Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke looks at his phone before driving away after a Service Employees International Union "Walk A Day In the Shoes" event, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

O'Rourke to visit inmates inside California's San Quentin

August 03, 2019 - 5:07 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is planning to visit San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco on Saturday to meet with inmates and have them lead him on a tour of the facility — a rare peek behind bars for a White House hopeful.

The former Texas congressman will spend part of his time with inmates who are close to finishing their sentences, discussing ways to improve the "re-entry" process into society and to combat recidivism. He will also conduct an interview with "Ear Hustle," a podcast produced by inmates inside the all-male prison that is California's oldest.

President Barack Obama visited El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility for male offenders in Oklahoma, in July 2015, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot inside a federal prison. Obama was calling then for shortening the sentences of non-violent drug offenders and advocating for the reduction, or outright elimination, of severe mandatory minimum sentences.

O'Rourke's visit follows his attending a roundtable Thursday in Las Vegas, where he spoke with formerly incarcerated people about restoring voting rights, providing better training and education for former prisoners and overhauling the criminal justice system. A new Nevada law restores voting rights to inmates automatically upon their release from prison — something O'Rourke supports.

"We have a broken criminal justice system in our country that helps to explain how we have the world's largest prison population, disproportionately comprised of people of color, though we know that people of all races use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate," O'Rourke said. "To reform this system, we need to listen to, learn from, and include the perspectives of people who have been locked up by it and locked out of opportunity because of it. I look forward to doing that at San Quentin State Prison."

The issue of whether felons should be allowed to vote while imprisoned has roiled the packed field of Democrats vying for the chance to try to deny President Donald Trump a second term.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said in April that they should, noting that voting is "inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people." O'Rourke joined other candidates at the time in saying that he believed inmates imprisoned on nonviolent offenses should be allowed to vote but that he didn't believe inmates who committed violent crimes should be allowed to cast ballots.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California have both suggested they weren't ready to grant full voting rights to incarcerated, violent criminals, including the likes of the Boston Marathon bomber. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has said he opposes giving prisoners access to the ballot box.

While running unsuccessfully for Senate in Texas last year, O'Rourke visited the Harris County Jail in Houston and met with inmates. He has long called for ending the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunging the criminal records of those arrested solely for possession, and also supports ending mandatory minimum sentences and cash bail systems, as well as closing all private and for-profit prisons nationwide. Many of the Democrats now running for president hold similar positions.