Oklahoma — 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.
El Reno, a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp that together house 1,300 men, was locked down for the visit. The campus of two-story brick buildings separated by neatly trimmed grass remained eerily silent and empty, with no one in sight other than a few security officers peering through binoculars from a rooftop. Rather than bursting at the seams, it had the antiseptic feel of an abandoned military base, except for the cattle being raised on the property.
The president was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion, its usual occupants moved to other buildings. The only inmates Mr. Obama saw during his visit were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a 45-minute conversation with him at a round table. It was recorded for a Vice documentary on criminal justice to be shown on HBO in the fall.
The six seemed to make an impression. “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 and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Mr. Obama said afterward. “The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
He added that “we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up. “It’s not normal,” he said. “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes.”
Mr. Obama had the benefit of a largely comfortable upbringing and attended a premier Honolulu prep school before going on to Ivy League universities. If those now in prison for drug crimes had those advantages, he said, they “could be thriving the way we are.”
Still, he made a distinction between them and criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault. “There are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals,” Mr. Obama said. “Many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe.”
Opened in 1934, the El Reno prison has held its share of murderers, rapists, thieves and Mafia figures. At one point, it was home to Timothy J. McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who was later executed. But today, its population is made up largely of drug offenders, and its most famous resident is probably Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor, who was convicted of corruption.
Over the years, the prison has had its own dairy and metal factory. Mr. Obama called it an “outstanding institution” with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but noted that it had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.
“Three whole-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”
Hands in his pockets, he was escorted into the residential drug abuse prevention unit by Charles E. Samuels Jr., the director of the Bureau of Prisons, and Ronald Warlick, a corrections officer. On the walls were phone numbers for Crime Stoppers and sexual assault hotlines, as well as signs with words like “Change,” “Commitment,” “Honesty” and “Accountability.”
Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners so personally. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”
But Mr. Obama is not the only one these days. Republicans have been working with their Democratic counterparts to draft legislation addressing such concerns. Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he would bring bipartisan criminal justice legislation to the House floor.
“Absolutely,” he told reporters in Washington. “I have long believed that there needed to be reform of our criminal justice system.”
Despite the growing consensus, others seem worried. “Victims’ rights must be at the core of all reforms, and the conversation needs to move beyond de-incarceration,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
“Victims’ rights must be at the core of all reforms, and the conversation needs to move beyond de-incarceration,” Ms. Fernandez said.
For Mr. Obama, the what-ifs were hard to avoid Thursday. As a teenager in Hawaii, Mr. Obama “smoked reefer” and snorted “maybe a little blow when you could afford it,” but “not smack,” as he later put it in “Dreams From My Father,” his memoir. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.”
This was no casual experiment. As David Maraniss reported in his biography, Mr. Obama and his friends were so enthusiastic about their marijuana that they called their group the Choom Gang. Unlike the men he met on Thursday, however, Mr. Obama escaped that life and ultimately ended up at Harvard Law School, the Senate and now the White House.
He, too, has security around the clock. But they work for him.
A version of this article appears in print on July 17, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: President Visits Federal Prison.
Source: New York Times (NY)