The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System

openDemocracy & the Tedworth Charitable Trust proudly launch our multi-year, multimedia oral history project with the release of this first feature-length documentary film.
Charles Shaw
7 April 2011

The Land of the Free punishes or imprisons more of its citizens than any other country. The United States has only 5% of the world's population, yet a full 25% of the world's prisoners.

At 2.5 million, the US has more prisoners than even China does with five times the population of the United States. 8 million Americans (1 in every 31) languish under some form of state monitoring known as "correctional supervision." On top of that, the security and livelihood of over 13 million more has forever been altered by a felony conviction. An estimated 65 million Americans cannot pass a background check.

[Or watch on YouTube in 14 Chapters]

The American use of punishment is so pervasive, and so disproportionate, that even the conservative magazine, The Economist, declared in 2010, "never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little."

This collection of testimonials from criminal offenders, family members, and experts on America's criminal justice system puts a human face on the millions of Americans subjugated by the US Government's 40 year, one trillion dollar social catastrophe: The War on Drugs; a failed policy underscored by fear, politics, racial prejudice and intolerance in a public atmosphere of "out of sight, out of mind."

I came up with the idea of creating a free, permanent online archive of tales from the drug war after I published my memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, which was about my own experiences with drug addiction, prison, healing and cognitive liberty, and drug war activism. I realized that I was one of those extremely rare individuals who was a former POW of the drug war, and who got out and had the opportunity to share his story with the world. Most of the victims of the drug war never get that opportunity, their voices are rarely, if ever, heard. So, I endeavored to change that.

I took my inspiration from Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Institute which he helped found, a permanent archive of 50,000 video testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust. In many, many ways, the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of drug offenders has created a cultural holocaust in the United States, certainly in the African American population, which has been hit so disproportionately that it is now known as the "new Jim Crow," decried around the world as a violation of basic human rights on par with segregation.

In the latter half of 2010 I spent three months on the road traveling the continental United States and the UK, meeting victims of the drug war and committing their stories to the digital realm. They took me into their homes, and into their lives, and revealed their most intimate secrets, all in the hopes that their story might contribute to the eventually unravelling of this insane policy that has ruined the lives of millions.

The project will unfold over a two year period, beginning with the online release of this first feature-length documentary and then continuing on throughout 2011 and 2012 with a nationwide series of screenings, and the online release of short films and complete interviews from each of the 100 participants in the project, meant to represent the 1 in 100 Americans that are currently sitting behind bars.

The Exile Nation Project is made possible by a generous grant from the Tedworth Charitable Trust and the openDemocracy group, in association with Exile Nation Media. All content produced is non-commercial and available for free distribution under a Creative Commons license. For more information please visit: ExileNation.org

Written, Produced and Directed by Charles Shaw

Director of Photography - Charles Shaw

Edited by Charles Shaw & Dustin Edwards

Motion Graphics - Dustin Edwards, Brodie Sullivan

Music by Random Rab, Junior Boys, Cloud Cult, Four Tet, The War on Drugs, SearchLite.

Production Assistants - Erin Shaw, Michael Garfield, Baza Novic

Technical Advisor - Taylor Cahill


Christian Parenti

Eric Sterling

Mark Kleiman, Ph.D

Sanho Tree

Judge James P. Gray

Ethan Nadelmann

Anthony Papa

John Sinclair

Nora Callahan

Chuck Armsbury

Amy Povah Ralston

Lynette Shaw

Scott Imler

Kyle Kazan

Julie Holland, M.D.

Robert Manor

Aaron Blackledge, M.D.

Randolph Hencken

Stephen Dubov

Chris Bava

Steve Costello

Dorothy Johnson-Speight

Ryan Keesling

Alexis Wilson Briggs

Malakkar Vohryzek

AJ Lovewins

Debi Campbell

Julie Falco

Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis

Audra DeLuca

Nicole Benisch

Anthony Reed

BONUS CLIP: John SInclair performing his poem, "Friday the 13th," follows the credits.

Charles Shaw is an award-winning journalist, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary film, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System. 

Charles serves as Editor for the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust. 

Charles' work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guardian UK, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen's Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.



opendemocracy.net/ exile-nation-project

realitysandwich.com/ exile_nation_drugs_prisons_politics_spirituality

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opendemocracy.net/ editorial-tags/ drug-policy-forum



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