Documenting the Failed ‘War on Drugs’

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki explores the costs, humanitarian and financial, of incarcerating drug criminals.

Inmates' arms and hands are seen through barred doors on a cell block at Men's Central Jail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 19, 2004.
National Journal
Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic
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Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic
Dec. 28, 2012, 7:40 a.m.

The year began with a line that was as much a lam­ent­a­tion as it was an as­tute ob­ser­va­tion. “The scale and bru­tal­ity of our pris­ons are the mor­al scan­dal of Amer­ic­an life,” Adam Gopnik wrote in a trenchant es­say in the Jan. 30 is­sue of the New York­er. “How did we get here? How is it that our civil­iz­a­tion, which re­jects hanging and flog­ging and dis­em­bowel­ing, came to be­lieve that caging vast num­bers of people for dec­ades is an ac­cept­ably hu­mane con­di­tion?”

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The year ends with film­maker Eu­gene Jarecki tour­ing the coun­try — vis­it­ing pris­ons, pro­sec­utors’ con­fer­ences, schools — show­ing off his heart­break­ing doc­u­ment­ary, The House I Live In, an ac­claimed col­lec­tion of in­ter­lock­ing stor­ies about the mourn­ful hu­man im­pact of Amer­ica’s failed war on drugs. Did you know there is a man serving a life sen­tence in Ok­lahoma for “traf­fick­ing” three ounces of methamphet­am­ine? Did you know that the rise of privately-owned pris­ons means that there is now a dir­ect fin­an­cial in­cent­ive to in­car­cer­ate people?

The 11 months in between these two state­ments were ex­traordin­ar­ily fruit­ful ones in this area of law and justice. And al­most all of the change seemed to re­flect a grow­ing sense of un­ease, or even dis­gust, on the part of Amer­ica’s crim­in­al justice com­munity — law­yers, judges, politi­cians, pris­on of­fi­cials, etc. — a sense that the status quo is un­sus­tain­able, that Amer­ica can no longer af­ford, on either fin­an­cial or mor­al terms, to keep mil­lions of its cit­izens locked up. It’s too early to la­bel 2012 a turn­ing point in our war against the war on drugs. But it’s not to early to see a defin­it­ive trend in that dir­ec­tion.

In June, for ex­ample, in the case Dorsey v. United States, the U.S. Su­preme Court en­dorsed new fed­er­al sen­ten­cing rules that fi­nally re­duced the dis­par­ity in min­im­um sen­tences between crack and powder-co­caine of­fend­ers. In a 5-4 rul­ing, over the ob­jec­tions of the con­ser­vat­ive justices, the Court de­clared that the new, more le­ni­ent rules ap­plied to de­fend­ants who had com­mit­ted their crimes be­fore the 2010 law came in­to ef­fect but who were sen­tenced af­ter­ward. The ra­tio is still too high — 18-to-1, by con­gres­sion­al de­cree — but the 2010 law and the 2012 rul­ing were sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vances to­ward a just cause.

That same week in June, an im­port­ant new fed­er­al civil-rights law­suit was filed in Den­ver, al­leging the mis­treat­ment and ab­use of men­tally ill pris­on­ers at the na­tion’s most fam­ous pris­on, the ADX-Florence “Su­per­max” fa­cil­ity in Col­or­ado. The lit­ig­a­tion is still in its nas­cent stage, but the com­plaint high­lights some of what Gopnik and Jarecki each chron­icled. If the courts per­mit the case to pro­ceed to dis­cov­ery, and thus force the Bur­eau of Pris­ons to an­swer un­der oath for the con­duct of its pris­on of­fi­cials, Con­gress will have little choice but to in­ter­cede, the same way the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ul­ti­mately was pres­sured in­to do­ing something this year about ju­ven­ile rape in pris­on.

Then, in Novem­ber, voters in Cali­for­nia de­cided fi­nally to min­im­ize the ef­fects of its “three strikes” law — which is only par­tially re­spons­ible for the fact that the state’s pris­ons are so dan­ger­ously over­crowded that the fed­er­al courts have ordered the re­lease of thou­sands of pris­on­ers. Voters there also came close to gut­ting the state’s costly, in­ef­fect­ive, and un­fair death-pen­alty re­gime — nearly 6 mil­lion Cali­for­nia res­id­ents voted to end cap­it­al pun­ish­ment, an ex­traordin­ary out­pour­ing of sup­port for an idea which is grow­ing in pop­ular­ity all over the coun­try.

That same month, voters in Col­or­ado and Wash­ing­ton voted to leg­al­ize marijuana for re­cre­ation­al use, a dra­mat­ic break from both fed­er­al law and policy. Why didn’t the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion im­me­di­ately crack down? Why do con­ser­vat­ives like Pat Robertson want to re­duce the na­tion’s pris­on pop­u­la­tion by de­crim­in­al­iz­ing marijuana? As Robertson said in March, “Cali­for­nia is spend­ing more money on pris­ons than it spends on schools.” Last month, a fed­er­al judge in Iowa, Mark W. Ben­nett, who ap­peared in Jarecki’s film, wrote a poignant piece in The Na­tion. “If we don’t speak up, who will?” he asked.

To his im­mense cred­it, Jarecki is speak­ing up. He says his film is no ad­vocacy piece but rather a movie “driv­en by real people’s stor­ies.” But the ad­vocacy is there, in vir­tu­ally every scene. The “real people” Jarecki shows us are com­plex in­di­vidu­als, gen­er­at­ors of sym­pathy and em­pathy, out­rage and sor­row, some­times all at the same time. And in that sense, if no oth­er, they are power­ful tribunes for the mes­sage he seeks to send: Drug crime is caused by drug ad­dic­tion, drug ad­dic­tion is a pub­lic-health mat­ter, and all of us pay in one man­ner or an­oth­er for short-sighted policies that treat drug ab­use as a mat­ter for the crim­in­al courts.

Jarecki con­tends that the “war on drugs” is more war­like than any of us are will­ing to be­lieve and that it has been waged dis­pro­por­tion­ately for dec­ades on Amer­ica’s poor. If every law­yer, judge, cop, pris­on guard, politi­cian, poli­cy­maker, and eco­nom­ist in Amer­ica saw this film, few­er fam­il­ies might be dev­ast­ated by the “lock-em-up” ap­proach to the prob­lem. And few­er tax­pay­ers would have to foot the bill. Here is my in­ter­view with Jarecki, con­duc­ted by tele­phone on Dec. 23.

CO­HEN: Your work touched upon many dif­fer­ent com­pon­ents of the failed war on drugs. If you had to choose two sen­tences to de­scribe the film — two thes­is sen­tences — what would they be?

JARECKI: Well, you de­scribed it as a failed war on drugs and I’m de­lighted to hear you refer to it that way. If there are two sen­tences that my film wants to com­mu­nic­ate, it’s that the war on drugs has failed and must be thrown on the ash heap of his­tory as a kind of ac­ci­dent from which we must move on. The second sen­tence is that what was wrong with it from the start must be cor­rec­ted — namely, that it took a pub­lic health con­cern, drug ab­use, and treated it in­stead as a crim­in­al mat­ter, and by do­ing so has made an ex­plo­sion in our pris­on pop­u­la­tion of in­car­cer­at­ing the non­vi­ol­ent as through they were vi­ol­ent.

CO­HEN: The Holo­caust. You went there. Can you share a little bit of your think­ing in­to why you made that ana­logy to­ward the end of the film? I can ima­gine some folks, in­clud­ing people who gen­er­ally are sym­path­et­ic to the movie’s mes­sage, won’t quite get the com­par­is­ons. Have you re­ceived any blow­back?

JARECKI: Al­most none, and I think it’s be­cause the fram­ing of the mes­sage by Dav­id Si­mon, who cre­ated The Wire, and by Richard Lawrence Miller, the his­tor­i­an who drew his ana­logy from Raoul Hill­berg’s ana­lys­is of what went on in the Third Reich. All of them work with great sur­gery to en­sure that they are not mak­ing some kind of clumsy, ham-fis­ted ana­logy that blurs the dif­fer­ences between dis­crete ele­ments of his­tory. 

Any­one with a scalpel in­volved in that en­ter­prise will find that there are dis­com­fort­ing pat­terns that man­kind has en­gaged in, where we have seen groups per­se­cuted by the lar­ger so­ci­ety, of­ten pre­dic­ated on some habit of the theirs, or prac­tice of theirs, or cus­tom spe­cial to a group. As someone who comes out of the Holo­caust ex­per­i­ence, as the child of sur­viv­ors, I take any ana­logy of the Holo­caust with great ser­i­ous­ness. But if one is sur­gic­al and is learn­ing from that hor­ror that so im­pacted my fam­ily, then his­tory is fi­nally be­ing the edu­cat­or that it’s sup­posed to be.

CO­HEN: One of the most power­ful com­pon­ents of your film was the use of old foot­age to show just how bi­par­tis­an has been the zeal to wage this war on drugs. Did you go back to some of the politi­cians whose speeches you cited — like Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden or Bill Clin­ton — and ask them wheth­er and to what ex­tent their views have changed on the failed war on drugs?

JARECKI: No, we didn’t in the case of Bill Clin­ton and Joe Biden. We did in the case of cur­rent poli­cy­makers be­cause the film was not really design­ing it­self to give a plat­form for mea cul­pas or for ex­pres­sions of re­gret by former policy makers. My film is dom­in­ated, the screen time is dom­in­ated, by these in­di­vidu­al stor­ies of people whose lives are like dir­ectly touched by the war on drugs. It’s more a re­venge of the voice­less truth than it is a per­petu­ation of the top-down struc­ture.

CO­HEN: You talked to a fed­er­al judge and po­lice of­ficers and journ­al­ists and in­vest­ig­at­ors, and they all were very poignant, each in their own way. But there wasn’t a cur­rent pro­sec­utor of vic­tims’ rights voice, at least none that I can re­mem­ber. Were these people simply un­will­ing to in­volve them­selves in the pro­ject?

JARECKI: When we ap­proached people who were act­ive pro­sec­utors, they were a little bit more un­com­fort­able in ap­pear­ing. And I think the reas­on is that the war on drugs is very hard to de­fend these days. Its track re­cord of fail­ure is so vast, and so mani­fest, that you find great­er de­fens­ive­ness, great­er anxi­ety, about com­mu­nic­at­ing. 

But also, in­ter­est­ingly enough, I don’t see the pro­sec­utor as the vil­lain in the equa­tion. I think pro­sec­u­tions in Amer­ica are vil­lain­ous but I think it’s the laws as writ­ten by Con­gress, namely the man­dat­ory min­im­um sen­ten­cing laws, that have so warped the ad­min­is­tra­tion of justice in our courts. That overly em­power the pro­sec­utor and dis­em­power judges.

Amer­ic­ans al­ways like a good vil­lain, and one of the reas­ons they like it is that it makes the world safe for them to be apolit­ic­al. So I didn’t want to put pro­sec­utors on screen who might have come across as pro­voc­at­ive, tough-as-nails, tough on crime. Be­cause if there is a good vil­lain in the movie, then they can just blame that guy. 

CO­HEN: Along the same lines, I like the idea of trav­el­ing to pris­ons to share the film with in­mates and pris­on of­fi­cials. But what about the idea of tak­ing the film, and your mes­sage, to places of polit­ic­al power, like po­lice and pro­sec­utors’ con­fer­ences? Have you re­ceived any in­vit­a­tions to take your show in­to this hos­tile ter­rit­ory? 

JARECKI: We’ve done that. We have been at sev­er­al con­fer­ences with law en­force­ment people, we’ve been at con­fer­ences with DAs, con­fer­ences of sher­iffs, con­fer­ences of judges, con­fer­ences of de­fense law­yers. It’s a very fun­da­ment­al part of our plan, along­side what we do in pris­ons, churches, schools, and com­munity cen­ters, to people who are on the re­ceiv­ing end of the war on drugs power rather than the en­force­ment end. We show it to the power­ful and the power­less.

CO­HEN: And what has the re­ac­tion been when you’ve gone to a pro­sec­utors’ con­fer­ence?

JARECKI: We get a very good re­ac­tion. It’s about what they think about the most, so it’s about their world, and they cer­tainly have a great in­terest in that. I think they be­lieve that the people are treated with great fair­ness in the movie. All the char­ac­ters are very tex­tured people. You don’t have ca­ri­ca­tures walk­ing around; you don’t have a cop as a simplist­ic per­son made out to look like he’s a heart­less, tough mon­ster. And you don’t have drug deal­ers made out to be sav­age mon­sters who have only the worst in­terests of so­ci­ety at heart.

In gen­er­al, and from both ends of the spec­trum, what I al­ways find when I go out with a cam­era is how rich and tex­tured and majest­ic people are. And I cap­ture that on screen and that’s really what I do, my best con­tri­bu­tion.

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