By Julia Edwards
EL RENO, Oklahoma (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who wrote in his memoir about using marijuana and cocaine as a youth, became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison on Thursday and told drug-offense inmates he could have been in their place if not for the advantages he had growing up.
Vowing to improve the criminal justice system, Obama heard about prison overcrowding and toured El Reno federal prison. When he arrived at Cell 123, he saw a prisoner's typical sparse supply of dish soap, clothing and books.
Visiting El Reno Federal Correctional Institution's dimly lit, gray halls, he promised to work with federal wardens and prison guards to address cramped conditions and spoke with six non-violent drug offenders. Their discussions will air on HBO's "Vice" documentary program in September.
"These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different from mistakes I made," Obama told reporters at the prison near Oklahoma City that holds nearly 1,300 inmates.
"The difference is they did not have the support structure, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive these mistakes," he said.
More than 1.5 million Americans were in state or federal prisons at the end of 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. African-Americans were 15 percent of the U.S. population at that time but accounted for about a third of its prisoners.
Obama wrote about his own drug use in his memoir "Dreams from my Father" and has made helping young black and Hispanic boys a priority of his remaining time in office through a program called "My Brother's Keeper."
The issue is one he has said he intends to remain committed to once he leaves office in 2017.
At the medium-security men's prison complex, Obama looked inside an empty, 9-foot by 10-foot cell, number 123 in block B. He saw the few possessions of its occupants: brown uniforms, mesh laundry bags, dish soap and a few books.
For the unprecedented visit, guards cleared prisoners from the building where Obama toured and spoke.
He said the criminal justice system should do a better job of discerning between young drug offenders from poor backgrounds and hardened, violent criminals.
"We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to control crime and rehabilitate individuals," Obama said.
As his time in office begins to draw to a close, Obama has become more outspoken, while also enjoying a run of victories on Pacific Rim trade, his healthcare law, same-sex marriage rights and, earlier this week, a historic nuclear agreement with Iran.
Overhauling prison sentencing is an issue he has set as a key goal for his final months in the White House. On Tuesday, he called on the U.S. Congress to send him a sentencing reform bill by the end of the year.
Soaring U.S. incarceration followed a 1980s-1990s drug-crime crackdown. Mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines from then would be altered under steps being considered in Congress for non-violent drug offenders.
The United States has 25 percent of the world's prisoners but just 5 percent of its population but has 25 percent of its prisoners.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Jeff Mason; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman)