President Barrack Obama became the first sitting president to see the inside of a federal prison on Thursday in Oklahoma, capping a week of events aimed at rallying support for criminal justice reform.
“There but for the grace of God,” Obama told reporters after meeting with six non-violent drug offenders at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution and gazing into one of the 90-square foot cells in which they live.
“These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from mistakes that I made and that a lot of you guys made,” the president said, referencing his own adolescent drug use. “The difference is they did not have the same support structures, the same resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
On Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, 14 of whom were serving life sentences. The following day, Obama detailed his vision for criminal justice reform in a speech before the NAACP’s annual convention.
“We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined,” the president said at the convention, decrying the explosive growth of America’s prison population, which swelled from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.2 million by 2015.
On Thursday in El Reno, Obama focused on the role that drug laws have played in driving that growth.
“A primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon are our drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing in our drug laws,” the president told reporters outside cell 123. “We have to consider whether this is smartest way to control crime and rehabilitate individuals.”
Obama emphasized the role concentrated poverty played in the lives of the young inmates he spoke with, noting that many grew up in “environments where drug trafficking is common, where many of their family members may have been involved in the drug trade.”
“We need to make distinctions between dangerous people who need to be incarcerated versus young people in environments where they are adapting – but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are,” Obama said.
The president praised the facility in El Reno for the job training, drug counseling and educational opportunities it provided its inmates. But he also noted the ways mass incarceration had eroded conditions at the prison – until recently, three inmates had shared the single 9-by-10-foot cell the president had viewed.
To combat mass incarceration and reduce recidivism, Obama has called for the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, an expansion of job training programs for the incarcerated and a Justice Department review of solitary confinement.
Unlike most of the other items on the president’s domestic agenda, his criminal justice proposals enjoy some bi-partisan support. In his NAACP speech, Obama praised Republican Sens. Rand Paul and John Cornyn for their efforts to reduce incarceration and recidivism through reform.
“This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together,” Obama told the convention. “It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers … That’s good news.”
On Thursday, the president ended his remarks by asking the nation not to take mass incarceration for granted.
“We have a tendency … to think it’s normal that so many of our young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other counties. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What’s normal is young people making mistakes,” Obama said. “I think that is something we need to think about.