Challenging The War on Drugs in “The House I Live In”
A big shout out of thanks to the folks at Stop the Violence BC who drew my attention to a film that will be screened several times in Vancouver starting tonight. The House I Live In documents the United States’ 40 year “War on Drugs,” and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
In an interview with CBS news, director Eugene Jarecki stated “The war on drugs is war on people- African American people.” He says it’s a war rife with inherent racism and that the prison system is an “industrial complex.” Consider his first point. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, African Americans are jailed at almost six times the rate of whites. While five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, it’s African Americans who are sent to prison for drug offenses.
The US isn’t the only country with issues of racism within the justice system. Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Canadian correctional institutes. Aboriginal people are 4% of the general population yet make up 20% of the federal prison population. For federal women prisoners, the numbers are worse- 32% of those incarcerated are of Aboriginal heritage. And almost half of female youth in custody (44%) are Aboriginal.
In her report Marginalized: The Aboriginal Women’s Experience in Federal Corrections, lawyer Mandy Wesley reminds us of the social and cultural realities that put Aboriginal girls and women in positions where their strength is compromised.
“The story of how so many Aboriginal women came to be locked up within federal penitentiaries is a story filled with a long history of dislocation and isolation, racism, brutal violence as well as enduring a constant state of poverty beyond poor.”
A report from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in 2009 detailed the relationships between the residential school legacy, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug use, HIV risks and incarceration. Critics of Canada’s own war on drugs say that Aboriginal people will certainly be the victims, as well as those with mental health issues. A report released this week says the Ontario jury system “fails Aboriginals” as they are so unlikely to see their peers on a jury. The study’s author, Frank Iacobucci (a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada) emphasized “Peoples’ lives and liberty are at stake in this whole issue.”
As part of the community urging people to see The House I Live In, Dr Ruth Elwood Martin says,
“Not only does the “War on Drugs” result in higher incarceration rates, it also contributes to the transmission of HIV and Hep C because of a lack of community-equivalent harm reduction programs inside prisons.”
Disrupting racism and other established inequities in correctional settings could be difficult for many reasons. After watching the trailer of The House I Live In, I expect the film will mention the economic benefits of the war on drugs. The War on Drugs means the prison population and its management needs are growing.
“Today, there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970… The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.”
Given these numbers you can see why Jarecki calls it an industry.
Jarecki’s position is that the war on drugs isn’t producing any winners. Many agree. Here at PWN we see a number of things that contribute to drug use, addictions, and relying on the drug trade. These social determinants of health include poverty, literacy and education issues, racism, gender inequities and stigma. For many women there are also the experiences of sexual and physical violence that is historical, ongoing or both.
Nevertheless, many policy and law makers say it’s a legal and moral issue. They take the position that if people can’t “Just say no” as Nancy Reagan suggested, jail is the solution. Jarecki says “Drugs are a health problem, not a matter for criminal justice.” I’m looking forward to hearing more of what he says, and I’m going to the film tonight. See you at the movies.
Photo: The House I Live In