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President Obama visits Oklahoma prison to call for a fairer justice system

President Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., on Thursday. [Associated Press]
President Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., on Thursday. [Associated Press]
Published Jul. 16, 2015

EL RENO, Okla. — They opened the door to Cell 123 and President Barack Obama stared inside. In the space of 9 feet by 10, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a small sink, metal cabinets, a little wooden night table with a dictionary and other books, and the life he might have had.

As it turns out, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. As Obama became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, he said he could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term, let alone one lasting decades.

"There but for the grace of God," Obama said after his tour. "And that is something we all have to think about."

Close to 1 in every 12 black men ages 25 to 54 are imprisoned, compared with 1 in 60 nonblack men in that age group.

Obama came here to showcase a bid to overhaul America's criminal justice system in a way none of his predecessors have tried to do, at least not in modern times. Where other presidents worked to make life harder for criminals, Obama wants to make their conditions better.

With 18 months left in office, he has embarked on a new effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders; to make it easier for former convicts to re-enter society; and to revamp prison life by easing overcrowding, cracking down on inmate rape and limiting solitary confinement.

What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to too many nonviolent offenders, at an enormous moral and financial cost to the country. This week, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners, including three from the Tampa Bay area, and gave a speech calling for legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system by the end of the year.

He came to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday to get a firsthand look at what he is focused on. Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, he crossed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire to tour the prison and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders he says should not be serving such long sentences.

The prison was locked down for his visit. He was taken to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion. Only security personnel were outside on the carefully trimmed grass yards. The only inmates Obama saw were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a conversation with him recorded by the news organization Vice for a documentary on the criminal justice system that will air on HBO in the fall.

But those six made an impression. "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 afterward. "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."

He added that "we have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it's normal" that so many young people have been locked up for drug crimes. "It's not normal," he said. "It's not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people who make mistakes."

If they had the same advantages he and others have had, Obama added, they "could be thriving in the way we are."

Still, he made a distinction between nonviolent drug offenders like those he was introduced to here and other criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault.

"There are people who need to be in prison," Obama said. "I don't have tolerance for violent criminals; many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe."

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and one study found that the size of the state and federal prison population is seven times what it was 40 years ago. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population.

This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men. And many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or to vote.

In visiting El Reno, Obama got a look at a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp, housing a total of 1,300 inmates. He said the facility was an "outstanding institution" with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.

"Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell," 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."

Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners in such a fulsome way.

"They're out of sight and out of mind," Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, said in an interview. "To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, 'You're in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,' it's critically important."

But the president is not the only one these days. Republicans like Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have been working with their Democratic counterparts to develop legislation addressing such concerns.

Conservative organizations like Koch Industries, controlled by the billionaire brothers David H. and Charles G. Koch, have joined forces with liberal groups like the Center for American Progress to advocate changes. Many states, both conservative and liberal, have been changing policies lately to reduce prison populations.

"The good news is that we've got Democrats and Republicans who I think are starting to work together in Congress and we're starting to see bipartisan efforts in state legislatures as well," Obama said. He vowed to use his remaining year and a half in office to accelerate the trend. "We've got an opportunity to make a difference."

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