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Fixing the System: An Interview with President Obama on Prison Reform

VICE accompanied President Obama to a federal prison in Oklahoma to film a special episode about the US criminal justice system for our show on HBO. Read an excerpt from a sit-down interview conducted during the visit.

Photograph by Matthew Leifheit

President Obama converses with nonviolent drug offenders at FCI El Reno.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue

This past July, VICE accompanied President Barack Obama to the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, to film a special episode about the US criminal justice system for our show on HBO. It was the first time a sitting president has visited a federal prison. Below are excerpts, slightly edited for length and clarity, from a sit-down interview during the episode, which aired Sunday, September 27, on HBO.

Shane Smith: This is the first time in history a sitting president has visited a federal prison. Why now? Why is it important?
President Barack Obama:
Over the last 20 years, we've seen a shift in incarceration rates that is really unprecedented. We've seen a doubling of the prison population. A large percentage of that is for nonviolent drug offenses.

There are 21 times the number of federal drug offenders now than there were in the 80s; there are more federal incarcerations for drug offenses than there are for homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping, robbery, weapons, immigration, arson, sex offenses, extortion, bribery, etcetera, etcetera, combined.* How did that happen?
I think there was a lot of fear. The War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, it became, I think, a bipartisan cause to get tough on crime. Incarceration became an easy, simple recipe in the minds of a lot of folks. Nobody ever lost an election because they were too tough on crime.

And so nobody stepped back and asked, is it really appropriate for somebody who's engaged in a serious but nonviolent drug offense to get more time than a rapist?

What's been interesting is that violent crime rates have consistently declined, and the costs of incarceration obviously have skyrocketed.

The stats are staggering: One in 17 white men have the chance they will go to prison in their lifetime, compared with one in three black men. Is the criminal justice system in America racist?
I think the criminal justice system interacts with broader patterns of society in a way that results in injustice and unfairness. The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere institutionally in such a way where an African American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior. More likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence.

The system tilts in a direction that is unjust. And particularly when you think about nonviolent drug offenses. This is an area where the statistics are so skewed, you have to question whether we have become numb to the costs that it has on these communities, whether we think it's somehow normal for black youth or Latino youth to be going through the system in this way. It's not normal. And it has to be addressed from soup to nuts in order for us to get some better outcomes.

You've done drugs. And you said today, "Look, I've made bad decisions when I was young." Pretty much everybody does. "But you know, I was in a community or I had the ability to not have as harsh ramifications for my mistakes." Is one of the reasons why you're here today because, perhaps, you're the first president to feel empathy for the people who are here?
Well, I'd like to think other presidents feel the same way, but I can tell you I feel it acutely.

When I moved to Chicago and I started doing community organizing in low-income neighborhoods, one of the most powerful thoughts that I had was driving by street corners with kids who at that stage—I was in my early 20s—really weren't that far off from where I was, and knowing that the mistakes they made would land them potentially in prison, in ways that just were not true for me growing up in Hawaii. The notion that you or I couldn't have easily been drawn into that, that somehow we wouldn't have fallen prey to the temptations of the streets, I think, that doesn't feel right to me. That doesn't feel true.


Related: Watch the trailer for our full HBO episode VICE Special Report: Fixing The System

You've said—a lot of other people have said, as well—the War on Drugs is a failure; the criminal justice system has problems. That's bipartisan now. Both sides of the aisle are saying, "Yes, we realize there are problems." This has become a big issue for you. Can it be fixed?
There's a whole bunch of front-end investments that we can make: If we focus on intervening with young people early. If we focus on the schools and making sure that black boys and Latino boys aren't suspended at higher rates.

If we're really investing in their education and they're reading at a third-grade level when they are in third grade, then we know they are less likely to get into the criminal justice system in the first place. If we invest in education programs in prisons—you heard those guys talking about how much of a difference it made for them. Substance abuse programs and education programs.

Vocational programs.
Vocational programs, so that we recognize you've got to prepare them for a better way when they get of here. Because most of them are going to get out of here eventually.

If we can make progress on this subset of the problem, which is nonviolent drug offenses, we can actually get a working majority around this issue.

Nothing's easy. Most people aren't interacting with the criminal justice system, and they don't see the impact that it's having on their communities. And part of our job is just to shine a spotlight. I think there's enough empathy among people of goodwill across the political spectrum that we may be able to pull this off.



*While the majority of federal prisoners are indeed drug offenders, the majority of inmates overall are in state prisons on violent offenses.