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.
Once home to a single jail opened in 1932, Rikers’s population exploded in the ensuing decades; brick-and-mortar penitentiaries were followed by trailers, modular units and other hasty additions. “The island has been consumed by the seemingly endless demand for jail space,” New York magazine reported in 1994, when the Rikers inmate population was teetering close to 16,000 and violence had reached crisis levels. While there are fewer prisoners there today—thanks in part to the rollback of New York’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws—the island is still often referred to as the world’s largest penal colony, comprising ten different facilities, multiple gymnasiums, sports fields and more. (A floating prison, the Vernon C. Bain jail barge, houses Rikers overflow, some 800 additional prisoners.)
“We’re sitting here outside of a makeshift thing,” Jarecki muses as we sit in a van with bars on the windows, waiting to be taken over the bridge from Queens. “They never imagined that this would become a way of life in America.”
The challenges of screening in prisons and jails can be considerable; members of Jarecki’s team spend hours on the logistics. Asked why he’s made this his mission—he plans to visit 100 in 2013—Jarecki describes being haunted by something Ralph Nader told him after he made Why We Fight, a film about the Iraq War. “He said, ‘You make a very good movie. I don’t know that you deploy it very well.’ ” It was that word, “deploy,” that stuck with him. Having filmed in a federal prison in Oklahoma, Jarecki first decided to show the finished product there, out of a sense of obligation. “I owe it to those prisoners,” he remembers thinking. But later he realized that inmates and their families would be central to spreading the message of the film to those most directly impacted by the drug war. To that end, all in attendance will receive postcards with contact information for Charlotte Street Films in case they want to follow up.
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The van drops us off at the Eric M. Taylor Center, home to teenage and adult prisoners, all of who have been sentenced to a year or less of jail time. (This is a small portion of Rickers inmates, about 18 percent. The rest are awaiting trial and will eventually be shipped elsewhere.) A Christmas tree stands at the entrance and on the wall across from the metal detector is a poster for a Winter White Holiday Celebration, hosted by the DOC (“The Bravest”) in Long Island City.
The screening is held in a gym, whose door is marked by a hand-painted basketball hoop and the words “Old Gymnasium.” Inside, the walls are adorned with murals painted by incarcerated youth—blue and purple acrylic images of bald eagles and the like, accompanied by uplifting words like “Grace” and “Inner Balance.” Rows of plastic chairs are set up for some 120 prisoners.
Linda Eaddy, director of community partnerships, tells us the audience will be “adolescents”—prisoners between 16 and 18 years old. (“Did you know that when you’re 19 years old, you’re an old-timer around here?” she says, raising her eyebrows.) But the first group arrives walking with canes, followed by another group of clearly older inmates. They all wear green jumpsuits; when the teenagers arrive, they wear dull beige-and-black sneakers. The vast majority have black or brown skin.
Eaddy has worked at Rikers for more than twenty-five years. For eleven she was a substance abuse counselor. “It’s one of the main issues that brings people to jail,” she says. Asked for her impressions of the sentencing policies that drive this, she demurs. “I have no opinion on what the justice system decides. Whatever they say is appropriate is appropriate. My job is to house them.”
Jarecki kicks off the screening by introducing himself and asking, “How many of you are here on drug charges?” Surprisingly, only a small handful of men raise their hands. Asked how many are there on “drug-related” charges, a couple more go up. (“Gun charges!” one prisoner calls out.) As the murmurs die down, the film begins, its opening minutes reflecting on Jarecki’s family background. His parents, Jews fleeing the Holocaust and the pogroms in Russia, instilled values born of persecution and injustice. “As children,” Jarecki narrates, “my brothers and I were taught that we were the lucky ones who made it out, but with that luck came a responsibility. ‘Never again’ didn’t just mean that people like us shouldn’t suffer; it meant others shouldn’t suffer either.”
The men fidget, whisper, study the postcards they’ve been given (“40 YEARS $1 TRILLION 45 MILLION ARRESTS: THIS IS THE WAR ON DRUGS”). When the film introduces Nanny Jetter, the African-American woman who cared for Jarecki when he was little, and who lost a son to heroin, the room grows quieter.
Jarecki interweaves this personal story with that of other African-American families caught up in the drug war, while also providing the perspectives of those paid to wage it—from cops to judges to prison guards. The portrait that emerges is not just one of a grim criminal justice failure, it is of an insidious system of racial control.
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.”)
Out of time, Jarecki says goodbye, and Eaddy takes the mic. “I really hope that you got something out of this film,” she says to the men. “All of you, this is your life. I hope it made you think.” Then she adds, “With that, officers, they’re yours.”
The older prisoners file out while the younger ones stack chairs. The few men I have time to speak to have pled guilty to nonviolent drug charges. Sam Mazatio, 32, is at Rikers for the second time, on petty larceny and cocaine possession. He’s getting out in five days and aspires to write an autobiography about life in the Bronx, which he tells Jarecki about. Another prisoner, Quinn Torres says he is grateful for the film. “I related to it,” says, telling me his father, like Nanny Jetter’s son, died of AIDS.
“I dropped out of school at 15,” Torres says, explaining that he aspired to be like his father and uncle, who were both hustlers. Torres was arrested for selling pills—oxycodone and xanax—to an undercover cop in Spanish Harlem. That was just over two weeks ago; he says he’ll be out in six months. It’s his sixth time at Rikers; at one point he was locked up at the same time as one of his kids. “You don’t know how bad I felt.”
Torres says he’s tried to take legitimate jobs—cooking, cleaning—but that the search is not easy. “You fill out the application and the first thing they ask you is if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime.” I ask him about the small number of hands that went up when Jarecki asked about drug charges. “Some people are in denial,” he says. “Most people here are on drug charges.” He says if they had to answer the same question after seeing the film, more hands would go up. “They’d be able to relate to it more.”
Leaving the jail and climbing back into the van, Jarecki is gratified by the inmates’ response but upset that the film was cut short. “This is the reality of prison life. Everything is frustration.” He won’t have time to dwell. A screening is planned for Riverside Church the next night; there are upcoming screenings planned for nine facilities in LA County, as well as San Quentin, and Angola in Louisiana. Someone suggests showing the film to prison guards and Jarecki likes the idea, jots it down. “When you see the staff, they’re all poor and working people.”
Leaving Rikers, Jarecki thinks out loud about how he might avoid such snafus down the line. “We may say to people, ‘What time is count?’ ” There’s also a shorter cut of the film, but he doesn’t like volunteering that to the prisons. “I wouldn’t have made the movie without the parts they don’t see.”
As we drive back to Manhattan, Jarecki discusses how moviegoing has changed, the fact that more people are watching documentaries at home, on their computers. “The benefit is that they watch it on the same machine on which they connect to their social media community.” On the other hand, he says, there’s never been “a revolution based on mouse clicks.”
As we sit in downtown traffic, SoHo’s holiday shop windows look foreign, like they exist in an alternate reality. It’s not unlike walking back out onto any bustling city street after seeing a film that makes visible the country’s 2.3 million prisoners. The documentary is a work of art, but the world outside it feels less real than the dark universe it illuminates. On that level, Jarecki’s road from film festivals to prisons makes sense.
“I first went [to screen in prisons] for a sense of wholenesss,” Jarecki says. “Then, when I got in there, the prisoners asked me, ‘What should I do?’ ” It’s a question any viewer might ask.
There’s no easy answer, of course. But as Jarecki told one man at Rikers, “You need to be a voice for greater fairness…We have far too little compassion.”
Go here to watch a Nation interview with Eugene Jarecki.