On a rainy Friday in December, Eugene Jarecki took a small group of fellow filmmakers to a special screening of his acclaimed documentary, The House I Live In, in New York City. The film, a powerful indictment of the war on drugs, enjoys such celebrity producers as Brad Pitt and John Legend, and won the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize in 2012. But the venue that day was a far cry from the glittering scene in Park City, Utah. That morning, Jarecki and his crew left the SoHo headquarters of Charlotte Street Films and made their way north, toward Rikers Island, New York’s largest jail.
Sitting on the East River, just a stone’s throw from La Guardia Airport, Rikers is a monument to the drug war; of more than 12,000 inmates living there on a given day, some 75 percent have “some substance abuse problem,” according to the city Department of Corrections. Many are detainees who can’t afford bail and about a third have been diagnosed with mental illness. In response to rising violence, ostensibly because of a shortage of punitive “segregation beds,” the DOC is expanding its use of solitary confinement on the island……
There are stirs of recognition from the audience—scoffs when Richard Nixon and George (H.W.) Bush appear onscreen, some audible enthusiasm at New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and The Wire creator David Simon. Though there’s a lot to relate to—footage of law enforcement profiling black men is all too familiar—other moments are met with surprise. When the film introduces a white man serving a life sentence on meth charges, a number of prisoners gasp.
To Jarecki’s chagrin, the screening must be cut short, so that prisoners can return to their cells for “count.” But even the truncated Q&A gives them a chance to share their thoughts. “I don’t believe there’s a war on drugs,” one inmate says, arguing that the drug supply is as steady as ever. “I believe there’s a war on low-income communities. That’s my personal opinion.” A second responds. “If we don’t have a ‘war on drugs,’ we definitely have victims.” Another prisoner says he recognizes the housing project depicted in the film, Cromwell Towers. “We used to go to Yonkers to give away crack for sexual favors.”
The discussion is rushed but revealing; an inmate suggests that the drug war, like 9/11, is a “false flag operation.” Another says that winning the drug war will happen only if manufacturing comes back to the United States. Another, drawing on Michelle Alexander, asks what the difference is between today’s drug war and “the old Jim Crow.” When Jarecki observes that the vast majority of prisoners in the room are black, an inmate says this is because “when they send the squad cars out they send them to those houses. They don’t send them to white houses.” (“I live in a white area,” Jarecki half-jokes in response, “I can’t even find a cop when I need one.”)