The Welcome Symbolism of President Obama's Prison Visit

US President Barack Obama speaks as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015
US President Barack Obama speaks as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the worst days of my legal career was the day I lost my first criminal trial. What stands out most in my mind isn't the loss itself, but my visit to the jail afterward to meet with my client. Anyone who's visited a jail or prison knows it's a somber place, but in this particular visit it seemed that all of the most depressing aspects were present with special force.

I remember meeting with my client and sensing the unique feelings that accompany having being publicly pronounced guilty of a crime by one's peers. As I walked past the desk on the way out, I saw a woman who'd just been released, struggling to explain herself to the property clerk so she could get back a few meager items that had been seized when she'd been arrested. And as I approached the door, I overheard a woman on a phone talking with an inmate, pleading with him to do what he needed to do to avoid making his situation worse.

It was too much for me. I made it out the door and into my car, and then broke down crying. I hadn't anticipated this at all, but something about the combination of those observations just struck me in an unexpected way. In that moment it didn't matter to me whether my client or the others I'd seen were guilty of their offenses, or whether they "deserved" what was happening to them. No matter what had happened, it was deeply moving to experience, even secondhand, what it's like to be a convicted criminal.

I thought about that day when I heard that President Obama would be visiting a federal prison -- and that, incredibly, this would be the first time that a sitting president would do so. It's unbelievable that this has never happened before. It's not that such a visit was necessary to teach him anything he couldn't learn otherwise, but the symbolism of the visit -- and, more importantly, of the lack of such visits from previous presidents -- was powerful.

Presidents make countless public visits -- to military bases, schools, factories and diners -- understanding that their presence conveys something about how they feel about those places. But they've historically stayed away from the buildings that represent the logical endpoints of governmental power -- the buildings created to enforce compliance with the laws we put into place. In doing so, they've reinforced a notion that most of us share, which is that there is a deep chasm between us law-abiding folks on one side, and the lawbreakers on the other. The separation isn't just legal, but personal and moral as well. At bottom, they're just not like us, so we're justified in writing them off.

This might be where I'd be expected, as a criminal defense lawyer, to rail against the injustice of the system; to assert that the vast majority of prisoners are innocent, or at least helpless victims of circumstance. That's not my belief. There are innocent people in prison, but they're the exception. Most are there because they in fact did something the law forbids. Moreover, in most cases they knew they were breaking the law, did so anyway, and consciously accepted the accompanying risks. So in that sense they deserve the sentences they're serving, and I'm not arguing otherwise.

What I reject is what often comes next -- the sense of a fundamental difference between them and us that excuses our lack of concern. That difference is artificial at multiple levels. Even in the purest legal sense, it's absurd to think that there's a line between those who have transgressed our rules and are in prison, and those who have followed those rules and are outside. The determination of who goes in and who stays out can depend on things as arbitrary as who gets caught, who gets targeted by prosecutors with immense discretionary power, and who is able to cut a "cooperation" deal. There are an awful lot of us on the outside who could just as easily be inside.

And even if the system perfectly delineated between lawbreakers and the law-abiding, that still wouldn't be enough to justify our feelings of personal and moral separation from convicted criminals. I'm personally guilty on this count. I used to feel that separation as much as anyone; I thought about "convicts" mostly with contempt, laughing at prison rape jokes and ridiculing ex-cons' fumbling attempts to reintegrate themselves into their communities.

But a funny thing happened when I started my criminal defense practice. Almost invariably, I found myself identifying quite closely with the clients who came through my door -- including the plainly guilty ones. Often, as they'd describe the conduct for which they'd been charged, I found myself saying a silent prayer of thanks that I hadn't been caught when I'd done the same thing or something awfully similar. Sometimes the analogous acts in my own past were themselves illegal; sometimes I'd stayed within the legal lines but my actions had caused much more hurt to others than anything the criminal on the other side of my desk had done. Regardless, over time it's become increasingly difficult for me to differentiate myself from "those people" who end up behind bars.

So I'm glad President Obama visited that prison, and I hope every future president does so at least once. The inmates in those facilities are part of the population that each president swears to take care of and protect. If a presidential visit does nothing more than symbolize that fact and communicate that the inmates are human beings worthy of our care and concern, that's a good start.