Nannie Jeter was a fixture of film director Eugene Jarecki's childhood. She took care of him and his two siblings for so many years in their homes in Connecticut and New York, she was practically a member of his family. He stayed in contact with her even when he became an adult.
When Jarecki watched members of her family, who’ve grown up alongside him, end up in prison or die, he decided to investigate further.
The reason for her troubles, she told him, could be summed up in one word: drugs. Her son had died of drug-related causes. The relatives had been hauled off on drug charges. It was a familiar story for thousands of families. But Jarecki believed it was a story that most Americans didn't know—and needed to hear. The result was Jarecki's startling documentary, “The House I Live In.” The 105-minute film, which won the 2012 Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film festival, is scheduled to premiere in movie theaters in October.
Over the course of hundreds of interviews with players in the drug war, ranging from corrections officials and police to drug dealers, Jarecki paints a stark portrait of the toll America's war on drugs has taken on America's poor minority communities. Anchoring the film is the poignant tale of Nannie Jeter's family. Jarecki, who also directed the much- celebrated documentaries, Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger spoke to Cara Tabachnick, managing editor of The Crime Report about the origins of the drug war, the surprising reform-minded insiders he found while making the film, and why Americans need to re-think drug policy.
The Crime Report: Your film focuses on the racial impact of U.S. drug policies. Why?
Eugene Jarecki: In 1971 (President Richard) Nixon declared the “War on Drugs.” (But) a war on inanimate items such as drugs is just not possible. Ultimately, it is a war on people—our own people. And it became evident to me during the making of the film that what happened to Nannie Jeter's family and the drug war were inextricably intertwined. We have always had drug laws that were very much race-driven. In the 1860s, Chinese opium users were being arrested and jailed. This was followed by the persecution of blacks for cocaine in the early 1900s, and of Mexican migrant laborers for marijuana.
Drug law enforcement has long been an exercise of social control over a part of society—the poor and minorities—that mostly remain separate from the mainstream. Overall, it is quite a frightening story of social alienation, economic struggle and political disenfranchisement. The effort of the film is to get at the root of that story.
TCR: The film spends a lot of time exploring how her family, which is African-American, fell into involvement with drugs. What did you discover?
EJ: Most people in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods have no idea what is going on with the war on drugs in their communities. Communities are decimated. A system of mass incarceration is the norm. Everyone knows someone who has been in prison, and children are consistently subjected to violence. There is nowhere for children or families to turn to when the only social structures that exist are within the framework of the drug community. It is no surprise when the solution is to turn to either taking drugs or working as a dealer, or a runner, or something else involved with the system.
TCR: Where does personal responsibility lie in all of this?
EJ: I find this argument is often made by people who have no idea what is going on in these communities. There is no question among experts that drug policies are racially biased. The film shows the impact of this. What you see are large numbers of community members being sent to prison, and then returning to the same conditions. The impact of this on both individuals and a small number of communities has been dramatic. The truth of the matter is that for several decades we have been waging an extremely expensive and detrimental 'war' against just a few communities in America. This war has made it impossible for people to break the generational cycle of violence and drugs. Sure, there are always a few people that do; but there are too many in the community suffering that have no true safety net. We need to be fair to the people who are in this situation. Constantly policing and incarcerating them is not being fair. .
TCR: Do you think the American public really cares?
EJ: If you read mass media you would think not. The sound bite is driven by a lot of talking heads and politicians. But I think that if you told people what was really happening, they would want to do something to stop this.
TCR: What was the biggest surprise you discovered about the war on drugs?
EJ: I never expected to find so many people working within the system who were reformers. One of the smartest people I spoke to during the course of the movie was the security chief of Oklahoma prisons. Although he was working for corrections, he had a deep and profound understanding of the toll taken by the drug war. I found this same understanding among many cops, judges and correction officials I interviewed while making this film. The insiders know better than anyone that the drug war is one big colossal failure. We have spent more money on trying to eradicate drugs than on education and housing combined, and in the meantime created a prison industrial complex that incarcerates 2.3 million people—more than anywhere else in the world. Yet, drugs are cheaper, more widespread, and easier to get hold of than ever before. If Americans ever decide they should care about reforming the drugs they are in very good company.
TCR: In your film you present the drug war as a huge unstoppable machine. Do you see that changing?
EJ: I think there is a shift. It is politically safer to be smart on crime and modify drug laws than it was a handful of years ago. States are starting to accept that they can save their money by investing in treatment rather than sending people to jail. In the 1970s, Nixon spent two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment and only a third on law enforcement. Now we spend most of our money on law enforcement and incarceration instead of treatment. I think we could reverse that equation.
TCR: What role does money play in the war on drugs?
EJ: Any type of war breeds corruption up and down the food chain. For example, mass incarceration is now a (profitable) industry. Everyone gets piece of action, from making the uniforms to feeding the inmates. Employees don't want to bite the hand that feeds them. They need the drug industry to feed their families.
So up and down there is profiteering—all kinds of horse trading and handshaking. It affects everyone down to the police. There's an incentive to do more and more drug arrests to fill the jails. It can take a year to solve a murder or a robbery but drug (buy and bust) arrests are quick and easy. Cops can do 40-60 arrests (for possession) in one month, while the real violent criminals remain on the street. And who is more likely to get a promotion—the cop who makes 40 arrests a month or the cop who makes one? We are promoting a generation of cops who are into the quick fix.
TCR: Do you think the criminal justice system can change?
EJ: Listen, we have a criminal justice system that is robust and time proven. But it is drowning under layers of disgraceful rhetoric and corrupt narcotics-driven policy making. Without the drug war prisons would look completely different. Between a quarter and a third of prison inmates are in there for drug crimes. We would have a system that would resemble our democratic partners. But change has to come from politicians willing to be smart on crime not tough on crime. And they need a public willing to support that.
TCR: Do you think a film can change minds?
EJ: The movie is getting a wide release in October. And we are also going to show the film in communities that have a stake in the drug war to help encourage dialogue. The wider our reach, the more likely we can (change policies). Public engagement is key. Getting people interested and involved can change a lot of things. Public rejection of the rhetoric on the war on drugs will be a start.
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.