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President Obama Heads to Prison in Pursuit of Criminal Justice Reform

Obama met prisoners and law enforcement officials at El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday.
Imagen vía VICE

Update: The VICE  special on America's criminal justice system will air on Sunday, September 27. The special will give viewers an in-depth look at the pervasive impacts of America's approach to crime and imprisonment, chronicling the many interlocking pieces of the sprawling system, from prisoners and their families to the judiciary and community reformers.


During an historic visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma Thursday, President Barack Obama said that young people are prone to making mistakes and that the criminal justice system needs to determine how to better deal with and reform them.


Obama made the comments at El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, where he met with six inmates and prison officials as part of a VICE special to be aired this fall on HBO.

The visit was the first by any sitting president to a federal corrections facility, and came amid a week of actions and events highlighting the inequities of a system that he said disproportionately affects minority communities and is costing taxpayers too much, while rehabilitation rates for prisoners remain too low.

At the medium-security prison for nonviolent male offenders, Obama met with six inmates. He said the men's stories and the mistakes they made were not dissimilar to those the president made in his own youth, when he admittedly smoked pot and took cocaine.

"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.


After his private meeting with inmates, the president was taken to survey the inside of an unoccupied prison cell.

"Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell," he said, as he looked at the cell's meager furnishings, among them a toilet, sink, bunk bed and a third bed placed against a wall. "Overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed."

El Reno currently houses approximately 1,300 inmates out of a broader national prison population of roughly 2.2 million.

On Tuesday, the president had taken his push for reform to Philadelphia, where he addressed leaders and members of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights group. There, at the 106th annual NAACP convention, Obama outlined wide-ranging proposals to reform communities, courtrooms, and cellblocks in an effort to rebalance a system historically "skewed by race and wealth."

Related: Obama Outlines Criminal Justice Reform Plan After Year of Police Killings and Protests

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Obama on Thursday also highlighted the need for bipartisan support to affect legislative change that would make sentencing fairer, including by shortening jail terms for non-violent prisoners, and ending a system of mass incarceration that is currently costing taxpayers some $80 billion each year. Currently the US comprises 5 percent of the world's population, but houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners, he said.

Obama added earlier this week that he was hopeful Congress would come together to address the issue, which has already "created some unlikely bedfellows" on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats have already co-sponsored several bills involving progressive measures to reform the criminal justice system.

His comments on Tuesday struck chords with many conference attendees after a year of protests and riots over biased policing and disproportionate deaths of African Americans in custody. Obama referenced those events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and South Carolina, among others, and said, "The statistics cannot be ignored. We cannot close our eyes anymore."

On Monday, the president commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners, many of whom were serving decades to life for nonviolent drug offences. Obama's number of commutations has now reached 89, which is more than the total number signed off on by the last four presidents combined.

The president's prison visit and push for criminal justice reform comes as he nears the end of his final term in office. The White House has indicated Obama could grant dozens more clemencies before his presidency is up.