CHICAGO - Dan Rostenkowski went from being the chief architect of congressional tax policy to a prisoner responsible for watching a pressure gauge on a water tank.
"It was a difficult adjustment, going from days outside that were overstuffed with activity to days inside where time dragged," Rostenkowski told a prison reform group Thursday.
The former chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee provided a revealing glimpse of his life as a federal convict in a speech to the John Howard Association.
He read books and watched his former colleagues on television while losing 50 pounds in what he called "my Oxford education" - a stretch in the federal prison at Oxford, Wis.
"I shrank physically and grew mentally while incarcerated," the husky former lawmaker said.
The 70-year-old Rostenkowski said he was surprised by the scope of the federal investigation that led to his 1996 guilty plea on two counts of misuse of federal funds.
As he has before, Rostenkowski said that he was driven by mounting costs to plead guilty.
"No matter how powerful you may have been, the government can outgun you in every case," he said. "Once you are in their sights, they hunt you like a wounded animal."
He said prosecutors leaked evidence to the news media to make him look guilty. He accused Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr of using the same tactic in his investigation of President Clinton.
Rostenkowski said some officials who ran the prisons at Oxford and Rochester, Minn., where he was an inmate did a good job under difficult circumstances. He said that others were primarily interested in "celebrating their authority."
He said news stories before his sentencing that suggested he might be sent to a prison where he would spend most of his time playing golf were completely unrealistic.
"We are treated to stories about America's country club prisons - a persistent fantasy that has about as much basis in reality as the Loch Ness monster," he said.
He said that mandatory sentences and "draconian" three-strikes-and-you're-out laws won't solve the crime problem.
"When I was at Rochester I was somewhat of a celebrity and many, many people came to me with their problems," he said. He met one young man who was having trouble paying for college and agreed to smuggle in drugs for $10,000 a trip.
He was serving a 17-year sentence.
"He deserved to be punished, but 17 years?" Rostenkowski said. "From the end of adolescence to the beginning of middle age?"
He said such sentences represented not a tough stance on crime but "the waste of these minds."
"We don't seem to be winning the war against drugs, but we've put a lot of young people behind bars," he said.
And he said that he must bear part of the blame for harsh laws.
"I voted for them when I was in Congress," he said. "I was swept along with the rhetoric on getting tough on crime."
Rostenkowski was released from a Chicago halfway house Oct. 15 and returned to the house in his old neighborhood where he has lived most of his life. But his problems aren't over. There are still legal expenses. And more.
"I still report regularly to my probation officer and must jump through hoops when I want to do something that is deemed suspicious, such as giving a speech in Las Vegas."
By The Associated Press
Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.