Statistically, you're more likely to end up in prison in America than almost anywhere else in the world (only the tiny Seychelles has a higher incarceration rate). Given these odds, spending 102 minutes watching the sobering new documentary Survivors Guide to Prison could quite literally save you from years behind bars.
Set for release on Feb. 23, Survivors Guide to Prison offers a two-tiered celebrity- and stats-studded exploration of the U.S. criminal justice system, focusing on the stories of former California prisoners. At the micro level, it's true to its name in offering advice from criminal justice experts and former inmates on surviving everything from “an out-of-control police officer” (“Always be polite … never engage”) and interrogation (“Never talk without an attorney”), to county jail (“Be prepared to be completely humiliated and violated”) and prison.
“Prison is the only place in the world where you will either be predator or prey,” insists actor Danny Trejo, who served time in some of California's most notorious penitentiaries and both appears in and co-produced Survivors Guide to Prison. “I've seen people die thinking that, well, I can handle this. You can't handle it — I don't care who you are.”
The bigger picture painted by the film is that of a stubbornly antiquated justice system overly focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, wherein people of color, the poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted are at a distinct disadvantage. With cops and district attorneys under pressure to secure convictions, innocent Americans also are finding themselves caged — civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander says in the documentary that up to 15 percent of U.S. prisoners could be innocent.
“It's a messed-up system,” laments Bruce Lisker, one of an array of wrongly convicted former California inmates featured in Survivors Guide to Prison. “And with the new head of the Department of Justice, [Jeff] Sessions — he's as backward as anybody's ever been on criminal justice issues.”
Written and directed by L.A. filmmaker Matthew Cooke (How to Make Money Selling Drugs), and executive produced by actress-activist Susan Sarandon, Survivors Guide to Prison presents a restlessly edited stream of talking heads — including rapper Busta Rhymes, record producer Quincy Jones, actress Cynthia Nixon and new age author Deepak Chopra — interspersed with stock, often shocking footage of Americans being arrested and U.S. prison life. Visually, much of the film is familiar: jumpsuited inmates traipsing around exercise yards; prison violence captured on security cameras; chaotic smartphone footage of dramatic arrests, some of which already went viral.
“The system is not there to achieve justice,” Cooke asserts. “[It] is neither designed nor optimal for achieving the objective that it was set out for, or that it claims to have.”
The emotional impact of Survivors Guide's impassioned interviews with inmates, lawyers, cops, analysts, investigative journalists and relatives of crime victims is bolstered by a barrage of eye-opening statistics: 13 million Americans arrested every year; 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated; 50 percent of locked-up Americans having mental issues. The film's audio track alone is harrowing.
“Probably 30 percent of the kids in juvenile hall, they're on the spectrum somewhere of autism. And we don't understand them — we just see 'em as bad kids,” says Trejo, who attributes breaking his cycle of criminality to sobriety achieved through a prison 12-step program. “Then, when they get to the penitentiary … like, 60 percent of the kids were special needs kids when they were in junior high school.”
Some of the advice offered in Survivors Guide — being respectful toward police officers, “lawyering up” upon arrest — might be old news to most American adults. But there are also insights — the prevalence and perils of plea bargains; the widespread scourge of jailhouse informants; the fallibility of eyewitness testimony — that could prove life-changing, should you find yourself arrested or incarcerated.
“If you encounter the police and they say, 'We just want to have a few words with you' … don't believe it — it's B.S.!” says Lisker, who endured more than 26 years in California prisons after being wrongly convicted of the 1983 murder of his mother in Sherman Oaks. “In the United States, it's legal [for police officers] to lie to a person when … interviewing them.”
Survivors Guide to Prison also includes testimony from Reggie Cole, who was falsely imprisoned for 16 years and only found innocent of the South L.A. murder he'd originally been convicted of after he really did kill a man in Calipatria State Prison (known among inmates as “Kill-a-patria”). Both he and Lisker describe law enforcement and prison cultures very different from those portrayed in commercially funded TV shows and movies.
“It's 99.9 percent boredom and 0.1 percent just absolute terror [in prison] … when there's a riot going on, when bullets are flying,” Lisker says. “And the tragic part about the boredom is that it's time that could be occupied with encouraged participation in ongoing education.”
The resounding takeaway from Survivors Guide is that the American justice system, and the public policy that underpins it, is fundamentally flawed both ethically and practically, persisting with a simplistic “punishment model” long proven to be ineffective at improving public safety.
“Fundamentally, I think conflict resolution and how we address it is perhaps the most important public policy decision that informs all other public policy,” Cooke says. “Our so-called prison system, this is a system that's hundreds and hundreds of years old — it was the next step after cutting our hands and head off … the next wave of thinking was, 'Oh, we'll put people in cages.'?”
For decades, according to Cooke's film, the U.S. justice system has become increasingly compromised by the so-called War on Drugs (which has swamped courts and prisons with often minor offenders); the closure of state psychiatric hospitals (leaving many mentally ill offenders languishing in prisons); and the huge profits to be made from private prisons and barely paid inmate labor.
“It's gotten so much worse,” says Trejo, 73, who was repeatedly incarcerated for armed robbery and drug offenses in the 1960s. “You look at prison and the biggest percentage [of inmates] is young black; biggest percentage is young Latino … and poor white.”
Survivors Guide to Prison advocates not only very tangible reforms to the U.S. justice system — a fresh emphasis on rehabilitation and restorative justice; the retraining of judges and law enforcement accordingly; investing in specialized programs for offenders with psychological and addiction issues; addressing the socioeconomic circumstances that foster criminal behavior — but also a fundamental cultural shift that requires attention and action from us all in exercising our influence on public policy.
“I really hope that [the film] just adds a drop to the river of thinking differently about conflict resolution,” Cooke concludes. “Are we going to be a belligerent society? Are we going to continue the ancient 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth'? Or are we going to do what works and what is ultimately turning toward our better natures?”
SURVIVORS GUIDE TO PRISON | Directed by Matthew Cooke | Gravitas Ventures | Arena Cinelounge Sunset and on-demand