President Obama Makes History by Visiting Federal Prison

by Mary C. Piemonte

U.S. President Barack Obama at NAACP Convention in Philadelphia on July 14, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama at NAACP Convention in Philadelphia on July 14, 2015.

Barack Obama made history recently, when he became the first U.S. President to visit a federal prison.

He went to a medium-security lockup in El Reno, Oklahoma,“to shine a spotlight”on his criminal justice reform efforts that include reform “in the cell block” according to remarks he made two days earlier at the NAACP’s 106th national convention in Philadelphia, Pa. on July 14, 2015.

Excerpts from his speech regarding Improving Prison Conditions
“Virtually all of the people incarcerated in our prisons will eventually someday be released. And that’s why the third place we need to reform is in the cell block,” Obama said.

“So on Thursday, I will be the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. And I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue, because while the people in our prisons have made some mistakes — and sometimes big mistakes — they are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around,” he added.

The President also said that as a nation, “we should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country.”

“We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable,” he said to audience members at the NAACP convention.

Additionally, Obama said that he had also asked the Attorney General “to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.”

“The social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart,” the President added.

Obama said the nation’s prisons should be a place where inmates can be trained in skills that can help them find a job when they are released. “Not train them to become more hardened criminals.”

“Look, I don’t want to pretend like this is all easy. But some places are doing better than others. Montgomery County, Maryland put a job training center inside the prison walls — to give folks a head start in thinking about what might you do otherwise than committing crime. That’s a good idea.”

The Presidents said another “good idea…with bipartisan support in Congress,” to help inmates become productive citizens upon their release, is to “reward them” while they are in prison.

“Let’s reward prisoners with reduced sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense. Let’s invest in innovative new approaches to link former prisoners with employers and help them stay on track. Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to “Ban the Box” on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview. And if folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote,” Obama said.

According to Obama, more building needs to be done in the areas of “communities that give our young people every shot at success; courts that are tough but fair; prisons that recognize eventually the majority will be released and so seek to prepare these returning citizens to grab that second chance.”

“That’s where we need to build. But I want to add this. We can’t ask our police, or our prosecutors, or our prison guards, or our judges to bear the entire burden of containing and controlling problems that the rest of us are not facing up to and willing to do something about.

“So today, I’ve been talking about the criminal justice system, but we have to recognize that it’s not something we can view in isolation. Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, it is an injustice system,” President Obama said.

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