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Obama visits prison to call for a fairer justice system

Published:Friday | July 17, 2015 | 7:00 AM
President Barack Obama is led on a tour by Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels (right) and correctional officer Ronald Warlick during a visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. yesterday

EL RENO, Oklahoma (AP):

President Barack Obama got a first-hand look at the nation's criminal justice system yesterday, touring a federal prison and meeting with incarcerated men. After peering into a sterile prison cell, he said the nation needs to reconsider the way crime is controlled and prisoners are rehabilitated.

Obama, who has vowed to make criminal justice reform a centrepiece of his closing months in office, said he also felt a kinship with some of the young inmates.

"When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made," Obama said following his private meeting at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City.

The President said there must be a distinction between young people "doing stupid things" and violent criminals. Young people who make mistakes, he said, could be thriving if they had access to resources and support structures "that would allow them to survive those mistakes".

Among the changes Obama is seeking is the reduction or outright elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Earlier this week, he used his presidential powers to shorten the prison sentences of 46 people convicted on charges involving drugs.

Ex-convict rights

The President has also called for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should "ban the box" that asks job applicants about their criminal histories.

The White House said Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The presidential motorcade rolled past fences topped with multiple layers of razor wire as it entered the sprawling prison complex.

After his meeting with inmates, Obama walked past rows of empty cells secured by large grey doors. Prison officials opened cell no. 123 for the President, who gazed at its sparse trappings: a bunk bed and third bed along the wall, a toilet and sink, along with a small bookcase and three lockers.

"Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell," he said.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Presidential security was no small part of yesterday's intriguing Obama outing.