How President Obama Wants to Change the Way Americans Go to Prison

President Obama wants to change how you think about prison.

ByABC News
July 16, 2015, 4:46 AM

— -- President Obama wants to change how you think about prison and he's going behind bars to do it.

Obama is visiting Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, a medium-security prison in Oklahoma, as part of an effort to push reforms to the nation's criminal justice system. It's the first time a sitting American president has ever visited a federal penitentiary.

“While the people in our prisons have made some mistakes — and sometimes big mistakes — they are also Americans,” Obama said Tuesday in a speech before the NAACP convention in Philadelphia.

“Our criminal justice system isn't as smart as it should be. It's not keeping us as safe as we should be. It is not as fair as it should be,” he said. “We need to do something about it.”

So what exactly does the President want to change? Everything from pre-school and sentencing to jokes about prison.

Obama has called for reducing or even eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes and giving prosecutors more discretion over what kinds of punishment to seek. On Monday,the president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, including 14 of whom were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent drug crimes. That brings his total number to 89 commutations, more than the last four presidents combined.

“Their punishments did not fit the crime and if they were sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time,” Obama said in an online statement Monday.

Also on the President’s agenda is making available to inmates more training programs inside prisons, as well as opportunities for work and rehabilitation after release. The goal, according to the White House, is to make sure former convicts can once again get a job, go back to school, or access housing, loans, or credit after serving their time.

“Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals,” Obama told the NAACP. “We have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”

To that end, the White House is endorsing for legislation introduced in the Senate, boosting job, education, and housing programs — and taking some more unorthodox approaches.

The President has pressed for reinstating former inmates’ right to vote; advocated for the “Ban the Box” movement that wants to remove criminal history questions on job applications; and said jokes about prison — and prison rape in particular — should not be tolerated.

“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. That's no joke. These things are unacceptable,” he said Tuesday.

Most importantly, the President said at a press conference Wednesday, is “keeping folks from getting in the criminal justice system in the first place.” With early childhood education and community policing programs, he hopes to stop crime before it happens, he said.

Despite the blockbuster Iran nuclear deal, the White House wants criminal justice reform to be in the spotlight, wants the country to be discussing these issues and looking for solutions. With his historic visit today, the President is fighting to keep that momentum going.

ABC News's Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.