As part of his weeklong effort to highlight criminal justice reform, President Obama toured the medium-security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City on Thursday, making him the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. After spending 45 minutes talking with six nonviolent drug offenders, the president walked around a cell block that had been emptied for his visit, and went into a cell with beds for three inmates. “Three, whole-grown men in a 9 ft by 10 ft cell – there’s been some improvement, now we have two [inmates per cell], but overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed,” Obama said.
Following the tour, Obama told reporters he was thinking, “There but for the grace of God.” “When [the six inmates] described their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes a lot of you guys made,” he said. “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 need our criminal justice system to distinguish between the violent offenders who need to be locked away, and young people who “given different opportunities and a different vision of life could be thriving the way we are.”
Earlier this week the president commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders and spoke at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia about how the problem affects minorities in particular. “In too many places, black boys and black men, and Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated different under the law,” he said. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.” He called for various reforms, including limiting solitary confinement, employers no longer asking about applicants’ criminal history, and restoring voting rights to felons upon their release.
There’s rare bipartisan agreement on reconsidering harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, and Obama has said he hopes to see legislation from Congress that addresses the issue. While Obama often avoided discussing issues in racial terms earlier in his presidency, in his push for criminal justice reform he’s often expressed that his own identity as a black man, as well as his well-documented youthful dalliances with drugs, give him more empathy for those who wind up behind bars. “This is a moment when the president, speaking very candidly about the number of black men behind bars, is able to really talk about this issue in race-specific terms, and in a race-transcendent way,” said NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. “We have come to a moment that calls for candor.”