Drugs. Bad, evil, society-destroying drugs. Of the many reactions we have on hearing about drug lords and drug czars, overdoses and crime waves, sympathy and empathy are often not part of them. The War on Drugs is an abstract concept, informed by movies like Traffic and Maria Full of Grace, more than the news or any observable impact on friends and family.
The House I Live In, a hard-hitting new documentary by Eugene Jarecki (the director of my favorite documentary till date, Why We Fight) will shatter everything you thought you knew about the War on Drugs. The stories of families across the country, including a poignant one about Jarecki’s nanny, reframe the issue as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice issue. The experts present stunning statistics about the havoc that the war on drugs has wrecked on society, particularly from the 1980s. And it will make you cry bloody murder at the fate of a generation of young individuals (mainly poor individuals, predominantly black) who have been subject to a jail-hungry government, wildly imbalanced sentencing laws and mass hysteria.
First, some statistics.[i]
- The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for a staggering 25% of the world’s jailed population.
- In 2009, in the U.S., nearly 1.7 million people were arrested on non-violent drug charges.
- African-Americans only account for 49% of crack users, and yet make up an overwhelming 90% of crack charges.
- As of 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated. At the current rate, one in three black males born today can expect to be jailed at some point in his lifestyle.
- It costs the State of Maryland $86,000 per year to house a juvenile detainee.[ii]
Pretty grim situation, isn’t it. So what do we do with this information? The film drives home the point that Washington is in no way capable of true leadership on this issues – there are too many financial incentives and electioneering pitfalls to look the other way. The only way this ship is going to turn around is citizen activism, plain and simple.
The positive news is that in 2012, citizen activism is easier than ever. There are a number of ways that folks can get involved, and you can start with looking at The House I Live In website. Other organizations:
The House I Live In, in combination with Waiting for “Superman” (another excellent, albeit controversial, documentary about pervasive challenges with public education in the U.S.), present a picture of the structural race-based and class-based discrimination affecting this country in aching detail. Hopefully, these films also raise the profile of those championing to make a change in society, and in turn, spark a nation-wide movement to reform the American criminal justice and education systems.
[ii] Safe and Sound, Baltimore