When I was in the fifth grade, I joined a student group organized by our school guidance counselor. We called ourselves the Peacemakers. No, we weren’t rallying for peace in the Middle East or an end to apartheid in South Africa. The aim of our activities was to promote a three-word slogan coined by former First Lady Nancy Reagan: “Just Say No!”
Little did I know that my school’s efforts to keep us drug-free were part of a national campaign, one that began long before I was born. This was the War on Drugs, a battle that has cost our country $1 trillion and led to 45 million arrests over the past 40 years. Its consequences are the subject of Eugene Jarecki’s searing documentary The House I Live In. Interweaving the stories of prison guards, narcotics officers, judges, investigative reporters, drug offenders, and their families, Jarecki shows how the War on Drugs has led to a policy of mass incarceration.
The United States now has the largest prison population in the world, which includes 500,000 inmates who have committed nonviolent crimes. African Americans are disproportionately represented—and Jarecki contends that this has been largely due to deliberate targeting. Fear and prejudice, he argues, have long contributed to the jailing of minorities for drug crimes.
The film incorporates a great deal of history and statistics, but by far the most powerful scenes are the testimonies of the Drug War’s victims. We hear from Jarecki’s childhood housekeeper, Nannie Jeter, whose son became addicted to intravenous drugs and later died of AIDS. We see a man serving a life sentence for possession of methamphetamine—and his mother, who hopes she’ll live long enough to see the law change. We see a young man who grew up in a community where the drug dealers—not the college grads—were the heroes. Is it any wonder, then, that he viewed drugs as a way out of poverty, just as his father had? We see babies who only know their parents from pictures.
It’s clear that Jarecki believes drug use is a symptom of marginalization, not the cause. But a serious discussion of addiction is noticeably absent from the film. We see how incarceration has wreaked havoc on families and communities—yet the film fails to emphasize that drugs cause harm in and of themselves. Even if the threat of incarceration were removed, people like Nannie Jeter’s son would still meet the same fate. In the U.S., drug deaths now exceed traffic fatalities, claiming 37,000 lives per year or one life every fourteen minutes; the death toll has doubled over the past decade.
The tragedy is that far too many nonviolent drug offenders who struggle with addiction enter the prison system, rather than treatment. We’re funding jails at the expense of essential care. As a result, many substance abusers don’t get help and continue to put their lives—and the lives of others—at risk.
To fix the system, “Just Say No!” just won’t cut it. Jarecki correctly asserts that we’ll need to dismantle the infrastructure that has made prison a big business—from law enforcement officials who see their take-home pay increase every time they nab a drug dealer, to companies that manufacture stun guns. Most importantly, we as a nation must acknowledge that addiction is a public health issue, not a solely a criminal justice issue. Until we do, families like Nannie Jeter’s will continue to suffer. “All I know is,” she says in one of the film’s most poignant moments, “I miss my son.”
Blog Editor, Phoenix House