President Barack Obama told the NAACP that he wanted to reform the American prison system (July 14). In an effort to become more knowledgeable of the conditions, he entered the enclosed space reserved for the nation’s convicts (July 16). No other sitting president has ever set foot in a federal prison.
“This is part of our effort to highlight both the challenges and the opportunities that we face with respect to the criminal justice system,” said Obama.
The cells of Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institution hardly compare to his Pennsylvania Avenue home. Walls imprison two to three men in each 9 by 10 cell – overcrowding, Obama pointed out.
He stepped into Cell 123 as he if was on the wrong end of a statistic – one of 2.2 million inmates and 1 in 35 African-American men in the entire country, a convict of a non-violent crime leading to $80 million, and part of a quarter of the world’s prison inhabitants.
A prisoner in America can be all these statistics while United States citizens only represent 5 percent of the world’s population. This prompted to Obama to continue the reform he spoke about on Tuesday. He is starting with federal prisons in hopes that state governments will follow by example. Obama said, “We want to make sure we are seeing what works and build off that,” and that he plans on listening to the concerns of prison employees for further aid on reform.
The President visited six inmates at El Reno, which called his attention to the number of young Americans facing jail time. Courts charged each of the six with drug-related crimes and handed down long sentences in the penitentiary. Obama described what stood out about these inmates’ stories:
“We think it’s normal that so many young people end up in the criminal justice system. It’s not normal. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes,” he said. “And we’ve got to be able to distinguish dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting by if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are.”