Sunday, May 5, 2013

The House I Live in (Rhoades)

“The House I Live In” Takes You Behind Bars with Melinda Shopsin

Interview by Shirrel Rhoades

Melinda Shopsin recently went to prison. In fact, she went more than 25 times. No, she’s not a criminal; she was a filmmaker producing a documentary about people unjustly serving prisons sentences for drug use.
This Tuesday evening Melinda Shopsin will be at the Tropic Cinema to tell you about her experiences making a film behind bars.
“The House I Live In” is the fourth installment in the “4 Nights 4 Justices” series brought to you by the Tropic in association with the Michael Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment at the Community Foundation of the Florida Key.
Never having been to Key West before, Melinda Shopsin chatted with us on the phone about her upcoming visit. She chuckled at hearing the story how we became known as the Conch Republic. She was fascinated by stories about smuggling and fishing for Square Grouper.
But when talking about “The House I Live In,” her voice turned more serious. “The drug policies are just not working,” she says. “We wanted to show the inside of this machine. Even the people running it thinks it has gone off the rail.”
The filmmakers had unprecedented access to many prisons. “We were surrounded by barbed wire, guys with guns. Yet prisons aren’t as secure as you might think. There are drugs to be found inside them. Dogs are trained to sniff out cell phones.”
Shopsin often found herself in dicey situations, alone with harden criminals. “I’d be on a basketball court surrounded by a hundred prisoners. I’d ask what they were in for. Guys would say, ‘Oh, I’m in for murder’ or ‘I’m in for rape.’
Frightening? “No, I’m a pretty tough girl,” she says. “I’m from New York City.”
Being alone with prisoners, no guards around, she walked away with very open interviews. “We wanted to show an honest view of what goes on inside prisons. I got to be a fly on the wall.”
She continues, “Prisons are different all across the country. They’re not the sensationalized thing you see on TV, lock downs and all that. But there’s a difference between long-term and short-term facilities. Prisoners in a long-term facility settle in, develop a life behind bars. Others -- like Rikers Island, where people are only incarcerated for up to a year -- can be more rambunctious.”
“The House I Live In” doesn’t just focus on inmates. “We follow a number of people -- prison guards, judges, relatives -- to try to portray people affected by these drug laws. There are more than 30 million family members involved.”
She sighs. “We met people serving life terms for drugs, while murders were getting out in six years, rapists in five years. The disparity is hard to ignore.”
Shopsin's biggest surprise? “We expected to meet people very passionate about the drug laws that put abusers behind bars. It was completely the opposite. The biggest shock was discovering that many judges and police officers share a sense of frustration, acknowledging that communities aren’t getting safer due to these draconian sentences.”
There’s no easy answer. But Shopsin advocates a public health approach to addiction instead of vilifying a user.
Ironically, things are slowly changing, not because of thoughtful policy shifts, but because of money. “We are spending more on prisons than on schools,” she points out. “It cost $28,000 or more per year to incarcerate a prisoner. Some communities simply can’t afford that.”
So why make a documentary about the affects of unfair drug laws? “Do you inhale?” we teased.
“No,” she laughed at the question. “I don’t use drugs. I barely drink. Maybe an occasional beer. Once in a while I drink coffee.”
Then why? “Me, I’m a data-driven person. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in American prisons, more than half of them on drug charges. I wanted to examine how they got there, look at the policies and the collateral consequences.”
It was more personal to the director. Eugene Jarecki is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning director who has twice won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, first in 2005 for “Why We Fight” and again in 2012 for “The House I live In.” He has been named a Soros Justice Fellow at the Open Society Institute and a Senior Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.
As Variety says, “Often motivated by his outrage at areas of corruption, exploitation, or injustice in contemporary life, Jarecki's films elegantly combine compassion with rigorous inquiry.”
Shopsin worked with Eugene Jarecki on “Why We Fight. And she shares his passion for justice.
“I come at filmmaking from a very politically activist way,” she says. “I’m excited about the power of documentaries. I think it’s important to get inside a prison, get inside a squad car, get inside a community … and show that.”
She plans to devote the next year to showing the film in high schools and churches … and theaters like the Tropic. “I believe a documentary can empower its viewers,” she explains.
How would she describe “The House I Live In”? Melinda Shopsin pauses to consider the question. “A wake up call,” she says.

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