President Barack Obama inspects the El Reno federal prison. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama, who in recent weeks has shed any reticence to
talk about racism and discrimination in American life, suggested inside
the walls of a federal prison in Oklahoma yesterday that under
different circumstances, he could have been there as an inmate rather
than as President.
“That’s what strikes me – there but for the
grace of God,” the President said, standing in an empty cell block with
polished concrete floors and grey and white walls.
he had finished meeting six non-violent drug offenders in El Reno
federal prison, a medium-security facility, Obama said his life could
have taken a similar trajectory if he had not had the kind of family and
community support many young men of colour lack.
Obama, who has
acknowledged using marijuana and trying cocaine in his youth, is the
first sitting President to visit a federal prison.
“When they describe their youth, 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,” the President said.
difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures,
the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those
The frank assessment – which the President made
before a group of journalists – came just two days after he told a
largely black audience that “I see what happens” when black and Latino
families are devastated by the high rates of incarceration in their
And yesterday, during a White House news conference,
Obama said that while the criminal justice system is not “the sole
source of racial tension in this country, or the key institution to
resolving the opportunity gap”, he sees reforming it as a way to help
deliver on the nation’s promise of treating its citizens equally,
without regard to race.
For a President who has often been
reserved when discussing hot-button racial issues, Obama has begun to
make a moral case based on his own identity.
“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, whose group Obama addressed on Thursday in Philadelphia.
Obama has framed the overhaul of the national criminal justice system
as an issue of both fairness and common sense; by saving taxpayers’
money while also keeping some offenders from becoming hardened
“We have to consider whether this is the smartest way
for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals,” Obama said.
“We have to reconsider whether 20-year, 30-year, life sentences for
non-violent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.”
officials from both parties, as well as the President, have proposed
revising the strict federal sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug
offenders put in place during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
Wednesday the President commuted the sentences of 46 men and women
convicted under those sentencing guidelines. Last year the Justice
Department set criteria for granting clemency to such offenders; about
17 per cent of the prison population has applied.
As part of the
White House push to draw attention to the issue, Obama toured a facility
in the flat prairie about 50km west of Oklahoma City, where visitors
must walk through numerous gates and past fences with barbed wire.
President walked down two long rows of cells, looking inside one that
had two beds, a sink and toilet in the corner. The prison is
overcrowded, he said, squeezing three inmates into a 9 by 10 cell.
speaking to reporters Obama participated in a roundtable with the six
inmates as part of a special the network VICE is producing on the United
States criminal justice system.
“For people who look at the
President and can see themselves reflected in some part of him, having
him acknowledge their existence and the hardship they face is extremely
significant,” said Teresa Miller, a law professor at the University at
While the federal prison system has an overcrowding rate
of 137 per cent in 2013, the average rate for maximum security
facilities is at 154 per cent. In May, rioting at an overcrowded
Nebraska prison caused multiple fatalities.
“It’s an extreme level of overcrowding that is a recipe for disaster,” Fathi said.