OKLAHOMA CITY – President Barack Obama’s push for a fairer justice system is literally sending him to prison.
As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, Obama will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City.
He'll be the first sitting president to see the inside of a federal prison, the White House said.
Obama will also be interviewed at El Reno for an upcoming Vice News documentary on the criminal justice system.
The goal is usually to keep people with criminal histories far away from a president, not to put a president in their midst. But, as much as it may defy logic, the controlled environment of a prison is better than many of the public venues where presidents appear, said Danny Spriggs, a former deputy director of the U.S. Secret Service, which provides the president’s security.
Who comes and goes from a prison is strictly limited and everyone’s background is known.
“It’s better that he goes there than out in the general public,” said Spriggs, now vice president of global security for the Associated Press.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said “unique steps” will be taken to protect Obama during the visit. He did not elaborate.
Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said “comprehensive security screening” will be conducted, calling it standard practice.
Spriggs, who said he is familiar with El Reno, said Obama’s prison tour likely will be limited to critical areas, and those areas will be roped off so that access is given only to the warden and immediate staff so they can explain what happens there daily.
“Those hallways will be clear,” Spriggs said.
From shortening the prison sentences of nearly four-dozen non-violent drug offenders to advocating the reduction, or outright elimination, of severe mandatory minimum sentences to visiting a federal prison, Obama has argued forcefully this week for an alternative to the continued lengthy incarceration of people convicted of crimes he said did not fit the punishment.
Fourteen of the convicts whose sentences he commuted this week had been serving life in prison.
“If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends,” Obama said in a speech at the NAACP’s annual convention this week. “But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”
Obama said taxpayers are the ones left to pay the $80 billion annual cost of locking up people who otherwise could be in rehabilitative programs for less than the cost of incarceration. Or they could be workers paying taxes, or be more involved in their children’s lives, or be role models and leaders in their communities.
He 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.
“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said.
Overly harsh prison sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes, are to blame for doubling the prison population in the past two decades, Obama said. Half a million people were behind bars in 1980, a figure that has since quadrupled to its current total of more than 2.2 million inmates.
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.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a 2016 presidential contender, is pushing to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Another GOP candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was giving a speech Thursday calling for changes that in part would give nonviolent drug offenders a better chance at rebuilding their lives.
Spriggs, meanwhile, drew a distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes and said not everyone with a criminal past is kept away from the president.
“The idea that you keep the president away from all who have criminal records is … simply not true,” he said.