« Lots of justified attention for Judge Alex Kozinski's new article, "Criminal Law 2.0" | Main | Previewing the penalty phase after James Holmes found guilty on all charges »

July 16, 2015

Prez Obama makes history, and reflects, as he visits federal prison in Oklahoma


This New York Times article, headlined "Obama, in Oklahoma, Takes Reform Message to the Prison Cell Block," provides a report on the President's historic visit to a federal corrections institute, FCI Reno:

They opened the door to Cell 123 and President Obama stared inside.  In the space of 9 feet by 10, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a small sink, metal cabinets, a little wooden night table with a dictionary and other books, and the life he might have had.

As it turns out, there is a fine line between president and prisoner.  As Mr. Obama became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, he said he could not help reflecting on what might have been.  After all, as a young man, he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term, let alone one lasting decades. “There but for the grace of God,” Mr. Obama said after his tour. “And that is something we all have to think about.” ...

Mr. Obama came here to showcase a bid to overhaul America’s criminal justice system in a way none of his predecessors have tried to do, at least not in modern times. Where other presidents worked to make life harder for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.

With 18 months left in office, he has embarked on a new effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders; to make it easier for former convicts to re-enter society; and to revamp prison life by easing overcrowding, cracking down on inmate rape and limiting solitary confinement.

What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture.  Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to too many nonviolent offenders, at an enormous moral and financial cost to the country.  This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system by the end of the year.

He came to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday to get a firsthand look at what he is focused on.  Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, he crossed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire to tour the prison and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders he says should not be serving such long sentences.

The prison was locked down for his visit.  He was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion.  Only security personnel were outside on the carefully trimmed grass yards.  The only inmates Mr. Obama saw were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a conversation with him recorded by the news organization Vice for a documentary on the criminal justice system that will air on HBO in the fall.

But those six made an impression.  “When they describe their youth and their childhood, 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,” Mr. Obama told reporters afterward.  “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 have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up for drug crimes. “It’s not normal,” he said.  “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.  What is normal is young people who make mistakes.” If they had the same advantages he and others have had, Mr. Obama added, they “could be thriving in the way we are.”

Still, he made a distinction between nonviolent drug offenders like those he was introduced to here and other criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault. “There are people who need to be in prison,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals; many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe.”

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and one study found that the size of the state and federal prison population is seven times what it was 40 years ago. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population. This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men. And many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or to vote.

In visiting El Reno, Mr. Obama got a look at a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp, housing a total of 1,300 inmates. He said the facility was an “outstanding institution” with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.

“Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”

Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners in such a fulsome way. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”

But the president is not the only one these days. Republicans like Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have been working with their Democratic counterparts to develop legislation addressing such concerns.

Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated.

July 16, 2015 at 02:47 PM | Permalink


All hail the Chief! Kudos to the President. Every state and federal judge should do the same.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jul 16, 2015 8:04:13 PM

Doug, I still have vivid memories of being a Navy JAG officer and as part of our training, the 75 of us Lieutenants were turned over to Marine enlisted men for the weekend at the Portsmouth New Hampshire naval prison. Locked up for the weekend in one of those old fashioned tiered prisons gets your attention!


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jul 16, 2015 10:26:13 PM

This brings to mind a different context. In the Cruzan case, Justice Blackmun asked the state's lawyer if he saw a PVS patient & the person noted he met Cruzan herself.

Judge Kozinski acts like a trial judge from time to time. Can a SCOTUS justice do that?

Posted by: Joe | Jul 16, 2015 10:37:23 PM

Edit: I mean the judge (and he noted this in his article) has from time to time served as a trial judge. Be interesting if a SCOTUS judge did as well -- thus far only one did to my knowledge.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 16, 2015 10:38:48 PM

I'm glad Obama decided as a sitting president to personally visit a U.S. penal institution. I'm also glad he reprimanded entertainers and others who still make jokes out of prison rape. To Obama's credit, he acknowledged that one need not be female to be a rape victim or to be a male to commit rape. To be sure, Obama waited until well into his seventh year as Commander and Chief to make these remarks, but better late than never! Hopefully, Obama will set an example for future presidents on this particular matter.

Not only do we seldom punish those who commit prison rape while in prison, but we apparently don't even view prison rape as a sex offence that would subject somebody to registration or possible civil commitment upon completion of their sentences. Only if a convict targets a staff member or corrections officer as a rape victim is their any likelihood that he or she will be convicted as a sex offender for committing an inside-prison rape. If a staff member or corrections officer commits rape against an inmate, he or she faces even LESS likelihood of conviction for a sex offense.

If we had a mixture of both positive and negative incentives to stop prison rape--at least by inmates (examples: early release for inmates who refrain from committing prison rape and the threat of a sex offense charge against any inmate who rapes a fellow inmate), we might cut those rapes that involve INMATES as perpetrators. As for staff and corrections officers who commit prison rape, we would have to have different types of negative and positive incentives like prosecutors and district attorneys who are willing to treat prison rape like any rapes committed on the outside.

So-called law 'n' order and so-called victims' rights groups need to start treating prison rape the way they treat rapes on the outside as unacceptable offenses. It has always disturbed me when victim's rights advocates against sex offenses have conveniently ignored prison rape as if only white middle class victims instead of other victims of crimes deserve any support at all from law enforcement.

Maybe Obama's speech and visit will finally set some major precedents to change this situation once and for all.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jul 17, 2015 10:11:28 AM

The comments thus far are all very well spoken. This President is rare. When he is out of office more people will be appreciative of him. As one who used to represent inmates on prison rights and prison condition issues I am cognizant of what it is like to walk through a prison and observe things. Hail to our Chief!

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jul 18, 2015 1:17:23 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB