America is the world's most prolific jailer, with 2.3 million people currently squished together in its disparate cans. A quarter of those prisoners are doing time for drug offences, many of them users or small-time street dealers. While the old argument that drug legalisation would save the government a lot of time and earn them a lot of tax money still holds up, there's something we may have missed. Namely that cramming prisons with human lives is a very potent method of profiteering.
After 40 years, a trillion dollars and 45 million arrests, America's War On Drugs has achieved basically nothing, besides the incarceration of a hugely disproportionate number of black people (which would be a weird thing to describe as an achievement, really, unless you're a racist idiot). What it has done, however is create a huge industry that allows big business to profit from the imprisonment of low-level criminals and vulnerable addicts.
If there's one man you want to speak to about this, it's Eugene Jarecki. The acclaimed director of Why We Fight, Freakonomics and Reagan's latest documentary – The House I Live In – deals with the corporate exploitation of the American prison system.
VICE: Hi Eugene. What made you want to make this film?
Eugene Jarecki: Growing up in the wake of the civil rights movement, I anticipated a sort of post-racial America, where black people would be afforded the same opportunities as white people. As I got older, I started to understand that there's an invisible force blocking black progress in America – a huge part of which is the phenomenon of mass incarceration. The more I looked into it, the more obvious it became that the War On Drugs had reinvented, in a way, the kind of obstacles black people had triumphed over in the civil rights movement.
Has it been like that from the start?
Well, we know enough about Richard Nixon – the man who launched the War On Drugs – to know that he was racist and privately held some rather strong sentiments regarding race. Dealing with drug addiction was clearly a good intention, but it became very clear, very early on that there were going to be massive racial implications. Maybe that wasn't what was intended, but since it became clear to Congress, they haven't done anything about it. They don't find anything wrong with the massive racial bias that's emerged out of the drug war.
Shanequa Rock, a drug dealer featured in Jarecki's film.
How exactly has America victimised racial groups by criminalising drugs in the past?
The first thing we saw were opium laws in the 1800s that targeted Chinese immigrants and made it easier to stop, search and arrest them, as well as stopping them from making more of a success of themselves. The next chapter was at the turn of the 20th century, when people were still uncomfortable about the newly-freed Afro-American population, so started associating them with cocaine. There were headlines saying, "Drug Crazed Negroes Siege Southern Town" and that kind of thing, and there was this national idea that a black man on cocaine would take on super strength and rape all the women in your family.
Right? The next thing we saw was Mexicans migrating into America, who we wanted to stop, search, seize and stigmatise, so we started calling hemp – which has been a beloved crop since the dawn of the republic – "marijuana", its Spanish name, which made it much easier to associate with Mexicans.
The War On Drugs has gradually built its own thriving economy as well, right?
Yeah. I went to a prison trade show where you could see the huge corporate interest invested in mass incarceration. From everyone making the best stun guns and restraint chairs to those selling Qurans and being paid to do the laundry. The list goes on and on, and you end up with a system that's designed to profit whichever company can get in with the local leadership. If I were to describe the situation to you without using the word "America", you'd have thought it was some far-away dictatorship that we'd soon plan to invade. But it's a legal form of corporate political corruption and has become the American way of life.
Mandatory minimum sentencing seems to be a kind of corrupt way of keeping non-violent drug offenders imprisoned for far longer than they should be.
Yeah, and judges have their hands tied with that. A federal judge in Iowa told me that if someone entered his courtroom on a drug charge of, say, five grams of crack, he's going to get a custodial sentence and the judge doesn't have the ability to change that. But if he walked in on a charge of 4.9 grams, the way the mandatory minimums are written, he wouldn't be getting jail time, he'd be walking. How can .1 gram make the difference between X amount of years and no years? How does that possibly make sense in making society better?
How does the system affect people who do get released from prison?
There’s a great old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford called "16 Tons", where he says, "If the left one doesn’t get you / then the right one will." If we miss you in one way in America, we get you in another. Even if we get you in one way, when you get out, we get you in a whole new way. We have a system that doesn't provide drug treatment and that means, even if your only offence is being caught with a little marijuana when you're 14 years old, you have to tick a box on job applications for the rest of your life. Your opportunities shrink and who will take you? The underground economies we've fostered by criminalising and therefore making a business of drugs, just like what happened with the prohibition.
Surely new drug laws target white people as well?
Somewhere in that prison trade show, there are people sitting round a table – like heads of any other industry do – discussing how they can grow profit on mass incarceration. They must have noticed at some point that the disproportionate targeting of black Americans was relegating their business to only a 14 percent share of all the potential clients in the United States.
A still from The House I Live In.
And they've done something about it?
Well, yeah – this sudden attention from law enforcement towards methamphetamine and other drugs, and the various demographic increases in incarceration figures, almost makes it look like the business itself decided to "diversify". We see growth in poor whites, women and Latinos, which suggests that the drug war is moving away from our long history of race relations in America and into something far more class-based.
So will the War On Drugs change now that white people are being targeted?
That relies on a dangerous assumption that power structures that incarcerate people for profit care any more about white people than they do black people. There's a small margin of preference there, sure, but those poor people are generally unwanted across the board. In my film, David Simon calls them "the extra Americans" – those we don't need any more because our factories are closed and we've shipped so many jobs overseas that these people have no function. So what do we do with them? Lock them up. And while locking them up, why not make a profit out of it?
Your film compares the War on Drugs to the Holocaust. How do they fare against each other?
The way that David Simon and the historian Richard Lawrence Miller talked about that idea in my film was extremely thorough and conscientious. They're not flat out saying the drug war is the same as the Holocaust, but David calls it "a holocaust in slow motion". It's identifying a group, ghettoising that group, confiscating their rights and concentrating them in prisons and exploiting them for financial gain. It's so disconcerting, and something that echoes throughout persecuted societies through history. But to think it's happening in America is mind-boggling.
You can watch The House I Live In as part of the Storyville archive on BBC iPlayer or buy it here.
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