President Obama After Prison Visit: ‘There But for the Grace of God’

By Kenrya Rankin Jul 17, 2015

True to his announcement at the NAACP National Convention earlier this week, yesterday Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. 

He spent time at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison near Oklahoma City that is home to 1,045 male inmates. The stop was part of his campaign to reform the criminal justice system, which includes several policies aimed at life inside the nation’s prisons, including addressing the practice of placing inmates in solitary confinement, changing sentencing guidelines to better reflect the severity of crimes, and implementing programs aimed at helping ex-offenders reacclimate to life on the outside.

While there, the president talked to guards and stopped by cell number 123, with its three beds (two are bunk beds), toilet, sink, small bookcase and three lockers. “Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell. Overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed,” he said, according to the Associated Press

He also sat down with a group of six young inmates to talk about their lives both outside and inside the prison. After their talk, he addressed reporters:

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 and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. 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. And I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. 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 making mistakes. And we’ve gotta be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated, versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are. That’s what strikes me. There but for the grace of God. And that, I think, is something we all have to think about.

Vice will air an HBO special on the visit this fall, but you can watch a White House video of the day below.