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Obama gets personal during prison visit

President Obama speaks as Charles Samuels (C), Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, look during a tour of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama made history Thursday when he toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, in El Reno, Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal penitentiary.

Mr. Obama has turned his attention to criminal justice reform and prison conditions this week. He addressed the 106th NAACP Convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, where he said the U.S. "can't close our eyes anymore" to inequities in the criminal justice system. He also ordered the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement and said problems like overcrowding and prison gangs demand more attention.

Earlier this week, he commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders.

His visit to El Reno Thursday took him cell block B, where he saw a 9-by-10-foot cell with a single cot and one bunk bed. The building normally holds the Residential Drug Abuse Prevention Unit, which was emptied for Mr. Obama's visit. The prison is a medium-security facility that holds 1,300 inmates.

A meeting with six inmates and prison officials - part of a Vice news special that will air on HBO later this year - prompted the president to reflect on the similarities between the "mistakes I made" and those that landed the men in prison.

"The difference is that they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes," Mr. Obama told reporters. "I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It's not normal. It's not what happens in other countries."

"What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes and we have got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated, versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are," he continued. "I think that is something we all have to think about."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.