The House We All Live In
(page 2)Afterwards, as everyone begins to file out, two prisoners make a point of telling me they took offense at being labeled this way: "I don't like that part; I'm not poor," complains one middle-aged man, who concedes the wider point that "90% of the people in here are poor." When I put this to Jarecki later, he says, "I've never felt a bad reaction to that before. I feel like I need to tell them that I'm not poor when I say it, so they don't feel bullshitted. They should be angry—though not at me. Nobody likes to identify themselves as poor, but to make the point that the poor are being targeted by the system, I have to take the risk that somebody may be offended."
Most of the prisoners react more positively. Sam Mazatio, 32, from the Bronx, likes the points the movie makes about the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity—which used to be set at a 100-1 ratio and has now been "reformed" to 18-1. He's currently serving 45 days for crack possession: "I got lucky," he says. "They downgraded my charge." He calls the film "beautiful" and name-checks Julie Stewart, the founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, for a contribution that "really broke it down."
"We need to convince the American people out of the dogma. It comes down to a bit of a word game. The word 'legalization' scares Americans—they think of Night of the Living Dead, zombies on every corner..."
Thomas Hartmann, a 43-year-old man on crutches, is near the end of a six-month sentence for assault. He praises the film's treatment of the origins of America's opium, marijuana and cocaine prohibitions as ways of targeting Chinese, Mexican and African American populations respectively: "I wonder if [alcohol] Prohibition was because of the Irish?" David Ekukupe from the Bronx adds, "I like that the movie reached out to every crowd; it speaks to everyone." Serving a sentence for robbery, he's 18 and looks it.
Jarecki has mixed feelings as we drive away: frustration that his film had to be cut off, but conviction that the audience still gained from it. He may be appalled by an "obscene" system that locks up 500,000 nonviolent drug offenders among 2.3 million people in total—making Americans less likely to be at liberty than the citizens of any other country on earth—but he doesn't blame the people who work in prisons. "There are knuckle-dragging neanderthals in every field, certainly in corrections," he says. "But that's not the headline for me." Instead he's heard corrections staff all over the country telling him that they don't like the system, that it isn't working. "But there is this attitude of, 'What can I do about it? This is my job.' It's a very 'aww shucks' American spirit."
Such encounters leave him optimistic that the war on drugs will end—eventually. "When you have this big a loser on your hands, it's hard to stand by it. Politicians used to run on it; now they won't even mention it...But you have to force politicians to be compelled to comment." He implores Obama not to derail states' progress towards better drug laws; the President apparently has a copy of The House I Live In and is due to watch it.
So how should we go about reform? "Portugal is a big help to us," says Jarecki, citing that country's example of decriminalizing all drugs, treating their use as a health issue rather than a criminal one, and cutting rates of addiction and HIV in the process. Does he prefer to push Portuguese-style decriminalization then, rather than the kind of full legalization that would see street drugs sold in pharmacies? He makes a face. "We need incremental efforts to convince the American people out of the dogma, the Kool-Aid they drank in the Reagan era. It comes down to a bit of a word game. The word 'legalization' scares Americans—they think of Night of the Living Dead, zombies on every corner...The alternative is just to take drugs out of the criminal system."
He seizes on a word that he thinks can be a game-changer: "'Regulation' is the smartest of all—legalization with a reminder to the public that the government is staying involved." It's illegal for a child to consume alcohol, he elaborates, and while it's legal for adults to drink, committing crimes while under the influence means that the law views you as additionally culpable. Equivalent safeguards, presented in the right way, could offer reassurance on other drugs. "Let's take what we do with alcohol," he says, "and devote a fraction of the [tax] proceeds to developing a robust treatment system."
Jarecki sees advocacy as his primary mission: "I only make films so I can get on John Stewart and talk common sense for five minutes." He talks of the publicity boost that Brad Pitt gave The House I Live In by coming on board as an executive producer (and chuckles about a National Enquirer story last month that claimed Pitt's attendance at a screening was linked to the imminent demise of "Brangelina.")
Ralph Nader once told Jarecki that he made great films but didn't necessarily "deploy" them very well; he took that to heart. As well as those campaigns in California, Washington and Colorado, this film is being used in aid of causes such as ending stop-and-frisk in New York. ("White people must have more complicated pocket systems or something," quips Jarecki of cops' racially-distorted drug seizures.) Many more screenings are planned around the country; you can find out about them at the movie's website.
Jarecki will need all of his obvious determination: Lawmakers in the US and elsewhere are gradually recognizing the need for change, but progress often seems agonizingly slow—and that's to those of us who aren't languishing in jail. He relates a Japanese parable that he says sustains him. It's about a boy throwing pebbles into a lake. The boy sees ripples each time, but then nothing more. He expresses to his grandfather his disappointment that nothing changes. But the level of the lake rises, his grandfather points out, even if you can't see it: "But still it rises."
"That phrase might as well be tattooed on my brain," says Jarecki.
Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix.