TIME justice

What Inmates Think of Obama’s Prison Visit

Inmates and former inmates speak out

For six of the 15 years he spent behind bars, Jason Hernandez called Federal Corrections Institution El Reno home. And before President Obama granted him and over a dozen others clemency in 2013, he was destined to die there.

But when he heard President Obama would be traveling to the El Reno facility on Thursday, he yearned to be back behind those walls again, if only for a day.

“I immediately thought there was no place I’d rather be than in El Reno when the president is there,” Hernandez tells TIME. “President Obama granted one of my dreams. One of the others is to meet him.”

In 1998, when he was just 21 years old, Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling methamphetamines and crack cocaine. After serving nine years in the Beaumont maximum-security facility in Texas, Hernandez was transferred to the medium security facility at El Reno to carry out the remainder of his life sentence.

Yet, that sentence was cut short thanks to Obama, who included the now 38-year-old in his first splashy round of mass sentence reductions for low-level, non-violent drug offenders who likely would have been released had they been sentenced under current law. Hernandez doesn’t at all deny the fact that he was guilty of a crime—“I thought I was bettering people by giving them drugs,” he says—but he felt his sentence was excessive and the President agreed.

Now, Hernandez is living in a halfway house in McKinney, Texas, splitting his time between work as a welder and as a kitchen worker and mentor at restaurant aimed at helping kids who have gotten caught up in the juvenile justice system. Hernandez says he wants to use his newfound freedom to help keep young men of color from heading down his same path—something he notes he likely wouldn’t have even known he’d have a passion for had it not been for programs he participated in at El Reno.

Plus, he says, “I made that promise to the president.”

Over the past several days, Obama has made criminal justice reform his focus—from the 46 commutations he issued on Monday to the sweeping reform platform he laid out on Tuesday—and it all comes to a head on Thursday when he becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal correctional facility. During his visit to El Reno, a medium security facility in Oklahoma, Obama will meet with law enforcement agents and inmates and be interviewed for an upcoming VICE documentary about the American criminal justice system.

The site wasn’t at all chosen at random. The White House, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Prisons worked together to pick El Reno as the first federal prison to host a sitting president for a visit for a number of reasons, according to a White House official. For starters, about half of its 1,301 inmate population is drug offenders, which is proportional to the entire federal prison population. The racial and ethnic make-up is also representative of the federal prison population and inmates there are a variety of ages and carry myriad lengths of sentence. What’s more, it offers both an evidence-based residential drug abuse treatment program and a critical reentry program known as Federal Prison Industries that helps inmates prepare for life on the outside. Inside, according to an inmate handbook, inmates have access to educational and vocational training programs from GED and associate’s degree courses to business management and welding training.

“The President believes that, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and the reentry programs and drug abuse programs housed at El Reno are vital to ensuring that inmates have a second chance to give back to the country they love,” said a White House official.

Those second chances, however, have been all but lost on thousands of low-level, non-violent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy sentences as a result of harsh, decades-old drug laws. In many cases, first-time offenders caught peddling or transporting drugs have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled, due in large part to the massive numbers of drug offenders who’ve ended up behind bars for lengthy amounts of time. And although Congress passed a law in 2010 that reduced the punitive disparities between crack and powder cocaine, the law wasn’t retroactive, leaving many offenders who would be out under current law to languish behind bars. “That’s the real reason our prison population is so high,” Obama said Tuesday. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. A disproportionate number of inmates, too, are black and Latino men.

In a photo taken on the inside that Hernandez shared with TIME, nine black and brown men donning tan jumpsuits stare solemnly at the camera. All of them, Hernandez says, were sentenced to life behind bars for selling crack cocaine. Among them is Kenneth Evans, a former low-level drug dealer who is a few months shy of his 50th birthday. He’s been behind bars for 23 years. Evans lived next door to Hernandez when he was still locked up. When Hernandez found out he had been granted clemency, he cried to Evans—saying he felt guilty for leaving him behind.

In a message to TIME sent via the prison email system, Evans said he simply wants the president to know that “none of us are claiming innocence. None of us are neglecting or ignoring the harm that we caused our communities. But ALL of us are simply asking for fairness, true justice, and a second chance.”

Evans has applied for clemency through the Clemency Project, an Obama administration effort to identify more non-violent, low-level offenders for parole. According to the New York Times, some 30,000 federal inmates have applied for sentence relief through the initiative. But the process for clemency is slow, as noted in the number of commutation orders Obama has so far granted.

Yet, among inmates, hope is not lost. Douglas Ray Dunkins is not in the photo, but he’s also serving a life sentence in El Reno. His conviction for manufacturing and distributing crack as a young man was his first felony, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report in which he’s featured. He’s been at the Oklahoma facility since February 9, 1993.

When Jason was released, he told TIME via prison email, it was a bittersweet moment, “but it did give me hope that if [his] sentence could be commuted mine could as well.”

Both Congress and the White House have taken steps to try to curb the impact old drug laws have had on the prison population. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House recently launched a criminal justice reform caucus. Senators from both sides of the aisle convened on Tuesday to make the case for passing criminal justice reform this legislative session. Obama on Tuesday lauded the momentum around enacting meaningful reforms that reduce both the prison population and the crime rate, while noting that more work needed to be done. He’s likely to repeat the charge during his visit on Thursday.

Though Hernandez won’t be traveling to meet the President at El Reno, he hopes to someday meet him. But what he wants most is an opportunity is for other deserving inmates to experience life on the outside.

“There are individuals there that I believe are more worthy than I was—they had less drugs and they’ve done more time,” he says. “It’s my hope that one day the president gives life back to those individuals.”

Read next: Obama Calls for Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms in NAACP Speech

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TIME States

Texas Launches Investigation Into Planned Parenthood Over Video

“The video offers a glimpse into an organization that knowingly and deliberately destroys human life to further its bottom line.”

Texas’ top law enforcement official has opened an investigation into Planned Parenthood following the release of a widely shared video that shows a staffer discussing fetal tissue donations.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday the video “offers a glimpse into an organization that knowingly and deliberately destroys human life to further its bottom line.”

He said Planned Parenthood engages in “calculated slaughter of human babies to maximize the available body parts they plan to sell.”

The activists who released the video argue that it shows that Planned Parenthood sells parts of aborted fetuses, which is against the law. The organization says that the official featured in the video was simply discussing how certain costs could be reimbursed and said it in no way profits off the sale of fetal tissue.

The release of a video that has led many pro-life advocates to denounce the organization. A number of Republican 2016 presidential candidates blasted the organization on Tuesday and leaders in the House of Representatives have called for an official investigation.

Read Next: Why Planned Parenthood Provides Fetal Cells to Scientists

TIME 2016 Election

Republican Presidential Contenders Slam Planned Parenthood Over Video

Germany Jeb Bush
Michael Sohn—AP Former US Governor Jeb Bush arrives for the Economic Council in Berlin on June 9, 2015.

The video was taken by undercover activists

Several Republican presidential candidates blasted Planned Parenthood in the wake of a widely shared video in which officials from the organization discuss how medical practitioners can preserve fetal organs for medical research during abortions.

Activists at the Center for Medical Progress secretly recorded the video, which the group says shows Planned Parenthood officials talking about the sale of fetal body parts.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood officials said that neither the patients nor the organization profits from the donation of fetal tissue. “In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field,” the statement reads.

Former Gov. of Florida Jeb Bush, who once called himself “probably the most pro-life governor in modern times,” tweeted that the video is “a shocking and horrific reminder that we must do so much more to foster a culture of life in America,” while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called the video “absolutely horrifying and disgusting.”

In a statement, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called for an “immediate investigation” into Planned Parenthood in response to the video, which was taken by an undercover activist. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky circulated a petition to defund Planned Parenthood that included a call for donations to “set the stage for a pro-life President.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal directed his state health department to investigate local chapters of the organization in response to the video. And former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called it a “disturbing reminder of the organization’s penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.”


TIME celebrities

Laverne Cox Goes on Defense Post-Bravo TV Appearance

Actress Laverne Cox is going on the defensive. After an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live stirred controversy on the Internet, Cox wrote a lengthy post on her Tumblr page to explain her thoughts on cultural appropriation.

A little backstory: Reality star Kylie Jenner posted a photo to Instagram over the weekend with her hair braided in cornrows. Actress Amandla Stenberg commented on the image, calling out Jenner for appropriating a black hairstyle while failing to “use your position of power to help black Americans.” Jenner responded with “go hang with Jaden [Smith] or something.” (Oh, burn.)

Fast forward to Sunday’s episode of Watch What Happens Live, where host Andy Cohen asked guests Cox and former Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley to comment on “white girls and cornrows” after naming the social media interaction between Stenberg and Jenner the “Jackhole of the week.” Talley and Cox both avoided engaging on the subject, which led many to call out both for failing to defend Stenberg.

And now, the news: On Tuesday, Cox took to her Tumblr page to clarify her thoughts on cultural appropriation, Stenberg, and Bo Derek.

Cox praised Stenberg’s command of the subject of cultural appropriation—as seen in a video featuring the Hunger Games star talking about black hair—and posed additional questions about the co-opting of styles associated with black culture without acknowledgment of the source.

“How do we lovingly make people aware of that history and the potential affects of cultural appropriation that further marginalize and stigmatize those already the most adversely affected by systems that disadvantage certain experiences, bodies and identities over others?” Cox asks.

The Orange is the New Black star didn’t apologize for not weighing in on the interaction, which many have dubbed an “Internet feud,” and white women rocking black hairstyles in general saying she needed more than “10 seconds or less” to properly engage.

Read the whole post at her Tumblr page.

TIME celebrities

One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson is Expecting a Baby

Louis Tomlinson of One Direction performs during the band's "On the Road Again" tour at Levi's Stadium on July 11, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.
Tim Mosenfelder—Getty Images Louis Tomlinson of One Direction performs during the band's "On the Road Again" tour at Levi's Stadium on July 11, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.

The British pop star is expecting a child with a "very, very" close friend

The One Direction camp is getting a new addition, but he or she will be too young to sing and dance with the boy band. Louis Tomlinson, People Magazine reports, is expecting a baby.

According to a friend of Tomlinson and the mom-to-be Briana Jungwirth, the bundle of joy is a welcome surprise for the two “very, very close friends.”

Tomlinson is reportedly sure that Jungwirth will be an “amazing mother,” while Tomlinsonwill surely be added to the ranks of hot dads.

Read more at People.

TIME justice

Obama Calls for Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms in NAACP Speech

President Barack Obama speaks during the NAACP's 106th National Convention in Philadelphia on July 14, 2015.
Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks during the NAACP's 106th National Convention in Philadelphia on July 14, 2015.

President Obama outlined an ambitious roadmap for criminal justice reform during an address at the NAACP convention Tuesday.

In a 45-minute speech, Obama called for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of the solitary confinement and barring employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history, among other things.

“Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system,” Obama said Tuesday. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”

While Obama has touched on many of the individual policy ideas in the past, the speech was the first in recent memory to tie them all together into a blueprint for action. The speech likely presages a series of upcoming executive actions on criminal justice reform.

The speech varied, with Obama at times speaking passionately about the need for reform, and at other times delving into statistics to make his case.

Obama’s remarks included a litany of daunting statistics: that America is home to 5% of world’s population but 25% of world’s prisons, that African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of American inmates. But Obama said he’s found hope in the fact that politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken up the issue.

MORE: Bipartisan Push for Criminal Justice Reform Sets Its Agenda

Back in in Washington, a bipartisan group of Senators gathered on Tuesday to discuss getting criminal justice reform passed this legislative year. In the House, a group of lawmakers formed a caucus focused on criminal justice reform.

“We’re at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter. To make it work better and I’m determined to do my part, wherever I can,” Obama said in a video posted to Facebook on Monday.

At the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, Obama noted the “strange bedfellows” that efforts to reform the criminal justice system have created, among them the Koch brothers and the NAACP. At one point, he even quoted Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, drawing a mixed response from the crowd.

Obama told the crowd early on that he wasn’t going to sing, but the commander-in-chief did some preaching on a topic that has been a focus of his second term agenda. Initiatives including the Department of Justice’s Smart on Crime program aimed at reducing the impact of our nation’s dated drug laws, My Brother’s Keeper, and the Clemency Project have all been Obama-led initiatives to reform the criminal justice system.

MORE: Watch President Obama Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ at Slain Pastor’s Funeral

The initiatives have not been without criticism, however—lawmakers have long called for more action on policies that reduce sentences and provide more opportunities to communities that are more often impacted by tough sentencing laws.

The speech came at the start of a week marked by hefty achievements by the Obama administration on the criminal justice front. On Monday, Obama reduced the sentences of 46 federal inmates who had been incarcerated for committing non-violent, low-level drug offenses over the past two decades. The new round of commutations brings Obama’s total issued up to 89—more than any U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson. The commutations were the latest in the administration’s effort to rollback some of the damage caused by the nation’s drug laws.

On Thursday, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he travels to Federal Correctional Institution El Reno. Obama is expected to meet with inmates during the prison stop, and on Tuesday he said he met with four—one Latino, one white, and two black—before jumping on stage at the convention.

“While people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes. They are also Americans and we have to make sure that as they do their time that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around,” Obama said. “Justice and redemption go hand in hand.”

Read Next: Will Congress Reform the Criminal Justice System?

TIME 2016 Election

Trump Towers Over Republican Rivals in New Poll

But can't compete with leading Democrat Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup

A new poll finds business mogul Donald Trump leading the crowded field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination for the first time, but falling short when matched up against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

The USA Today/Suffolk University placed Trump first among Republicans with 17% of those surveyed saying he’s their top pick for the nomination. The only other GOPer to crack double digits is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who garnered support from 14% of those polled.

But when the property magnate is matched up against Clinton, he trails the former Secretary of State by 17 points.

Trump’s name recognition and visibility likely contributes to the boost in numbers; just 2% of the 1,000 American adults surveyed said they hadn’t heard of him. But his divisive comments on immigration have likely added to his high unfavorability levels. Sixty-one percent of those polled had an unfavorable view of Trump, while about 42% said they had an unfavorable view of Bush.

The survey was conducted via phone last week and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. The survey results focused on the Republican primary, however, have a margin of error of plus or minus 5.25 percentage points.

[USA Today]

Read next: Donald Trump Trolls Critics on Instagram

Listen to the most important stories of the day

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Tries to Reassure Netanyahu on Iran Deal

Obama told Netanyahu that the nuclear agreement "will not diminish our concerns regarding Iran's support for terrorism and threats"

President Obama sought to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Tuesday following the announcement that world leaders had come to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Obama told Netanyahu, who opposes the deal, that the nuclear agreement “will not diminish our concerns regarding Iran’s support for terrorism and threats toward Israel,” according to a description of the call provided by the White House.

Israel and its supporters have repeatedly expressed concern that easing sanctions on Iran in return for Iran’s promises to curtail its nuclear program could endanger Israel, particularly given Iran’s support for groups that have attacked Israel and Iranian leaders’ previous statements against the country. Netanyahu called the deal a mistake of “historic proportions” on Tuesday and promised to continue trying to block final passage.

According to the White House’s description of Obama’s call to Netanyahu, the President “underscored his Administration’s stalwart commitment to Israel’s security and noted that the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] will remove the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, an outcome in the national security interest of the United States and Israel.”

Obama also told Netanyahu that Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s planned travel to Israel next week is a “reflection of the unprecedented level of security cooperation between the United States and Israel.”

TIME 2016 Election

Republican Presidential Candidates Blast Iran Deal

White House hopefuls call it a "nightmare" and "one of America's worst diplomatic failures"

Republicans with their eye on the presidency delivered harsh criticisms of the deal the U.S. and other world powers struck with Iran over its nuclear program on Tuesday.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement that the deal, which would roll back sanctions on Iran in exchange for it curbing its nuclear program, “isn’t diplomacy—it is appeasement.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the deal will “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said it “undermines our national security.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, backed the deal, but her Republican rivals were unanimous in their disapproval.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called the deal a “nightmare” in an interview with Bloomberg View. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also blasted the deal, saying in a statement that “if Secretary Clinton goes along with President Obama’s efforts to appease Iran, it will make our enemies stronger, endanger our ally Israel and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will destabilize the region.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz urged Americans to “to let their elected leaders know that even if President Obama won’t see it, we know the leaders of the Islamic Republic who lead crowds in chants of ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ are not our partners in peace, and must not be put on the path to a nuclear bomb.”

TIME 2016 Election

Hillary Clinton Backs Iran Nuclear Deal

Presidential hopeful calls it an “important step"

Former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton hailed the nuclear deal the U.S. and other world powers made with Iran on Tuesday after a meeting with Democrats in Congress.

Clinton told reporters at a news conference that the deal is a “very important moment” and that the deal is an “important step in putting a lid on Iran’s nuclear program.”

“There will be a number of issues that have to be addressed,” Clinton said. “It will need to be enforced vigorously, relentlessly.”

Earlier, Clinton gave a “vigorous” endorsement during a meeting with House Democrats, Politico reports.

Clinton said that if elected president she would be “absolutely devoted to ensuring that the agreement is followed.” Clinton also said Tuesday that the U.S. must continue working to address Iran’s “bad behavior” on issues including terrorism and the threat to Israel.

“We will have to immediately, upon completion of this agreement and its rigorous enforcement, look to see how we build a coalition to try to prevent and undermine Iran’s bad behaviors in other arenas,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s endorsement of the deal came after President Obama said it would be “irresponsible” for the U.S. to back away from the deal. He also threatened to veto any legislation in Congress to prevent its successful implementation. Republicans in Congress and Republicans running for president were quick to oppose the deal Tuesday.

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