Survivors Guide To Prison (2018)

Survivors Guide To Prison first published by RealCrime Magazine

“This isn’t a film, it’s a movement,” states text at the end of Matthew Cooke’s Survivors Guide To Prison. Indeed, if the absence of an apostrophe from that title sounds like an attempt to break free from the prison-house of language, the film itself first exposes the insidious structures of the United States’ penal system, before offering potential routes of escape – as though Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016) were made to share a cell with Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ The Work (2017). For, much like Cooke’s previous How To Make Money Selling Drugs (2012), this new documentary promises to be a kind of self-help manual for the criminal classes, but in fact offers a synoptic analysis of everything that is malfunctioning in America’s machinery of criminal justice, from police racism and incompetence to a prosecutory preference for plea bargains over jury trials, and from a lack of affordable bail to privatised jails with no incentive to reduce recidivism.

Its primary test cases are Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, who both, following false convictions, spent many years in prison, with Cole, once inside, forced actually to become the murderer that he never was outside – although, so as not to seem entirely focused on the innocent, the film also features interviews with Tim (surname withheld), a convicted killer who has served his time. Other talking heads include actors and musicians who have had their own run-ins with the law (RZA, Ice-T, Busta Rhymes, and producer Danny Trejo) as well as an impressive line-up of academics, journalists, lawyers and educators. The thesis is simple: there will be no real justice in America until the nation calls off its war on drugs, reduces sentencing, ends for-profit police and prisons, and invests in programmes that have been proven to rehabilitate convicts. 

© Anton Bitel