On Thursday, President Barack Obama will become the first president in U.S. history to visit a federal prison facility — a move that’s widely applauded by bipartisan proponents of criminal justice reform. By doing so, he will witness prison conditions firsthand and call attention to the country’s mass incarceration problem, which currently keeps 2.2 million people behind bars. It is a major step that will advance a much-needed dialogue.
But what is equally important is what Obama will not see during his visit to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.
“It’s amazing that no president has ever before visited a federal prison. President Obama deserves credit for being the first to do that. At the same time, by going to El Reno — a minimum and medium-security facility — he’s not going to see the worst problems that exist in the federal system,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told ThinkProgress. To truly understand the travesties within the criminal justice system, Fathi argues, the president would need to go to a maximum-security prison.
“What he’s not going to see is the extreme crowding. The worst crowding is in high-security facilities. He’s not going to see the harshest, more restrictive regimes where people are locked in their cells 23 or even 24 hours a day. He’s not going to see, probably, people in long-term solitary confinement — the kind that can last for years and even decades.”
Instead, Obama will see a facility that is much less prohibitive. If he is taken to the minimum-security camp, Fathi says, he’ll probably see something that looks more like a college campus. “There will be prisoners walking around fairly freely, not usually escorted by staff.”
And if the President is taken to the medium-security camp, he is likely to see people under closer supervision — but not inmates held in long-term solitary. “El Reno does have a segregation unit. Virtually all federal prisons have a segregation unit where they put prisoners for punishment if they’ve been found guilty of a disciplinary infraction,” Fathi explained. “But that’s typically short term, so it’s unlikely, even if he goes to the segregation unit, that he would see people who have been there for a really long time.”
There is also the problem of correctional staff hiding some of their more egregious conditions or behaviors. When an important person plans to visit a correctional facility, prison adminstrators are given advance notice, and enough time to cover their tracks. As one ex-convict points out, prison staff are skilled at sweeping problems under the rug to avoid scrutiny by VIPs.
“Before any dignitary or VIP came to tour the prison where I lived for six-plus years, York Correctional Institution in Niantic, [Connecticut], inmate janitors would wax and shine every floor and captains would recruit a few good prisoners to slap matte grey paint on the staircases in each housing unit less than 24 hours before the VIPs would enter,” Chandra Bozelko wrote in NewsOK. “The warden would also lock us down for the tours so no one could approach the visitors. I noticed that all VIP visits were scheduled near a normal lock-up time so the absence of prisoners in a prison could be easily explained away.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there are 207,847 federal inmates — 80 percent of whom are housed in BOP custody. Although the federal prison population dropped for the first time since 1980, they are 35 percent to 40 percent over capacity. In addition to being financially cumbersome, overcrowding creates dangerous conditions due to inmates’ close proximity, coupled with under-staffing. And that problem is magnified in high-security prisons, which were 55 percent overcrowded in 2011.
Faith leaders have pressed Obama to visit a solitary confinement cell while at the prison, which Obama addressed during the NAACP convention. Calling for a DOJ investigation of solitary, he denounced the practice, saying it is one of many practices that “have no place in any civilized country.”
Roughly 7 percent of all federal inmates are housed in segregation, but they are more likely to throw inmates in solitary for months — and years — in high-security facilities. A growing body of research shows that extended periods of isolation can shrink part of the brain and exacerbate psychological conditions. It can induce paranoia, hallucinations and lead to aggression and fear. It increases the risk of suicide significantly. And inmates in solitary are often denied medical attention, food, and water, while some die heinous deaths.
“It’s very positive that he’s going. It’s unprecedented and it’s long overdue,” Fathi said. “Unfortunately, at the prison he’s going to, he’s not going to see the worst, harshest, and most restrictive conditions.”