PBS Airs Documentary on the Failed ‘War on Drugs’

The 32-year initiative hasn’t been successful, but it has destroyed millions of lives and contributed to a graying prison crisis

The House I Live In, winner of the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at Sundance last year, airs tonight (April 8, check local listings) on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series. It tells a complex, unsettling story, but its tagline reduces the problem to nine simple words: “The War on Drugs has never been about drugs.”
Written, directed and produced by Eugene Jarecki, an award-winning filmmaker (Reagan, Freakonomics, The Trials of Henry Kissinger) and executive-produced by Danny Glover, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons, the documentary is a gritty look at the frightening legacy of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs.
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Depressing Numbers
The statistics alone boggle the mind:

  • Over the past 40 years, the war on drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests and cost the United States more than $1 trillion.
  • Though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of its prisoners, and for longer sentences, giving us the dubious distinction of being the world's largest jailer. Today 1 of every 8 state employees works for a corrections agency.
  • The U.S. prison population has grown from just over 319,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.3 million today. To return to the nation’s incarceration rates of 1970, we would have to release four-fifths of all prisoners. 
  • Of the 1,841,182 arrests for drug law violations in 2007, 82.5 percent were for possession (overwhelmingly for marijuana), and only 17.5 percent were for sale or manufacture. As a result, more than half of all prisoners are in jail for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes.
  • It costs an average of $78.95 per day to keep an inmate locked up, more than 20 times the cost of a day on probation.
  • In spite of those numbers, drugs today are cheaper, purer and more readily available than ever.

Jarecki’s film takes an unblinking look at the causes and consequences of this “war,” focusing on the destruction of lives, families and communities, as well as future generations. While it doesn’t condone or excuse drug abuse, it goes far beneath the surface to explore issues of human rights violations and the creation and maintenance of, as the press sheet says, “a vast machine” of law enforcement “that largely feeds on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities.”
And, another unforeseen and unprepared-for consequence: The failed war on drugs has fueled the "graying of our prisons" problem. 
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The Graying Prison Population

It sounded like a good idea when in 1971, to raise his poll numbers, Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Every president since then — both Democrat and Republican — has talked a tough game about drugs, and emotionally, it has been hard to argue with the logic: Drug abuse is destroying our youth, inner cities and nation’s moral fabric; drugs are trafficked by criminals; therefore we needed to be extra-tough on the criminals.
Except that this overly simplistic approach has failed to take into account the underlying socio-economic reasons for the problem, which were (and are) as multidimensional and complex as life itself. As one addiction expert poignantly states in the film, if people take drugs to ease their pain, the real question isn’t why the addiction, but why the pain?
Yet the country’s “tough on crime” policymaking, which has been the accepted approach for more than 30 years, has had far-reaching consequences. Thanks to lengthy mandatory sentences and harsh parole standards for even minor offenses, we now have seriously overcrowded prisons, which put an increasing strain on already taxed state budgets.
Another issue that’s rarely discussed, let alone dealt with, is the ever-growing number of geriatric prisoners. Elderly inmates represent the fastest-growing segment of both federal and state prisons. According to a report by the National Institute of Corrections, the number of prisoners 50 and older rose 172.6 percent between 1992 and 2001, from nearly 42,000 to more than 113,000. That population expands by 8 percent every year, according to more recent government statistics.  
According to James Ridgeway, senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, in The Crime Report, which was reprinted in Prison Legal News, prison cells are overflowing with old, often infirm inmates who are receiving inadequate (yet shockingly expensive) care. As a result, many states can no longer afford to keep them in prison and are considering releasing older terminally ill and mentally ill prisoners.
Not that that's a good solution. Services and treatment (and housing) are sorely lacking for terminally ill and mentally ill people released from prison.
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As Ridgeway further notes, approximately half of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars are in for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. “Twenty-five years ago, there were 34,000 prisoners serving life sentences,” he writes. “Today the number is more than 140,000. The fact that each person is spending a longer stretch behind bars means that the falling crime rates of the 1990s do not translate into fewer prisoners. It also means that more and more people who committed offenses in their 20s or even their teens are growing old and dying in prison.”

The numbers skew higher in states that have long had the strictest drug laws. In California, the number of over-55 prisoners doubled between 1997 and 2006. And in Louisiana, the population over 50 has tripled over the same period of time.
And while 50 or 55 is hardly old, Ridgeway notes, “people age faster behind bars than they do on the outside. Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age. Older prisoners require substantial medical care because of harsh life conditions as well as age. Prisoners begin to have trouble climbing to upper bunks, walking, standing in line and handling other parts of the prison routine. They suffer from early losses of hearing and eyesight, have high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes and are susceptible to falls.”
Clearly the war on drugs has had broad, unexpected consequences, not the least of which are the quality of life for millions of individuals and families, the misdirection (and clogging) of our criminal justice system, the overcrowding of prisons, the dismal state of aging prisoners and a huge burden on states and federal budgets. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of unanswered questions. Perhaps The House I Live In can help us understand the depth of the problem, and then from there, a new dialogue can begin. 

Suzanne Gerber
By Suzanne Gerber
Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality.@@gerbersuzanne

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