Obama visits US prison as he aims to fix ‘broken system’

US accounts for 25% of world’s prisoners with about 2.2m behind bars

Figures on the size and make-up of the prison population in the US explain why Barack Obama is aiming to fix the country's "broken system" of criminal justice in his last 18 months in office.

The US accounts for only 5 per cent of the world's population but has almost 25 per cent of its prisoners, with about 2.2 million people behind bars. To bring the figures home, the US prison population is 698 for every 100,000; in Ireland the figure is 88.

Including about six million people on parole or probation, one in every 31 adults – 3.2 per cent of the population – are under some form of correctional control. The statistics are even more severe for non-whites. Almost one in every 12 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 is imprisoned in the US, compared with one in every 60 non-black men.

Law professor Michelle Alexander argued in her seminal 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, that the justice system has, through the war on drugs, created a second-class citizenship among black Americans and undermined the gains of the civil rights movement by mass arrests for minor, non-violent crimes.


The significance of the first black president being the first in his elevated office to visit a prison when he travelled to Oklahoma’s El Reno correctional institution on Thursday was lost on few, not least Obama who admitted to being a regular marijuana smoker in his teens.


The 44th president has called for a rethink on long jail terms for non-violent drug crimes, believing that the disproportionate prison population is down to heavy-handed drug enforcement.

One former resident of El Reno is Jason Hernandez, a 38-year-old former drug dealer from Texas. He was imprisoned in 1998 at the age of 21, receiving a mandatory life sentence for selling crack cocaine. Hernandez was destined to die in prison until Obama commuted his sentence and that of eight others in 2013 in the president’s first round of sentence reductions for inmates on long sentences for drug crimes.

On Monday, he reduced the prison sentences for a further 46 inmates.

“Their punishments didn’t fit the crimes,” he said.

Reflecting on his own past during his prison visit on Thursday, he pointed to mistakes he made and how they were similar to those made by many young people in prisons across the country. They didn’t, however, have the support structures for “second chances” that he had. “There but for the grace of God,” he said.

Obama isn't the only one thinking about the past. This week Bill Clinton disowned tough-on-crime legislation he enacted as president in 1994 that has led to distorted sentences and mass incarceration. "I signed a Bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it," Clinton told a conference of the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People on Wednesday.

His presidency continued a legacy that has over the past four decades more than quadrupled the US prison population. Clinton's reversal must be seen in the context of the 2016 presidential run of his wife Hillary who, like her husband, has "evolved" on his criminal justice policies and issues such as same-sex marriage and free trade from his time in the White House.

Potential responses

To address the prison crisis, Obama has pointed to job training, college degrees and drug counselling as potential responses. Heather Erwin, a specialist in correctional education, says that educating prisoners and continuing to teach them after their release reduces prison costs for states and the chances of recidivism.

About 700,000 inmates leave prison each year, but 43 per cent reoffend or violate the terms of their release and are reincarcerated. If inmates take education courses in prison, the recidivism rate falls to 30 per cent and even further if they obtain a college degree, she says.

"In California it costs $125,000 for one prisoner for one year," said Erwin. "The cost of education is between $3,000 and $5,000 a year. For every dollar you spend on correctional education, you are saving five."

She works for a Galway-based company, Alison, that offers free online learning platforms. The company's founder, Mike Feerick, says it is in negotiations with several US states, including California, which has the second-highest prison population after Texas, about making educational courses mandatory for prisoners on parole.

Feerick says that in a country where 20 million have been in jail at some point, “most people know someone who was in prison”. He is hoping a US judge will soon sentence someone to 200 hours of educational courses rather than community service.

“What’s going to change somebody’s life: 200 hours sweeping a street or a course that teaches them the basics of reliability or food safety or safety on a construction site?”