Magazine article The New Yorker

Prison Tale

Magazine article The New Yorker

Prison Tale

Article excerpt

"I've heard your name for thirty years, James, but I've never met you--why is that?" the filmmaker Eugene Jarecki asked. James Jeter, Jr., sat at a student desk facing Jarecki, his expression hidden by his fist. As a boy, Jeter loved to eat Haagen-Dazs at Jarecki's parents' house; he was now a burly thirty-two-year-old man in correctional scrubs, flanked by fourteen other equally watchful inmates, at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in central Connecticut. Jarecki's visit had turned this study hall into a study of how the prisoners got there. The director continued, "I asked your grandmother"--Nannie Jeter, Jarecki's beloved childhood housekeeper--"why that was, and she said, 'Drugs. They ruined my family.' "

Jarecki, a puckish forty-three-year-old in jeans and an untucked oxford-cloth shirt, explained that his new documentary, "The House I Live In," was inspired by that conversation: in the film, cops, academics, and felons testify that harsh drug sentences have blown communities apart. "How many of you are here because of drug-related crimes?" Jarecki asked. All but one of the inmates raised their hands. "But, forty years later, with a trillion dollars spent and a generation of black and poor Americans locked up, drugs are now cheaper, purer, more available. The drug war didn't work."

The centerpiece of "The House I Live In" is Nannie Jeter's reminiscences; she recalls how her youngest son, James, began smoking marijuana at fourteen and died of AIDS after contracting H.I.V. from a dirty needle. Several years later, his seventeen-year-old son, James, Jr., was incarcerated, and eventually sentenced to thirty years for his part in a drug-turf-war stickup that ended with someone shot dead.

James, Jr., had recently written Jarecki asking him to drop in on Cheshire's college-credit program, taught by faculty from nearby Wesleyan University. Nannie Jeter would have gone with Jarecki, but the prison's rules didn't permit the seventy-six-year-old to see her grandson anywhere but the visiting center. "The movie is a love letter to James's grandmother, in a way," Jarecki said. "There are things that happened that I benefitted from and James suffered from, because she moved away from her family, in New Haven, to take care of a pudgy little white kid like me. …

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