Obama goes behind bars in push for criminal justice reform

Thu Jul 16, 2015 5:36pm EDT
 
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By Julia Edwards

EL RENO, Oklahoma (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who wrote in his memoir about using marijuana and cocaine as a youth, became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison on Thursday and met drug-offense inmates, saying he could have been in their place if not for the advantages he had growing up.

Obama spoke with inmates and toured El Reno federal prison, which holds 1300 inmates, 146 percent of its capacity.

He vowed to work with wardens and corrections officers to address overcrowding, a piece of his administration's wide-ranging criminal justice reform agenda.

Obama walked down the prison's dimly-lit gray halls and stood at the door of Cell 123, Block B, noticing its two occupants' sparse supplies: brown uniforms, mesh laundry bags, dish soap and a few books.

Six non-violent drug offenders shared their stories with Obama. Their discussions will air on HBO's "Vice" documentary program in September.

Speaking to reporters after their discussion, Obama reflected, "These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different from mistakes I made."

"The difference is they did not have the support structure, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive these mistakes," he said.

More than 1.5 million Americans were in state or federal prisons at the end of 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. African-Americans were 15 percent of the U.S. population at that time but accounted for about a third of its prisoners.   Continued...

 
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City July 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque