President Obama speaks at the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
President Obama is calling for sweeping reforms to fix a criminal justice system he says is “skewed by race and wealth” and plagued with problems in its prisons. Among them: overcrowding, gang activity and rape.
“We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country,” Obama said in a speech at the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday. “We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison.
“We should not be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture,” Obama added. “That is no joke. These things are unacceptable.”
Washington has been dealing with the prison rape issue for over a decade.
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, calling for the creation of a national commission to study the causes and consequences of sexual abuse in correctional and detention facilities nationwide. In 2009, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released a report detailing widespread sexual abuse in federal prisons, where an estimated 60,000 prisoners annually are victims.
In 2012, the Department of Justice adopted national standards — including better screening of inmates and staffers, training and education — to “prevent, detect and respond to prison rape.”
“For too long, incidents of sexual abuse against incarcerated persons have not been taken as seriously as sexual abuse outside prison walls,” the department said in a release announcing the standards. “In popular culture, prison rape is often the subject of jokes; in public discourse, it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable or even deserved consequence of criminality. But sexual abuse is never a laughing matter, nor is it punishment for a crime.”
Brenda Smith, an American University law professor who served on the commission, testified in 2014 that “while the U.S. has made progress with the promulgation of the final PREA standards, there is still much work to be done.”
Next week, Obama is scheduled to tour Oklahoma’s El Reno correctional institution, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. (The visit will be part of an upcoming Vice documentary for HBO.)
In his speech Tuesday, Obama said the U.S. prison system “is not as smart as it could be” and not as “fair as it should be,” noting that African-Americans and Latinos routinely receive harsher sentences than whites.
“In too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law,” he said.
Obama’s comments came a day after the president granted clemency to 46 people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, saying their punishments did not fit their crimes.
“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said in a video announcing the commutations. “If they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, all of them would have already served their time.”