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Obama’s visit to prison of ‘huge symbolic’ meaning to inmates, UB expert says

Release Date: July 16, 2015

“Prisoners often have the perception that they’ve been forgotten, that they are irrelevant to the rest of the world. Obama visiting says to prisoners that you are not irrelevant.”
Teresa Miller, law professor
University at Buffalo
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UB's Teresa Miller was surprised to hear President Barack Obama was the first sitting president to visit a prison. Photo: Douglas Levere

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Teresa Miller was surprised to hear President Barack Obama was the first sitting president to visit a prison.

“What does that say – these institutions have existed for hundreds of years, yet they are sealed off from the highest executive office in government,” said Miller, University at Buffalo law professor, who has spent the last decade visiting maximum-security prisons in New York as part of her research on prisoners’ rights. “Prisoners often have the perception that they’ve been forgotten, that they are irrelevant to the rest of the world. Obama visiting says to prisoners that you are not irrelevant.”

Miller also says Obama’s tour of the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, will not only bring attention to the hardships faced by prisoners, their families and those working there, but also to the larger issues plaguing the criminal justice system.

Specifically, she said, punishments for non-violent drug offenders are too severe. Additionally, this country has turned incarceration into an industry and attention must be brought to these issues – something the president’s visit is sure to do.

“We stand at a particularly important moment and his visit marks this important moment in history where we can follow states like New York that have repealed mandatory sentencing laws,” she said. “He is really saying that this is the moment we need to change course, so it is hugely significant for both inmates and the system as a whole.”

Miller also hopes this visit will encourage more people to visit prisons and see for themselves what incarceration looks like.

“It means a lot to people who are incarcerated to see the leader of the free world recognize their hardships and take up some of the issues around criminal justice,” she said. “The visit is of huge symbolic meaning for people incarcerated.”

To find UB faculty experts on other topics — including issues trending in the news — visit UB’s Faculty Experts website.

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