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The House I Live In
by George Sax
Hard time, in and out of prison
The House I Live In
Kevin Ott had already been imprisoned for 14 years of his life sentence when Eugene Jarecki visited him while making his hard-hitting documentary The House I Live In. That sentence was imposed for the sale of three ounces of methamphetamine, an amount that would easily fit into a small envelope. Ott had been guilty of two prior relatively low-level felony convictions, and his drastic sentence was indicated by sentencing guidelines. His only way out will be death, or perhaps improbable executive commutation. This “three strikes, you’re out” criminal justice regime was triumphantly acclaimed by President Bill Clinton, as Jarecki shows us. Clinton presumably never met Ott’s grieving mother, who has lost another child in an auto accident, but we do in this movie.
Jarecki makes clear that this result is far from unusual in the United States criminal justice system. And he points toward a sort of demographic and historical irony. For decades anti-drug laws and their enforcement heavily targeted feared and disdained racial minorities, in the post-war period primarily blacks. But Ott is from the deprived white working class of the country’s Midwest, a sector beset by epidemic levels of meth sales, use and addiction. As Harvard law professor Charles Ogeltree tells the filmmaker, the mailed fist of anti-drug policy wasn’t supposed to fall on whites. But this is not poetic justice. There is little or no justice for anyone in the courts and prisons, and in the communities that have been cruelly impacted by the war on drugs, Jarecki argues. Not that there aren’t those who have benefitted from this “war.” Significant segments of the US economy have come to depend on its prosecution, and they, in turn lobby for its continuation.
Jarecki’s critique has several related thrusts:
• The drugs were importantly racist in their origins over a century ago.
• They aren’t by any means the only cause for the devastation of so many American cities, but they’ve significantly exacerbated this decline.
• They’ve largely been unsuccessful by any rational cost-benefit analysis, as well as ethically deficient.
None of this is a new complaint—all have been voiced for decades but Jarecki’s movie lends them a new power. His approach is methodical but emotionally telling. Early on, he signals that these drug policies have had an effect on his family he hadn’t perceived before he made this movie. A privileged white boy in Connecticut, he often was cared for by an African American family employee named Nanny. Only recently did he realize the extent of her grievous loss as a combined result of her employment and the proliferation of illegal drugs.
One of his most bitterly articulate “witnesses” is David Simon, for 10 years a Baltimore news reporter and later the writer-creator of the police and street TV drama series The Wire. “If you stand in a federal court,” he tells Jarecki, “you’re watching poor, uneducated people being fed into a machine.” Until the 1960s, he says, drug commerce in American urban ghettos was a low-key, small-scale industry. By the 1980s, it had become “a mass market…It’s a drive-thru window like McDonald’s.” And rampant on the inner city streets where it’s often easy prey for police departments, which profit from large numbers of low-level busts.
But, Jarecki contends, the country’s fight against drugs didn’t begin in black neighborhoods. It started early in the last century as an attempt to control enclaves of Chinese, and later Hispanics, on the West Coast. Eventually, blacks became the major focus of policing. In degraded black urban districts the number of young men is significantly reduced by imprisonment or drug-related murder. Blacks are grossly over-represented in prison populations and parole status.
This situation has been greatly increased by the draconian sentences mandated by Congress and state legislatures. The movie visits a federal judge in northern Iowa who tries to spare a young black male a 20-year sentence for a coke sale but can’t because of these sentencing minimums. “Do you know what it’s like,” Judge Mark Bennett asks rhetorically, “to go home at night and know you’ve done an injustice?”
It’s certainly possible to fault Jarecki for uninflected emphases, for not adequately addressing the effects of the 1980s coke epidemic in inner cities, for example. It’s much harder to dismiss the massive record of injustice and futility he identifies.
The House I Live In will be shown at the Hotel Lafayette at 6pm Thursday, with no admission charge. A panel discussion with public figures and experts from across the state will follow. On Friday, a free day-long series of panel discussions on American drug policies will be held at the Ramada Conference Center, 2402 North Forest Road, Getzville, starting at 8:30am. Visit www.drugpolicy.org to make reservations.
Watch the trailer for The House I Live In
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