The El Reno medium-security prison is home to nearly 1,300 prisoners, but on Thursday afternoon, the complex was so quiet that the wind could be heard whistling through the buildings and nearby empty yards.
The only sign of life: Prison guards and Secret Service, standing in clusters around the edge of the expanse; hovering on the roofs, as President Barack Obama sat around a table inside Cell Block B, listening to six inmates tell their life stories — how they ended up behind bars.
The event was historic — the first time a sitting President has visited a federal prison — and its logistics for ensuring the President’s safety were intense and restrictive.
The White House and Bureau of Prisons negotiated for weeks to be able to work out the logistics of the visit.
The security precautions necessary were so large that Obama could not interact with a single inmate other than the six nonviolent drug offenders placed in front of him. At least six members of what looked like a tactical team, outfitted in black from head to toe, wearing helmets, and carrying large black bags followed the President as he entered the main doors of the prison.
All prisoner’s had been removed from their cells in anticipation of the President’s visit. The prison and the White House has eliminated all of the unknown variables. Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz later said he was unsure of where the prisoners had been moved to.
Before speaking to the press about his roundtable, the President took a tour of a very vacant, Cell Block B, also known as the Residential Drug Prevention Unit.
“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,” Obama said of the inmates. “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.”
The trip comes at the end of a weeklong effort to draw attention to the need for criminal justice reform. The President commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders Monday, then travelled to Philadelphia, where he gave a fiery speech calling for a review of the use of solitary confinement, discontinuing mandatory minimum sentences and preventing job applicants from being asked about their criminal history.
Suited agents remained just feet away from the President at all times Thursday, despite the lack of inmates. The President walked slowly down the block, as natural light streamed down the center of the unit through a long narrow skylight. A row of three public phones lined one end of the building, with phone numbers for Crime Stoppers and the Sexual Abuse Prevent Hotline written above them.
A key part of the visit involved showing Obama empty cell number 123. The small space, home to two adult prisoners, was so tight, the President said that he couldn’t believe it once housed three grown men.
On one side of the room was a cot and other a bunk bed, with only the bottom bunk in use. The beds were tightly made with bedding in various shades of brown. One corner held a metal toilet with no seat, a metal sink and a shelf. A hook holding the prisoners’ khaki uniforms and brown towels hung at the foot of the cot and three large square metal lockers were positioned directly across at the foot of the bunk. A small nightstand filled the space between the beds, filled with various books, magazines and a dictionary.
“We’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who… if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving,” Obama told reporters after seeing the room. “That’s what strikes me – there but for the grace of God. And that I think is something that we all have to think about.”