In the documentary The House I Live In, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki caputres the emotional, societal, and human repercussions of the four-decade failed war on drugs. The film follows the consequences of the drug war into people’s homes, and provides faces and imagery for harrowing statistics: The U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, including 500,000 Americans convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Meanwhile, drug police enforcement has marginalized hundreds of thousands of Americans, while drug use has remained virtually the same since President Nixon formally launched the war.
Jarecki’s film puts faces and stories to a drug war that has affected all corners of the criminal justice system and has disproportionately hurt poor black communities. The many chapters of contraband laws, Jarecki commented to ThinkProgress and chronicles in his film, “act as a thinly veiled force for racial and social control.” One surprising aspect of The House I Live In is how far the disappointment and frustration reaches, from inmates and their families and friends, to dispirited police officers, prison guards, and judges. We spoke with Jarecki about The House I Live In, which won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is now playing in theaters. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was one of the most surprising thing you discovered when researching and creating the film?
Probably the hidden humanity from inside a machine. That’s really at the end of the day the discovery over and over that makes for interesting cinema in making a move like this. You approach a gigantic machine from the outside and what you know of it is very little and what you see is evidence qualities and it’s evident qualities in our system of mass incarceration is that it’s a vast faceless predatory cannibal that eats human beings for its own perpetuation. So from the outside that’s all I knew and of course that produces the impression that from the inside you’ll find people who are faceless, predatory animals.
And of course then you get inside and there’s these people everywhere who are a stone throw from yourself and are on the inside because they’re locked inside or are on the inside because their job has them locked inside with those who are locked inside. and you find over and over again that the people inside are people who are like yourself.
Why is this issue so understated?
When you live in the public and live with this monolithic impression of this institution you assume faceless and you go back to bed assuming that all is well. So it’s only if by some chance an American comes into contact with the prison system because, god forbid, someone they know or love gets caught up in it or they themselves become an addict, or they themselves have an experience that exposes them to it and they awaken.
When I went into this prison system, I thought I’d be able to see it from the outside and see what was wrong with it. What you see from outside is superficial and frankly what you see from outside is true of many prison systems in the world. Ours is unique in that we have and industrialized system of mass incarceration. Not a lot of our western allies have such a thing. what we have is so widespread with 2.3 million people behind bars, 45 million arrests over 40 years and a trillion dollars have made us the world’s largest jailer. On the other side of that is so many people we incarcerate for long periods are nonviolent.
We’ve had many chapters of contraband laws in America to act as a thinly veiled force for racial and social control and we saw that historically and yet something that happened in the modern era that was different and profound that was the declaration of war on drugs by Richard Nixon in 1971. When he did that all the problems that accompany war emerged in this otherwise sort of adhoc dynamic of the occasional drug law that occasionally would put particularly Chinese immigrants away to jail because of opium or particularly harass Mexican Americans who might be a threat to U.S. jobs.
Now all the problems that accompany war emerged in this otherwise sort of ad hoc dynamic of the occasional drug law that occasionally would put particularly Chinese immigrants away to jail because of opium or particularly harass Mexican Americans who might be a threat to U.S. jobs. What we find in the modern era is that war is declared. And of course what does war bring, it brings industrial complexes like the military industrial complex. It brings vested interest, it brings the potential for tremendous profit, it brings the potential to convert risk into profit, fear into profit. That’s what wars do. And wars get perpetuated by the dynamic between fear and profit whether it’s economic profit or political profit varies from time to time. In the drug war it’s both. you have short sighted politicians seeking short term gain from the political profit of appearing tough on crime.
If Obama won a second term, do you think he would take on this issue?
I am optimistic about him doing that if the public reduces his wiggle room on the issue.
What do you think it would take?
It’s the single most glaring human rights issue issue facing the United States domestically right now. And it’s one on which a constitutional scholar like Obama could make a tremendous legacy. He could save the country billions. Billions. There’s one law in California right now that may get a revision in November by a ballot amendment that is the three strikes law in the country the most draconian in the country. The third strike could get you a life sentence even if it’s petty or nonviolent. They’re trying to change that to make tt the third strike would need to be serious or violent. That change alone would release and save California a hundred fifty million dollars a year. In a country that’s hemorrhaging economically I think those arguments are going to become increasingly hard to resist.