El Reno Federal Prison, located in the heart of Oklahoma, is the last place you'd expect to find the President of the United States. But in July of 2015, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first sitting president ever to visit a federal prison. He was accompanied by the award-winning investigative filmmakers behind VICE News. Their feature documentary titled Fixing the System chronicles this landmark event while examining the larger landscape of an unjust and badly broken prison system.
America's commitment to mass incarceration began nearly 50 years ago, and was bolstered by tougher penalties for non-violent drug offenses. Excessive mandatory minimum sentences were imposed, which most profoundly affect black and Hispanic communities. The film contends that these laws constitute a modern form of industrialized racism, and that most of these offenders are serving far harsher sentences than their crimes warrant.
Statistically, with an inmate population that continues to rise well over 2 million, the U.S. prison system incarcerates far more of its citizens than any other country. As a result, prisons are badly overcrowded, minority communities are crumbling, and the potential of entire generations is being squandered.
The film profiles a group of inmates who understand these realities all too well. Some turned to using drugs as a means of escape. Others began selling them on the street because of a lack of legitimate economic opportunity. In each instance, these prisoners are enduring punishments that far outweigh their offenses. Even after they are released, the stigma of their past discretions will likely force them back to the confines of a prison cell.
President Obama is shown in conversation with these inmates, and their dialogue illuminates shameful truths about America's legal system. These insights are further echoed by additional interview subjects, including a high profile federal judge, a brave law enforcement whistleblower, and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Fixing the System dissects this multi-faceted issue from all sides, including the damaging war on drugs, police discrimination and brutality, the lack of rehabilitative services, and the failure of Washington to enact reform in spite of widespread bipartisan support. Meanwhile, as the politicians bicker and bargain in the halls of power, the filmmakers never lose sight of the lives that hang in the balance.