It was a spare room, with two beds, a sink and toilet in a corner, and three bars on the single window. Cell 123. President Obama looked inside.
Federal Corrections Institution El Reno, just outside of Oklahoma City is the only prison to be visited by a sitting president. Amid a push on criminal-justice reform, including granting clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders and making a major speech outlining his policy goals this week, Obama on Thursday experienced the focus of his policy push firsthand. And, he said, he saw himself in some of the inmates.
"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 said at Cell Block B of the prison complex, which holds the Residential Drug Abuse Prevention Unit, according to a White House press pool report. "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."
In a speech at the NAACP's annual convention Tuesday in Philadelphia, Obama laid out some of those resources. He announced that he has directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review the use of solitary confinement, called for restoring voting rights to felons, and made the case for sentencing reform, urging Congress to pass legislation to that end by the end of the year.
"We have to reconsider whether 20-year, 30-year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems," he said Thursday.
Before speaking at the prison, Obama met with six inmates, all incarcerated for drug offenses.
"Every single one of them emphasized the fact that they had done something wrong," he said of the prisoners he met. "They are prepared to take responsibility for it, but they also urged us to think about how society could've reached them earlier on in life to keep them out of trouble."
And he blasted what earlier this week he called the "criminal-injustice system," the system that "allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair."
"We have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal-justice system. It's not normal. It's not what happens in other countries," Obama said. "What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people who make mistakes."
He added: "We've got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, they could be thriving in the way we are."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.