Capping off a week of events and political actions to tackle prison reform, President Obama on Thursday became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he stepped through the doors of Oklahoma’s El Reno to talk to inmates and law enforcement officers about the current state of our criminal justice system.
Literally going where no other commander-in-chief has gone, Obama toured the facility, stepped into an empty cell and started a meaningful conversation with six non-violent drug offenders chosen by the news organization Vice to speak with the president for a documentary slated to air on HBO this fall.
Earlier this week, the president granted clemency for 46 non-violent drug offenders; the largest number of commutations a president has granted since Lyndon B. Johnson. During Thursday’s visit, Obama reflected on a life he could have had, a life that was a possibility when he was a young man experimenting with drugs and making mistakes similar to those he spoke with behind bars.
“When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Obama told reporters after the meeting. “The difference is, they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
America needs to distinguish between violent criminals and people “doing stupid things,” Obama said, adding that many young people who end up in prison for nonviolent drug crimes grew up in environments where drug trafficking is prevalent. Giving those people decades-long sentences is what is contributing to the country’s overcrowded prison system, and more resources should be directed to education, support and rehabilitation, he said.
While many sitting presidents have avoided prisons, mainly because prisoners cannot vote, Obama in recent months has worked hard to improve inmates’ lives and rectify unfair sentencing that has imprisoned one in every 12 Black men in America.
After meeting with the six prisoners chosen for his special trip, Obama toured a small cell to gather what he could about living conditions in the nation’s prisons.
“Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”
Later in the trip, Obama remarked that had the inmates in the medium-security prison had the same advantages as he and others, “they could be thriving in the way we are.” Obama’s surprisingly bipartisan push to reform the criminal justice system aims to rehabilitate non-violent offenders, avoid overcrowding in prisons and, ultimately, save money. While El Reno is still plagued with overcrowding, Obama did praise the facility for being an “outstanding institution” with programs that range from job training to drug counseling.
El Reno houses approximately 1,300 inmates.