‘Survivors Guide to Prison’ Goes Beyond Numbers to Expose Our National Disgrace

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Activist-filmmaker Matthew Cooke’s new documentary Survivors Guide to Prison is about more than the rudiments of making it on the inside. The strikingly honest advice – offered by a series of famous voices who are said to be intimately familiar with the criminal-justice system – serves as a framing device for discussing a much, much larger problem.

“If we care about victims of crime, if we want victims of crime to heal, to be able to overcome whatever befell them,” Cooke recently told the Hollywood Reporter, “if we want to help people and save them from a life of crime, if we want to make society more harmonious and just, then we use a completely different system than the prison model.”

To prove the point, Survivors Guide to Prison peppers us with sobering statistics and barbed commentary – and that might have been effective enough all by itself. But Sherman Oaks’ Bruce Lisker and South Central’s Reggie Cole add deeper context. Wrongfully convicted, they make these injustices heartbreakingly real through a tale of their combined 42 years behind bars.

Along the way, the film takes on an emotional timbre that Variety rightly calls “assaultive.” Forbes described Survivors Guide to Prison as “compelling.” The Village Voice said it will “piss you off – in a good way.”

Variety‘s Joe Leydon agreed, adding that Cooke’s “outrage likely will prove highly contagious for audiences” as Survivors Guide to Prison “starts out as a series of practical warnings to anyone (of any racial or ethnic background) maneuvering through close encounters with zealous cops and aggressive prosecutors” and then “gradually expands in scope to question the need to incarcerate so many people in a supposedly free society.”

There’s certainly a lot here that should spark outrage. In fact, the raw numbers are staggering.

More people are imprisoned in the U.S. than in any other nation: Some 13 million Americans are arrested each year – more than the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. Black men routinely receive sentences that are 20-percent longer than whites who commit the same crimes. No one has passed a state-based use-of-force laws yet that meets international standards. African-Americans represent 33 percent of total inmate numbers, while only comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Once you become part of this system, whether initially guilty or innocent, it often sparks a downward spiral in which imprisonment suddenly becomes an inescapable way of life. A remarkable 80 percent of former prisoners end up right back in jail, the filmmakers say.

“What doesn’t work is this punishment model. They’ve proven it doesn’t work in raising your kids and it doesn’t work in our prison systems,” producer David Arquette told The Wrap. “Prisoners most of the time are getting better at being criminals. What we really want are people not to go back in.”

Narrated by executive producer Susan Sarandon, Survivors Guide to Prison sold out its premiere at the Landmark in LA on Feb. 20, before arriving on iTunes, Amazon and video-on-demand. Sebastian Robertson handled the score, which deftly ties the documentary’s many narrative strands together.

“Matthew and I worked in a interesting way on this film,” Robertson tells Something Else! “I created soundscapes and melodies based on moods and feeling that he would convey to me. Through conversations, he would paint a picture for me and I would try to color it. It was freeing not to be tied to the picture as much, because sometimes as a composer I can overreact musically to what I’m seeing. Obviously the subject is dark, but we shed some light and hope through some of the subtle melodies. One of the tag lines that I’ve seen written is this is not a film, it’s a movement. I am truly honored to be a small part of that, in hopes that we can begin to effect change.”

Co-producer Danny Trejo is joined on screen by fellow interview subjects Patricia Arquette, Danny Glover, Cynthia Nixon, Ice-T, RZA, Busta Rhymes, Tom Morello, Quincy Jones, Q-Tip, Chuck D and Jesse Williams, among others. All of them help bring sharp new perspective to what might seem like a well-traversed subject.

“We have 5,000 prisons; that’s more than we have universities,” Danny Trejo told CBS. “That should tell you that prisons are there to make money. They’re not there to rehabilitate anybody. They’re all to make money. And they have to stay full, so watch your step.”

Lakeshore Records is set to release Sebastian Robertson’s score later this month. Here’s how you can watch Survivors Guide to Prison:

Google Play
Fandango Now

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jimmy Nelson
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