Film Review: Survivors Guide to Prison

This showy and cameo-packed agit-doc wraps a punchy lecture on the corrupt injustices of the prison-industrial system inside a deadly earnest users’ guide to weathering its soul-shredding inhumanity.
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When it comes to documentaries, the American prison system is the mother lode of subjects. Its octopus tentacles touch so many fraught aspects of modern life, from the legacies of slavery to the abuse of power by police and the inequities of the War on Drugs, that it’s difficult not to find some corner of it to be righteously enraged by. Most movies break off a piece here or there, dealing with one institution or a specific case. Matthew Cooke’s Survivors Guide to Prison goes for the maximalist approach. Its strengths and weaknesses are all due to that broad and sweeping remit.

Cooke starts with an information download delivered like a hijacked version of some educational movie put on by a hungover middle-school teacher. A craggily scarred Danny Trejo (a onetime prisoner himself, also a producer here), rappers like Cypress Hill’s B-Real and others talk at the screen as though the viewers were about to be incarcerated themselves. They lay down a withering crossfire of grim statistics (over two million Americans in prison, more than in college), taut lessons about how to handle the power imbalance between police and the average civilian (“Always be polite, don’t engage”; “Never talk without an attorney”) and stark warnings (shows like “Lock Up” will teach you nothing about how to survive).

Much like Cooke’s 2012 documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs, the somewhat ironic perspective is mixed with a deadly earnest social-justice message. The effect of all this in-your-face lecturing is to convince the viewer of a couple of things about arrest and prison: Yes, it can happen to you; and if it does, you will most likely be coerced into accepting a plea deal, regardless of your guilt or innocence, and going to prison, which will be horrible.

To illustrate this, Cooke zooms in on the stories of a couple of unjustly accused men. Bruce Lisker spent 26 years in prison for murdering his mother, based on little more than the hunch of a detective with tunnel vision. Reggie Cole was incarcerated for 16 years, many of them in solitary, for a murder he didn’t commit, and ended up killing another prisoner in what he thought was self-defense.

Using Lisker and Cole’s heartbreaking stories as his primary narrative, Cooke frequently pivots away to touch on a seminar’s worth of criminal justice and social psychology issues. Journalist Dave Sirota talks about society’s “authority bias” toward bad actors when they’re in uniform. MC5 guitarist and former prisoner Wayne Kramer and New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander explain how the vast majority of people charged ended up taking guilty pleas instead of going to trial, leading to Lisker raising a potentially revolutionary gambit: “[The] system would grind to a halt if everyone stopped taking pleas.” Everyone from CNN commentator Van Jones to rappers RZA, Chuck D and Busta Rhymes deliver more pieces of the puzzle, all wrapped up in Cooke’s smash-cut editing and horror-flick staging that makes many of the interviewees appear to be sitting in cells of Jigsaw’s devising.

Cooke’s showy assembly of celebrity-studded talking points about the corruption and slave-labor-like conditions of the for-profit prison is hard-hitting on its own. Its airdropped notes of strategic self-preservation for future prisoners (“Prepare for violation,” “Pick your battles,” “Stick with your race”) help reinforce the broader message of the prison system’s dehumanizing and thusly self-defeating essence. But what makes this odd and sometimes self-satisfied mashup of a movie truly hit home is its message of resilience in the face of overwhelming opposition. Survivors Guide to Prison is at least partially what it advertises itself to be. But it’s as much an action plan for those outside prisons as it is a survival guide for those about to enter the darkness inside.

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