The NY Times
They opened the door to Cell 123, and President Obama stared inside. In the space of 9 feet by 10 feet, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a night table with books, a small sink, prison clothes on a hook, some metal cabinets and the life he might have had.
In becoming the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, Mr. Obama could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term lasting decades like some of the men who have occupied Cell 123.
As it turns out, Mr. Obama noted, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. “There but for the grace of God,” he said somberly after his tour. “And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.”
In visiting the El Reno prison, Mr. Obama went where no president ever had before, both literally and perhaps even figuratively, hoping to build support for a bipartisan overhaul of America’s criminal justice system. While his predecessors worked to toughen life for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.
What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture. Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to many nonviolent offenders at an enormous moral and financial cost. This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation revamping sentencing rules by the end of the year.
He came to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City, for a firsthand look at what he is focused on. Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, Mr. Obama passed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire gleaming in the Oklahoma sun to enter the facility and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders who he argues should not be serving such long sentences. read more