Award-winning director Eugene Jarecki calls the 40-year-long War on Drugs a “terrible American secret” and it’s one he wants to expose to the public.
The House I Live In, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance festival, premieres in New York theaters this weekend. In it, Jarecki takes a look at how extensive the damage of this failing war has been for many, especially the black community.
With over 2 million people behind bars, the United States far surpasses the prison population of any other country in the world. More than half of federal prisoners were arrested because of drugs – and a majority of them are African American men.
“Where drugs haven’t destroyed, the War on Drugs has,” David Simon, creator of The Wire, says in the film.
At a free screening last night in Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, Jarecki explained how deeply mass imprisonment has affected the black community.
The government’s tough-on-crime stance, harsh sentencing laws, and an ineffective prison system have left children without fathers and mothers without sons. Some of the inmates shown in the film were sentenced to twenty years and more in prison for non-violent drug crimes.
“Over and over I kept hearing about the incarceration of so many black people under the War on Drugs,” Jarecki told the Grio. “This war has unleashed an incredibly predatory system of criminal justice that seems to be invading the black community and knee-capping it.”
The film lists some shocking numbers. The War on Drugs has cost the country more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests. Yet, it seems drugs have continued to be an ever-present foe, becoming more easily available to a younger and younger crowd.
So with mounting evidence showing the fight is being lost, why hasn’t the government adopted a new approach?
“Politicians think it’ll help them get elected,” said Virginia congressman Bobby Scott. He believes the anti-drug crime slogans and soundbites politicians have been known to employ during election season are effective campaign strategies. The public responds to politicians who promise to keep people off the streets.
“I think the importance of this movie is that it exposes the foolishness for what it is,” Scott said. “You’re just locking people up for no constructive purpose. You’re not doing anything about drugs and it’s getting more and more expensive.”
He hopes the film will educate the public, moving them to hold lawmakers responsible for change.
Jarecki says politicians aren’t the only ones benefiting from the high incarceration rate. In the documentary, he says police who make a higher number of arrests take home more money at the end of the month, and those who run the prisons makes more money with each inmate they get.
But in a recent interview with MSNBC’s The Cycle, Jarecki insists despite all that, everyone loses in the end.
“All of those people who work in prison industrial jobs, whether it’s jailers who I talk to, cops who I talk to, judges, prosecutors – everybody up and down the chain – what I’ve found most of all is they all deeply regret the way things have gone and they all wish it was different,” he said.
“The victims aren’t just those who get the drug laws applied to them and they end up incarcerated for incredible periods of time and their families get destroyed and their community shattered,” he continued. “It’s everybody involved as a victim of a system they didn’t create.”
The film suggests changing an approach that deals with a health problem like a legal issue. When Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs in the ’70s, he devoted a significant portion of that effort to treatment, but treatment programs exist less and less now as budgets tighten.
“We’ve dealt with drug addiction, for some reason, as something that we should punish rather than approach with compassion,” Jarecki said.
With a change in stance comes a change in law, which many anti-Drug War proponents say will return Black men to their communities.
Taking no action would continue what David Simon calls “a holocaust in slow motion.”
The House I Live In opens in New York theaters today and tomorrow. It will be shown at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.
Follow Ugonna on Twitter at @ugonnaokpalaoka.