The House I Live In
At Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, realartways.org, from Friday, March 15 through Thursday, March 21.
Eugene Jarecki's wrenching documentary on our failed national War on Drugs, "The House I Live In," in some senses had its roots in his childhood experience in Connecticut.
The film, which is being shown for a week at Real Art Ways in Hartford beginning Friday, attempts to cover everything from the peculiar history of American drug laws to the tragic impact they have had on American society.
Jarecki describes attempting to reconnect with an African-American woman named Nanny Jeter, who became his "second mother" while the Jareckis were living in New Haven. While his affluent, white, Jewish family followed one path, Ms. Jeter's children and grandchildren (Jarecki's "playmates growing up") went on a very different journey.
"I saw many of them struggling with poverty, joblessness, crime and worse," Jarecki says.
And it was discovering how drugs had so terribly damaged Ms. Jeter's family that set Jarecki off on his quest to find out what had gone wrong with America's efforts to deal with drug abuse.
Many of the statistics cited by the experts he interviews for the film are stunning:
-The United States, with five percent of the world's population, now has 25 percent of all its prison inmates.
-Since 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon formally declared the War on Drugs, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion and made more than 45 million drug arrests.
-There are now more African-Americans either in prison on drug-related offenses or on probation or parole, than there were slaves in 1850s America.
"The House I Live In" (the title is from a song made famous by Paul Robeson) makes no attempt at neutrality. Its central message is how badly this four-decade-old effort against illegal drugs has failed and why it persists.
The culprits, as identified by Jarecki and his variety of sources, involve political and cultural fear and a law-enforcement-and-prison industrial complex that now provides its own economic momentum against major reform.
What many viewers are likely to find remarkable are the comments from narcotics cops in Providence, R.I., prison guards in Oklahoma, a rural sheriff in New Mexico, and a federal judge. All reveal their frustration with an existing system that seems to allow no victories for anyone.
Judges and prosecutors say minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders have left no room for rational responses to the problems of drug addiction and poverty that are driving most drug abuse among minorities.
Law enforcement and prison officials admit this isn't a problem that can be solved by throwing millions of people in jail and keeping them there for longer and longer periods.
And the human cost, say experts like David Simon (a longtime crime reporter and creator of "The Wire") is akin to "a holocaust in slow motion" for inner-city African-Americans.
"What drugs haven't destroyed," Simon says at one point, "the War on Drugs has."
An Oklahoma prison warden warns that the increasingly harsh punishments being handed out to the non-violent drug offenders filling our prisons bear little relation to their danger to society. "It's like they're paying for our fear rather than for their crimes," he says.
Part of the reason Jarecki's film is so powerful is that he's able to show how the drug culture — fostered in part by the War on Drugs itself — has destroyed generation after generation of African-American families.
Some of his most powerful and poignant scenes are those with Nanny Jeter as she describes what drugs have done to her family, including taking the life of her son James.
Connecticut and other states have already begun efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders being sent to prison. Jarecki concludes his film by noting some recent indications that public policy can be changed, such as the recent congressional approval of lessening ridiculously harsh penalties for crack cocaine.
Former state Rep. Bill Dyson of New Haven is an African-American politician who has for years been pushing for reform in sentencing laws and programs to help nonviolent offenders avoid the endless cycle of prison and crime. He feels The House I Live In is drawing attention to this issue at a critical time.
Dyson says one aspect of Jarecki's film shows how the War on Drugs "became an issue one could win elections on," with the result that political support has continued in the face of long-term failure.
"It's been devastating in the lives of people, in the opportunities missed… in the impact it's had on our communities," Dyson says. But, like the film, Dyson believes "there's been a glimmer of hope lingering out there for a while."
He says the need now is to "continue to focus attention on the issue" so that the campaign for reform doesn't falter.
Perhaps if more pro-War on Drugs politicians sat down and watched The House I Live In, they might find a bit more courage to declare an armistice.
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