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I was pretty skeptical about President Obama’s photo-op last month at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t a prison visit per se as Obama didn’t stroll a functioning cellblock, but instead bizarrely peered into an empty cell before his 5-minute address to the press. Obama and his handlers secured the requisite visuals to help hammer home their commitment to national debate, and to leading that debate. Well-orchestrated business as usual for the White House, then.

The most interesting thing that happened that day was the forum Obama held with some hand-picked prisoners about their lot, our lot and (I presume) the need to fix so, so many things in our prisons.

The meet was filmed by HBO and VICE. The trailer is out.

There’s been a ban on film crews in federal facilities since 1995. I know of only one exception to the ban when a production company was granted access to a federal facility in Florida earlier this year. If anyone was going to buck the trend, the President of the United States was a likely candidate. I look forward to seeing the final product.

obama el reno prison

We’ve seen Obama in a cell block before (no not those photoshop hack jobs by wingnut-conspiracy-theorists) but photos of Obama and the First Family, in 2013, touring Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were held during South Africa’s regime of Apartheid. (BTW, Robben Island was, apparently, “a paradise by comparison” to modern U.S. prisons.)

One expects to see empty cells in photos of visitors–presidents included–to defunct prisons such as Robben Island. But one might not expect to see a quiet, vacant cellblock inside a functioning, policed, inhabited, tax-funded prison. I did not. Yet, that is what we have. The government at work is not in evidence here.

But then again, this is the first time a sitting president has visited a prison, so there is no precedent. POTUS’ handlers made their own rules at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. To get an idea how lonely and echoey an experience it was, consider these two images made by White House Chief photographer Pete Souza. Both [one & two] were posted to Twitter.


© Pete Souza / White House

None of the other images from Obama’s visit that I’ve seen have the vantage point of the second story mezzanine. Was Souza was the only one with the privilege of this overview? That Souza patrolled the gantry, looking down upon bodies milling below, was not happenstance. It made for more riveting pictures.

Michael Shaw over at BagNewsNotes approves of Souza’s up-above-angle arguing that it puts Obama “both in the belly of the beast, and also squarely facing the larger institutional problem.”


© Pete Souza / White House

Souza’s images are in contrast to the rest of the press pack who took shots, from a fixed position, at the end of the cellblock, with a long lens, during Obama’s brief walkabout.

During his 5-minute outline White House philosophy/policy to the press (transcript here), a couple of photographers (Saul Loeb and Doug Mills), got down on their haunches and shot images from knee-level looking upward toward POTUS (see below). These images elevate Obama, resizing him, and recasting him back into his more usual role as a leader in control; as a person in a position to rectify decades of failed policy and to reverse mass incarceration.
obama el reno prison

© Getty Images

Shaw also notes that these images of a controlled Obama might reflect a significant enough change in policy that this is a teachable moment — that this is Obama instructing the nation he leads. This is Obama as educator and reasoned orator it is argued. I can’t quite get to that conclusion, for I’m still wrapped up on the fact that Obama and his prison-guard-tour-guide Ronald Warlick are dressed in virtually identical garb!

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. © Getty

The matching uniforms might be an unfortunate visual turn for POTUS. But then again, if the shoe fits. Obama remains a law and order man. Sure, the White House is capitalising on widespread public and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but the president remains walking a fine line. He calls for the absolute necessary application of common sense but he does so in a way that doesn’t alarm opponents who are ready to pounce.

For example, Obama emphasised his support of correctional staff, “I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion.” No president can alienate law enforcement so Obama’s words are no surprise. But given how vocal and momentum-winning the Black Lives Matter movement is, and given that many communities subject to over-zealous and murderous policing make no distinction between street cops and prison guards, it gets pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, much of America is still unversed in the racist and classist underpinnings of the prison industrial complex and will need time to take in Obama’s message. Why do you think he is hanging his every speech on the “5% of the world’s pop; 25% of the prison pop” stat? It’s a simple, shocking stat. It points the finger, but at all of us and none of us; it is a stat that calls out the problem without calling out those who created it. Sure, in front of a Philly NAACP crowd, Obama can get into more specifics and mention slavery but that won’t be the middle-ground message that the  White House will adopt between now and January 2017.

obama el reno prison
President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama may have just pardoned 46 people who were serving long sentences for drug related offences but that was a safe symbolic gesture that indicated the White House’s awareness of the issue without pissing too many people off. But really, what is 46 as a percentage of 2.3 million?

Furthermore, Obama’s persistent argument is that locking up drug users and low levels dealers for decades is foolish. A news report I saw today said there might be 2,500 people serving 20 years or more for non-violent drug offenses. Again, what percentage is 2,500 of 2.3 million?

We should recognise Obama for getting to the starting line but he still has a marathon to run.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday and met with six inmates. © Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

Another thing that bothers me about the “safe” rhetoric about emancipating non-violent, low level drug offenders, is that it immediately divides America’s massive prison population — it assumes there are those who deserve some help in the face of an admittedly failed, brutalising system and it leaves the rest for no help within the failed, brutalising system.

Reformers are playing with definitions, shifting policitcal lines and seeing what lands. We’ll soon rest upon a point where those one side of the line receive some relief, but the great number of prisoners the other side of it get none. We are, arguably, doing nothing to disassemble the system and to redirect public funds toward more sweeping programs promoting social equality (yes, that’s schools, social entrepreneurship programs, prenatal healthcare, food programs).

Just because a person is convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean they are a violent person. And just because someone has been violent once doesn’t mean they’ll be violent again. A wife who murders her husband after decades of abuse is an easy to understand example of this.

Making policy based upon legal definitions drawn up under a system that has violated citizens for decades is wrongheaded. Making arguments for violent offenders, too, is probably a step too far for most Americans to stomach but here again we find a measure by which “free” people and those subject to prisons and jails see the criminal justice issue so massively differently, still.

“I know Obama can’t fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn’t just on helping drug offenders,” said Nathan Mikulak, a former federal prisoner convicted of a gun offense and tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC) a system parts of which the SCOTUS just ruled unconstitutional.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday. © Doug Mills/The New York Times

The more I look at these images the odder they become. They mimic the press photos we’ve seen of shareholders and politicians touring schools or hospitals or factories or prisons (!) before they go online. Look at that shiny floor! Look at that fresh paint! Look at how the locks work!

These images might become iconic for the wrong reasons. This historic visit was reduced to a rapid press photo op. It’s the ultimate sanitised facility tour in the well-known genre that is the “Politician Prison Tour.”

I’ve been in a prison a week after politicians tour and heard the prisoners describe how the place was cleaned up beforehand. Obama’s tour of one of the “outstanding institutions” in the system — albeit cleaned out — is an unusual case of the Politician Prison Tour genre because it was played out for the cameras and because the whole nation was watching.

In giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that they simply have not known what has gone on in the nation’s prisons and can be forgiven for doing virtually nothing for so long. Tours have not helped to inform them. Let’s hope that’s not the case here with our president.

obama el reno prison
US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Oklahoma. © AFP/Getty Images

I presume Obama’s handlers didn’t make a photograph of him looking inside an empty cell because it’d undermine the “bravery” of the gesture to visit a prison … conveniently vacated of its prisoners.

The secret service knew it would be impossible to secure a cellblock full of convicts. Ironically, a prison provides levels of control over citizens that the secret service can only dream of as compared to manning presidential appearances in public! In a prison every single person undergoes the scrutiny, searches and discipline of a space designed for monitoring! And yet, the danger for the leader of the free world to wander amid a functioning cellblock with prisoners was surely too great.

Imagine, the PR nightmare should, on the slimmest of slim possibilities, a prison riot break out around the president and his entourage? Now you understand why we have these images.

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama looks inside a cell alongside correctional officerRonald Warlick (front) and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels

Obama did meet with six prisoners and VICE + HBO made some video of the meeting for a forthcoming documentary. When it is published, that footage might assuage this continued, discomfiting knowledge. That’s the knowledge that neither Obama or we have seen prison yet. We saw a photo op in a building in a prison compound.


Barack Obama is TIME’s Person Of The Year. The accolade is less interesting than Obama’s words in the TIME interview. The President of the United States talks about criminal justice and prison reform. Obama says,

“There’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system, that is involved in nonviolent crimes. I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also, there are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.”

Granted it takes until the fifth page (of five) until we get to criminal justice issues. But, still. I’m going to say ‘wow’.

In November, I half-wrote a blog post about the complete absence of talk about criminal justice policy during the presidential debates. It never published; the details were more depressing than the simple fact. These words by Obama in some way make up for that. Watch this space. Watch Obama’s team.

via Prison Policy Initiative.


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