Obama, in prison documentary: U.S. legal system has been 'unjust'

Obama, in prison documentary: U.S. legal system has been 'unjust'

Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has too long ignored the effect of high incarceration rates on minority and poor communities, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a TV documentary featuring an unprecedented presidential visit to a prison.

"As a society we seem to be OK with certain communities being locked in this cycle where kids are being raised around drug crime. They naturally gravitate toward drug crime," Obama told six inmates in July at the prison in the documentary, which is scheduled to air on Sunday.

"They then get involved in the criminal justice system, and it just churns, and everybody thinks that's normal," the president told the nonviolent drug offenders at the medium-security El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma. His visit is part of HBO's "Vice" documentary program.

Obama has made criminal justice reform a top priority of his final years in office and beyond.

More than 1.5 million Americans were in state or federal prisons at the end of 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. African-Americans comprised about a third of the prisoners at the time despite being 15 percent of the U.S. population.

During an interview for the Vice documentary, Obama said the U.S. justice system "tilts in a direction that is unjust," especially for nonviolent drug offenses.

"This is an area where the statistics are so skewed, you have to question whether we have become numb to the cost that it has on these communities," he said.

At the start of his discussion with the inmates, Obama shook hands with each of the prisoners, who were dressed in tan button-up shirts and tan pants.

Noting the unusualness of the situation - no sitting U.S. president had ever visited a federal prison - Obama told the inmates to relax and "just pretend the cameras aren't here."

In a wide-ranging discussion, Obama listened as the inmates talked about how they ended up in prison, the impact of incarceration on their families and their hopes for life after their sentences were completed.

One prisoner said he was taking advantage of his time behind bars by taking college courses. He said he hoped to come out as a better role model for his children.

Criminal justice reform has attracted some bipartisan support in the usually divided Congress. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey both spoke to Vice in support of reforming sentencing laws.

(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)