The brutal documentary, “The House I Live In,” played in Sykes Theatre on Thursday, April 7 as a part of West Chester University’s “Film for Thought” series.
The film that exposes the problematic nature of America’s “war on drugs” was organized by the Student Activities Council. Directed by Eugene Jarecki, well-known for his documentary, “Freakonomics,” this film delivers a powerful punch as it dissects the disturbing factors affecting the U.S. criminal justice system.
Jarecki interviewed criminals, lawmakers, prisoners, police officers, journalists, and experts of various fields to cover all angles of the massive issue. While the United States holds only five percent of the world population, the film explains, it also holds 25 percent of its prisoners.
Of these prisoners, over half a million are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes. More troubling still, while African-Americans make up 13 percent of crack users in the U.S., and only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are 90 percent of the crack-cocaine defendants in the U.S. federal system.
“There are more African-Americans under correctional control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War,” said Michelle Alexander, activist and author of “The New Jim Crow.”
Mark Bennett, Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, agreed that there is “no question that the criminal laws impact disproportionately on poor minorities.”
The film suggests that the broken system began long ago, when Jim Crow laws took effect in the north after the Great Migration, segregating African-Americans into areas now known as ghettos.
David Simon, journalist and creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” said that the Federal Housing Administration is more responsible for the creation of the ghettos than any other federal program, for its exclusion of the black population when pushing for a culture of home ownership that excluded African Americans.
“They put them in areas that were maybe a little bit economically depressed and subject to high renter-ship, and then red-lined those areas, and they would not write F.H.A. mortgages in those neighborhoods,” Simon said.
When factory jobs began moving away from urban areas, this left high concentrations of black people few options for work.
Simon reasoned that to “go down to a drug corner in the inner-city is the rational act of somebody going to work for the only company that exists in a company town.”
And increasingly in the U.S., “company” towns don’t just revolve around the drug industry, but the prison industry as well. Eric Franklin, warden of Lexington Correctional Center, told Jarecki that the Lexington prison is the largest employer in Cleveland County, Okla.
“If you take out our prison,” he explained, “the towns would just dry up.”
The rise of private prisons have paved the way for an array of corporations which profit on mass incarceration.
The film poses the concern that perhaps the drug war has not failed after all, but instead succeeded under different terms, based on ulterior motives.
With both political and economic reasons to persist in a seemingly broken system, Simon argued that “there will never emerge a shred of leadership that will change the situation. It’s up to us.”
TheHouseILiveIn.org offers both more information about this modern social injustice and ways in which you can get involved.
The next installment of WCU’s “Film for Thought,” series will air “The Year We Thought About Love,” in Sykes Theatre at 7:30 p.m., a documentary about Boston’s True Colors: Out Youth Theatre.
These illuminating films raise awareness about various issues in American culture and offer a chance for us to hear voices that often go unheard.
Etta Griffin is a fourth-year student majoring in English writings with a minor in journalism. They can be contacted at EG826453@wcupa.edu