much.) He now no longer opposes same-sex marriage and strongly opposes the death penalty, the very issues that had pushed him to get involved in right-wing politics in the first place. And he seems to have been a bit of a naif getting involved with the GOP’s remorseless nest of snakes.

But really, all it would have taken before his fall would be to listen in good faith to the stories of people who were hurt by those issues and take them to heart.

Does every member of the Republican Party really have to go to prison to understand that major prison reform is needed?

Does every member of the Republican Party really have to have a gay member of their family come out before they accept gay rights?

Does every member of the Republican Party really have to suffer a financially devastating medical emergency before they see the need for universal public healthcare?

And so on, through every issue.

Sadly, it looks like it.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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