President Obama in prison facility. (Photo by Sarah Phipps/The Oklahomian)

In an unprecedented move, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison on July 16, signaling his continued commitment to criminal justice reform.

The commander-in-chief got a first-hand look into the prison system when he visited El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., a medium security prison that houses 1,000 male inmates.

During his tour of the facility, flanked by Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) Director Charles Samuels Jr., aides, Secret Service agents and other officials, Obama met with six prisoners. The nonviolent drug offenders were like thousands of others across the country for whom 20-30 years in prison may not have been the best punishment or remedy, the president said.

“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,” Obama told reporters afterward, according to The New York Times. “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.”

The president gave accolades to the prison facility for having programs like job training, college classes, and drug counseling. Mr. Obama hopes the programs will be sustained; however he wants those types of programs to be available outside of prison for youth so they will not end up like inmates at the facility.

There should be “ways to divert young people who make mistakes early on in life so that they don’t go into prison,” Obama said.

Other remarks the president made were the same from mirrored the NAACP speech he gave in Philadelphia, Pa., on July 14.


President Obama in prison facility. (Photo by Sarah Phipps/The Oklahomian)

Obama quoted statistics on how the prison population has increased and raised the issue of overcrowding, having observed three men in a 9-by-10-foot cell. There are 102 federal prisons in America and the system’s population has grown 750 percent since 1980 from 25,000 inmates to 216,000 in 2014.

The huge increase has become a crisis; with federal prison spending $80 billion dollars yearly, now one quarter of the U.S. Attorney General’s budget.

“Gang activity and sexual assaults also need to be addressed,” the president said.

The White House’s call to overhaul the criminal justice system has not been merely all talk, no action.  Drug market interventions, supporting the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce disparities in the punishments for crack and powder cocaine convictions and court-based strategies and programs are among several of the approaches the administration has undertaken to address the myriad problems within the system. On July 13, for example, the president granted clemency to 46 non-violent drug offenders serving time in prison.

The president also has ordered U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to do a review on solitary confinement.