In July, President Obama made history, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, and for the occasion he took HBO's "Vice" with him. In a special 68-minute special report, the investigative news show tackles the expansive issue of prison reform.
"Vice Special Report: Fixing the System" does a serviceable job in laying out the complicated issues that plague the United States prison system, beginning with the deeply misguided endeavor that was the "War on Drugs" and moving on to the mandatory minimum sentencing that accompanied it. But while the special doesn't break any new ground in examining the issue, it does do a good job in explaining the complicated nesting doll that is the broken justice system to less informed viewers.
Though "Vice" occasionally faces criticism for over-simplifying complex issues, glossing over matters of child soldiers and climate change in tidy 30-minute episodes, in this instance such a critique would be unfairly leveled. If it's a young and modern audience that the series is aiming to reach, it makes sense to take a broad, if not deep, view on the quagmire of American prisons.
"Vice" also takes time to dig into the human side of the criminal justice system, not only in how Obama sits with prisoners and speaks to them about the choices and quirks of the system that led them to this place, but in interviewing family members left behind, whose lives are left with gaping holes, thanks to a generation lost to incarceration.
It's important to be reminded of the human face of suffering and that those punished by faulty drug policies are not necessarily drug lords or inherent threats to society, but equally, if not more important, is the repeated and insistent entreaties from individuals in power that comprehensive change is vital for the country moving forward.
Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum agree that the misguided drug policies of the '80s and '90s are outdated and need to be scaled back, and "Vice" takes care to seek them out. Former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, as well as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey speak openly about the destruction they've seen in their communities and the change required, while federal judge John Gleeson remarks that "Congress blew it" when it enacted mandatory minimums based on type and quantity.
At points, the special feels oppressive, if only because the problem that needs fixing is so ingrained that it seems impossible that it could ever be repaired. But the key, as with so many things, comes back to Obama.
Obama sits with the prisoners in his shirtsleeves, listening to them but, more importantly, relating to them. On the record previously as saying that were the circumstances different, he could see himself having ended up in prison, Obama's historically significant visit becomes so much more than just history, but an exercise in empathy. The president listens to the incarcerated men and assures them that their voices and their lives have not been swallowed whole by the prison that holds their bodies.
The president is the key to fixing the prison system, the "Vice" special seems to believe, not because he can enact policy or engender change, but because he's willing to wake up, show up and bear witness. Something necessary for every American before we can institute true and meaningful change.