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Can One New Film Spread Drug War Outrage Across the Globe?

The climate is ripe for Eugene Jarecki's film 'The House I Live In,' a documentary exposing the truth behind the drug war.

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Jarecki’s camera gets in the car with the no-nonsense, all-business Shanequa Benitz as she drives around town making drug deals and delivering marijuana to a steady supply of customers. She’s good at her job and avoids arrest. Benitz struggles with the fact that her work is illegal but she has no other skills. She reasons, “I do what I do to survive.”

Mike Carpenter is the chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma. He represents the rural, law-and-order, white demographic that depends on the mass incarceration of urban blacks for employment. Currently, one in every eight state employees works for a corrections agency. Carpenter loves his job and seems to revel in the punishing world of prison. He says, “I think they should have written prison guard on my forehead when I was born because it just fits me." In one of the most depressing scenes that sums up the racism at the core of mass incarceration in America, Carpenter locks a black prisoner in his cell and with a smile closes the metal flap to the small glass window in the door, leaving the man in total sensory isolation. But later in the film Carpenter reveals a deep understanding of prison economics. He admits that putting people behinds bars for drug crimes doesn’t stop drug trafficking but it does make some people rich. His cynical and insightful commentary on corrections is full of contradictions. In the end, Carpenter tacitly acknowledges that what he does for a living is inhumane.  

Jarecki’s camera takes us into prisons all over the country. He was granted unprecedented access to areas of prison life that few filmmakers ever see. The images are haunting: men lifting their genitals for strip-search inspections; prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits, heads bowed, shuffling down concrete corridors chains rattling and shackled hand and foot; the echoes of metal doors slamming shut.

Another strength of the film is its indictment of both Republicans and Democrats. The war on drugs has always been bipartisan and in one clip we see Bill Clinton proclaiming to congressional cheers, “Three strikes and you're out!” President Clinton’s “tough on crime” legislation resulted in the largest increase in state and federal prison inmates of any president in American history. But the film doesn't target President Barack Obama, an unapologetic drug warrior. The president made numerous campaign promises to deprioritize arrests for marijuana, yet under his administration, legal medical marijuana dispensaries have been raided continuously and shut down by federal agents. Arrests for marijuana possession that disproportionately target black men continue, and Obama’s Justice Department opposes all ballot initiatives to legalize and regulate marijuana.

The House I live In is that rare documentary that connects many of the dots, with the glaring exception of one. The film doesn’t answer the urgent question of how to end the drug war. That answer is legalization, and treating drug addiction as a public health issue, not a crime. But as the film makes evident, if the war on drugs ends, the drug warriors will lose their power to scapegoat and punish poor black people, and the enormous amounts of money pouring into the prison industrial complex will cease.

David Simon, the creator of the HBO drama The Wire, provides prescient commentary throughout The House I Live In. He calls the war on drugs “a holocaust in slow motion." Anyone who sees this film will agree with him.

Helen Redmond is a freelance journalist and a drug and health policy analyst.