“Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” -President Obama
Obama made history in Oklahoma today by being the first President to set foot in a federal penitentiary — ever. The President visited in order to speak with nonviolent drug offenders who feel wronged by the U.S. legal system.
Obama visited the medium-minimum security facility, El Reno, flocked by his security detail, correction officers, and aides to speak with inmates serving prison sentences for nonviolent crimes that Obama argues are too long or unfair. Many inmates are first-time offenders serving life sentences; others were sentenced for decades on petty drug crime charges. Obama is aiming to right those wrongs with just 18 months left in his presidency.
VICE HBO will air the footage of the President speaking with nonviolent offenders, the warden and prison staff members of El Reno on Friday as part of a documentary on criminal justice.
There are 2.2 million Americans in the prison system
Earlier this week, Obama also made history for commuting more prison sentences in one day since President LBJ’s administration, with 46 inmates— surpassing the last four presidents combined, with 89 total commutations.
President Obama also looked beyond sentence commutations during a speech to the NAACP, saying:
We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison.
The President cited that our incarceration rate is four times higher than China. He also cited that American prison sentences for nonviolent crime has gotten out of control, reiterating that “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
Obama said he was not excusing bad behavior:
I tend not to have a lot of sympathy when it comes to violent crime. But when it comes to nonviolent drug offenses, is there work that we can do to reduce mandatory minimums, create more diversion programs like drug courts?
Then, can we do a better job on the rehabilitation side inside of prisons, so that we are preparing these folks who are eventually going to be released to re-enter the work force? On the back end, are we doing more to link them up with re-entry programs that are effective?
Obama has also recognized that the cost associated with imprisonment and incarceration is costing the U.S. $80 billion per yer.
VICE reported that Obama’s early release program and prison visit are already making waves in the prison system with one Indiana 20-year inmate from Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Steven Tyrone Johnson.
Johnson, a nonviolent criminal serving a life sentence for a crack cocaine offense, said of Obama’s recent actions:
I am not gonna lie; I went up to my room and cried. I feel that after twenty years in these prisons, the good Lord brought us Barack Obama to set things right.
I’ve done everything right: worked in the prison factory, remained clear conduct, stayed close to my lord and savior, Jesus Christ. I believe this is almost over.
While commuting 89 prisoners’ sentences is a step in the right direction, many feel it simply isn’t enough because of the tens of thousands still in prison, but Obama is making sure future inmates are treated with more fairness by signing the Fair Sentencing Act, along with the Justice system’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. It’s also rumored that there are more sentence commutations to come in the coming months.
While most Presidents strive to be tough on crime, President Obama sees the need to be tough on the right crime and give second chances when they’re deserved.
Featured Image via Federal Bureau of Prisons