The President in Prison

While the reviews of HBO/Vice's special on criminal justice remain mixed, Obama's visit to federal prison would not have been imaginable even five years ago.

September 28, 2015

The first round of critical reviews are in for the HBO/Vice special about criminal justice that premiered Sunday night and featured President Barack Obama speaking to inmates in a federal prison in Oklahoma. The reaction, it’s fair to say, has been mixed. Some reviewers found the 70-minute documentary “Fixing the System” to be dull and derivative. Others found it revelatory. Anyone who has followed the arc of the story of criminal justice in America recently surely found most of it quite familiar.

Familiar, that is, except for the extraordinary scenes where the president is sitting in a circle talking to men whose lives so far have been ruined or wasted by crime and punishment. At times Obama sounded wonky, as if he knew, with the cameras rolling, that he had to reassure viewers that he wasn’t there to serve the men as a public defender. At times he sounded empathetic, telling the prisoners of his own experiences with drugs that might have led him down a different path.

At times he sounded like the professor he once was, telling the inmates what they may or may not have known about the recent history of mass incarceration. At times he sounded as though he were aware and in awe of the scope of the problem of racial injustice in America. He would not admit, on the record anyway, that America’s criminal justice systems are “racist.” Instead, he was content to acknowledge, as he has before, that those systems have a racially disparate impact.

And at all times he looked and sounded like a counselor, a mediator, someone who excels at, and enjoys, moderating a discussion designed to illicit into words the difficult truths that reside inside people. He did not talk down to the prisoners but it was clear that he was in charge. He did not lecture them but did not excuse their conduct, either. The inmates obviously were props, but so was the President, and this central fact about “Fixing the System” did not obscure the central message of the film: the justice system that brought these men to that prison is broken in countless ways that will be very difficult to fix anytime soon.

Then there was a priceless moment when Obama was speaking with the inmates about the challenges of avoiding recidivism. And for a sentence or two he dropped the formal tone of a president and spoke to the men like a man of the street. The inmates instantly got it, and reacted, and I wonder if that is the moment they remember most now that they are back in their cells with the spotlight off them. No other modern president, not even Bill Clinton, could have connected to the inmates on that level as Obama did in that exchange.

There also were parts of the documentary that disappointed me. For example, Obama spoke to the men about the value of reentry programs and his administration’s push to “ban the box,” to eliminate the question on job applications that seek to know whether a candidate has ever been convicted or incarcerated. But neither he, nor the filmmakers, mentioned the fact that Obama has an abysmal record on clemency; that his administration is authorizing the early release of prisoners at historically low rates. If only one of the inmates, in an unscripted moment, had asked the president: “If you care so much why don’t you authorize our release?”

Also disappointing was the show’s lack of focus on how, precisely, our politicians, prosecutors, police, judges, and corrections officials can, indeed, “fix the system.” Indeed, the title of the special is baffling giving how much time was devoted in it to chronicling the problems within the system and how little time was spent educating viewers about what now needs to be done. Sure, the Smarter Sentencing Act got some attention toward the end. And there were brief mentions here or there of the failure of courts and legislators to ensure a meaningful right to counsel for indigent defendants. But the uninitiated surely could have walked away from the special without any clear idea of how, indeed, to “fix the system.”

But all of the reviews of the special, the good and the bad, largely miss the point. The story is that we live in an age of mass incarceration and that after decades of torpor more politicians of all stripes are recognizing the scope of the problem and beginning to try to do something about it. The story is that a sitting president went to a federal prison, and talked to the inmates as equals, and is trying to move the mass of public opinion inexorably toward justice reform. None of this was imaginable even five years ago. That any reviewer would consider it “dull” today is a sign of how far the movement has come. And also how far it has to go.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Courtesy of Vice)