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That statistics stated are troubling: The United States currently houses 25% of the world’s prison population while having only 5% of the world’s total population. There are more prisoners locked up in the states than in China, a country with a billion more people. Understanding why it’s come to this and how it has only continued to increase in dramatic rates over the last forty years is a staggeringly complex system of laws and judicial process that is not as clearly defined or practiced as the public might readily (and perhaps who blindly) accept. Incarcerating US pulls back the curtain in attempting to expose why the United States has become such a top-heavy leader in corrections.
With the number of people in jail mostly identified as a value on a chart to the public, it’s hard to give the reality of how affecting it is with any sense of humanity. Incarcerating US attempts to establish some personality to a few people facing time in jail, most who are serving excessively long sentences for relatively minor and non-violent crimes. These are typically drug-related offenses, which the film reveals is the primary charge in the penitentiary system since the explosive “war on drugs” began in the 1980s, stemming from a number of high profile deaths and incidents that had the government taking swift and aggressive action, imposing mandatory sentences.
We learn a bit of history that explains a touch of that reaction, with mandatory sentences as old as the country itself, with topical and larger public interest issues swaying law. From pirates in the 1700s to prohibition in the 1930 and airplane hi-jackers in the 70s, laws have long been made to suspend a crime bubble. With drugs however, the ambitious declaration by then President Ronald Reagan to make America drug-free, while making for a great political stance, proved to be an impossible task, as the arrest of one drug seller only opens up opportunities for others to move in. And with it, violence. This invoked new laws to go after the users and then those associated with them.
These conspiracy laws leave those in the peripheral of these crimes eligible to receive the same sentences as the drug kingpins. We meet such a victim of this process, who by association to her estranged husband–arrested for production of an illegal drug–ended up being sentenced to 24 years, even though she had only brought money to the trial in another country to help pay for expenses. Her story ends with the US President involved, but it is only one that the film reveals is far too many in similar situations.
Directed by Regan Hines, Incarcerating US digs deep into the actual system of laws and the people who framed it now struggling to work with it, including lawmakers, judges, criminal experts, and more. It’s an impressive collection of studied people who recognize the flaws in a system that need overhaul but have had little help in doing so. Putting some blame on the prosecutorial power-minded attitude that sees numbers as proof of success, it examines how that procedure allows low-level offenders to be sentenced by people they never face, leaving judges themselves powerless in their own courts. Meanwhile, interspersed with these professionals working to make change, we meet some people affected and learn their stories. Often, these are genuinely good people who have violated minor drug laws but are serving exorbitant sentences, separated from their families and paying heavy for their crimes.
The corrections system in the United States is now much more than just prisons. We learn that these institutions are fully functioning hospitals and mental health care units, and schools that make for incredibly complex facilities that require a highly-trained staff and of course, huge budgets. And they only continue to grow. Certainly, there is a need to separate criminals from the general population, but the wholesale use of jail time as a long-term solution for low-level offenders, with minorities overwhelmingly targeted, needs re-evaluation. Incarcerating US is a thoroughly compelling examination of why this is so. Easily consumable and passionately presented, it is an intelligent argument for reform.
Director: Regan Hines
Stars: Judge Robert Holmes Bell, Ginger Fenter, Neill Franklin