CHESTER, Pa. | The Conservative Political Action Conference went to prison — and found a receptive audience among the locked-up murderers, robbers and drug dealers there.
The American Conservative Union hosted its first-ever “Prison CPAC” last week to coach about 250 inmates on the life lessons and conservative values they need to reenter society.
Libertarian activist Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, told the prisoners gun control was a racist tool of the political left rooted in the bigotry of the Civil War era. Mr. Toure implored the prisoners to “organize, organize, organize” to become a powerful political bloc to fight the radical left and to earn back the right to vote.
“Overwhelmingly, Democratic policies put black and brown people in jail,” Mr. Toure said, prompting the inmates at State Correctional Institution at Chester to leap to their feet and applaud.
When Mr. Toure exited the stage, a small crowd of prisoners left their seats and followed him to the back of the prison’s crowded gymnasium. Circled around Mr. Toure, they peppered him with questions about how to mobilize politically and about conservative and libertarian politics.
“I’m telling y’all it’s rigged, it’s rigged,” Mr. Toure said. “The Democrats got better PR.”
The crowd around Mr. Toure swelled to more than a dozen and he began writing down his contact information for the prisoners before a security guard intervened and told the crowd they could write him a letter later.
As Mr. Toure was huddling with inmates about how to organize behind bars, American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp sat onstage with liberal activist Van Jones to discuss their shared views of the importance of criminal justice reform.
Mr. Schlapp told The Washington Times he had never been to a prison before and was overwhelmed by everything he learned from his visit.
“We have a conservative philosophy we want to bring everywhere,” Mr. Schlapp said. “I think conservatives believe in second chances.”
Mr. Schlapp’s group held an annual CPAC only in the Washington area for many years before branching out across the country this decade. The American Conservative Union has taken CPAC to about 40 states in the last five years.
The prison programming featured political activists, elected officials and a comedian who brought prisoners onstage to rap and sing during lunch. The event was largely aimed at teaching prisoners about how to transform their lives, how to find work upon leaving prison, and the many ways they can become productive members of society.
Many of the prisoners said they enjoyed the program and the chance to listen to American political leaders.
Christopher Flenoury, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010, told The Washington Times he was an avid C-SPAN and CNN viewer who became interested in politics during President Obama’s administration. He said he had seen Mr. Schlapp on television many times and was excited at the opportunity to see him in-person.
Others came in the hope of learning about coming changes to criminal justice policy. Reginald Bryant, an inmate who said he had served 22 years thus far, said in an interview that he became a painter in prison and he was eager to see new action leading to jobs on the outside and, eventually, voting rights for felons.
Bryant said he was encouraged by the recent actions of President Trump’s administration, including the “First Step Act,” a 2018 law aimed at curbing’ prisoners’ recidivism that had support from both conservatives and liberals.
“It’s got some potential to really open up some doors,” Bryant said of the Trump agenda.
While some conservatives might scoff at holding a political conference in a prison, Rep. Lloyd Smucker said there “is no conflict whatsoever” between upholding the rule of law and “walking alongside people wherever they may be” in life.
“There are a lot of members of Congress who understand the importance of helping inmates,” the Pennsylvania Republican said in an interview. “Recidivism is not good for inmates and it’s expensive.”
Alongside Mr. Smucker, other speakers included Mr. Schlapp and his wife, former White House director of strategic communication Mercedes Schlapp, Mr. Jones, and John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections.
The two-day Prison CPAC moved to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on Friday. The second day’s events focused more on discussion of criminal justice policy changes with special guests such as Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin.
Mr. Jones applauded the conservatives for holding the Prison CPAC event, saying the organizers’ primary purpose in being there was not about politics or money.
“They’re not doing it for votes, and they’re not doing it for donors,” Mr. Jones said at the prison. “They’re doing it for principle.”