President Barack Obama continued on his bid to raise consciousness about America’s over-incarceration problem this week when he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
Obama on Thursday visited the prison facility in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he looked inside cell 123 and saw a 9-by-10 foot cell with three bunks, a toilet with no seat and personal affects like books and prison clothes, the New York Times reports.
“The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population,” he told reporters. “We account for 25 percent of the world’s inmates.”
That number represents a huge surge since 1980, he said. The reason for mass incarceration? Drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.
“We have to consider whether this is both the smartest way for us to control crime and rehabilitate individuals,” Obama said. “This is costing taxpayers across America $80 billion a year… When we’re looking at non-violent offenders… we have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year life sentences for non-violent crimes is the best way to solve these problems.”
Obama has commuted more sentences at once than any other sitting president in what is perhaps a symbolic gesture to address mass incarceration, according to the Times. As of Monday, a total of 89 have been granted clemency.
“There but for the grace of God,” Obama said Thursday after his tour of the prison, according to the Times. “And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.”
Obama has criticized the War on Drugs as a failed policy. In a March interview with The Wire creator David Simon, he said, “folks go in at great expense to the state, many times train to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable.”
Watch the President discuss mass incarceration here, via the New York Times: