President Barack Obama stared into the ninety square feet of cell 123 at an Oklahoma prison and imagined it occupied by three men.
“Three full-grown men in a nine-by-ten cell,” Obama said to reporters on Thursday after a tour of an empty cell block at Federal Correctional Institution El Reno. “Overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”
Obama wants to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system, and is starting by taking a more intimate look at life behind bars than any of his predecessors. He has met with 10 current and former prisoners in the past week and swapped letters with dozens more, trying to better understand America’s expansive prison system through the eyes of inmates.
On Thursday, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, touring the medium-security El Reno facility, about 30 miles (48 km) west of Oklahoma City. Worlds away from the gourmet meals and ornate floral arrangements of the White House, Obama peered into a tiny, spare cell.
Magazines and notebooks sat on a small nightstand between two bunk beds. Six rolls of toilet paper were stacked on the ground in two neat columns. A single pair of worn shoes sat under one of the beds.
On one wall of the cell block, a mural read, “We are a community. Together we strive for change.” The block had been emptied for Obama’s visit.
In a conversation with a small group of inmates that will air later this year as part of HBO’s “Vice” documentary series, Obama said he had been struck by the circumstances that had landed the men in the prison. The discussion was closed to reporters other than Vice’s journalists.
“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,” he told reporters. “The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
Republicans in Congress have shown interest in scaling back the government’s $80 billion-a-year prison system, offering Obama an opportunity to press for legislation reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Tough-on-crime laws signed by Obama’s predecessors led to a quadrupling of the U.S. prison population since 1980, to 2.2 million, the largest in the world. The rate of incarceration in the U.S., at 716 per 100,000 of population, is the highest in the developed world, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at the U.K.’s University of Essex.
Obama has sought to humanize prisoners, drawing distinctions between violent criminals deserving of lengthy incarceration and people whose relatively harmless mistakes have drawn comparatively long sentences.
“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,” Obama said at El Reno. “It’s not normal; 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.”
Obama wants legislation that would reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders, who he said sometimes spend more than 20 years in prison. The harsh sentencing laws often disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, NAACP president Cornell William Brooks said this week during the group’s annual conference in Philadelphia.
On Monday, the president granted clemency to 46 prisoners jailed for drug offenses, writing personal letters to each of them and telling them in a video message that “America is, in its heart, a nation of second chances.” It was the most commutations issued in one day by any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
Obama has also called for improved conditions in prisons, to safeguard inmates from violence and mental illness while locked up. He wants more rehabilitation programs and directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to study how solitary confinement is used.
Some religious leaders have urged Obama to take executive action to curb solitary confinement, calling the practice a form of torture. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, wrote to Obama this week urging him to visit one of the cells where inmates stay for as many as 23 hours a day.
“You have been an outspoken critic of torture,” Stief said in the July 13 letter. “You should not remain silent when it comes to solitary confinement.”
Obama did not mention solitary confinement in his statement to reporters after touring the prison.