|President Obama visiting the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution|
The sounds give you a sense of the different parts of the institution. Dorm-style general population units are a constant murmur of activity, with TV programs blending into the sound of people talking, playing cards, microwaving overpriced cups of noodles—anything to pass the idle hours, days, months, and years in custody that lay before them.
Meanwhile, solitary confinement units are filled with the yells of those seeking help, the screams of those battling hallucinations, and the echoing metallic thuds of people banging their hands — or sometimes their heads — against the metal doors of their cells.
But when President Obama visited the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution this week, he did not smell or hear these things.
Everything was clean, quiet, and empty. The president toured a cellblock that had been cleared out — and the floor polished to a spotlessly high sheen — in preparation for his visit. He stepped into an empty cell to see three bunks, neatly folded prisoner uniforms, and a tidy stack of toilet paper rolls.
I wish he had seen the parts of the prison that were not cleaned and emptied. I wish he had reached behind a solid steel door to shake the hand of someone in solitary confinement. Seeing these scenes firsthand would have deepened his experience.
Circumscribed as it was, his visit is still important. It was the first time a sitting president has ever visited a federal prison. And when six carefully selected prisoners were admitted into his protective bubble, he saw the humanity beneath their prison garb. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” he told reporters. “That's what strikes me — there but for the grace of God.”
So, even with this limited glimpse, President Obama was able to see the enormous waste of human potential that mass incarceration creates.
And that insight is enormously important. We do not have to settle for a criminal justice system that is unproductive, wasteful, and dominated by racial disparities.
Source: ACLU, Carl Takei, ACLU National Prison Project, July 17, 2015
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