President Obama got a first-hand look at a federal prison and meeting with incarcerated men today, the Associated Press reports. 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 centerpiece 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 after 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 elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. After his meeting with inmates, Obama walked past rows of empty cells secured by large grey doors. Officials opened cell no. 123 for the president, who looked at its sparse trappings: a bunk bed and third bed along the wall, a toilet and sink, with a small bookcase and three lockers. “Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” he said.