After Obama Interview, Vice Prison Documentary Aims to Fix the Justice System

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Is the criminal justice system in America racist?” 

Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith put that question to President Barack Obama after running through the grim statistics of how federal mandatory minimum laws have disproportionately hurt poor and minority communities, with long prison sentences issued for nonviolent drug offenses. While 1 in 17 white men will spend time in prison, Smith noted, the rate is 1 in 3 for black men.

“I think the criminal justice system interacts with broader patterns of society in a way that results in injustice and unfairness,” Obama told Smith during their July trip to El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma, the first time a sitting president has visited a federal penitentiary.

“The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere institutionally in such a way where an African-American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence,” Obama said.

The president’s interview with Smith appears in “Fixing the System,” a Vice documentary on mass incarceration airing 9 p.m. Sunday night on HBO.

The White House did not comment as to why Vice was invited to follow Obama at El Reno. Criminal justice reform, and the president’s support for it, is something the White House wants to showcase — and Vice has been covering the topic closely for years. (It may also have been helpful that Vice’s chief operating officer, Alyssa Mastromonaco, worked for Obama from 2005 to 2014.)

In May, the president participated in a Vice roundtable with Smith and five students on the cost of college education, and last week, he spoke at a White House screening of “Fixing the System.”

The HBO documentary is just one component of a Vice editorial project stretching beyond television to all of the company’s 10 online channels, its print magazine and mobile offerings like Snapchat Discover.

“When we realized that something of this magnitude was going to happen in front of our cameras, we thought it was too good an opportunity not to throw the kitchen sink at it,” Alex Miller, Vice’s global head of content, told The Huffington Post. “What we’re doing is finally leveraging … the multitude of media platforms which we have at our disposal to truly ram home how seriously we take this issue.”

Vice plans to publish more than 50 pieces on prisons and reform in the coming weeks, through the editorial lens of its various sites. For instance, Vice Sports will look at the significance of handball to inmates, while Motherboard, a science and technology site, is examining the high costs of Skype in prison. Food site Munchies will look at the cooking practices of Italian inmates, while Noisey is appropriately covering music in prison. Vice’s next print edition, “The Prison Issue,” hits newsstands Oct. 5.

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Source: Black Voices | Michael Calderone

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