What it's about: The American prison system is broken. Prison populations are growing, their demographics are incredibly skewed toward African Americans. Medical treatment behind bars is lacking. The courts disproportionately impact poor people who commit crimes and even those who didn't commit crimes but are tricked into false confessions or plea deals. The deck is stacked against everyday folks, so what guidelines should they follow once they are inevitably falsely convicted and put away? What do they need to do not only to keep their sanity but their safety in prison? Can they live long enough to use the resources to prove their innocence? Survivors Guide to Prison explores the worst case scenarios and what to expect.
A few years back I watched and enjoyed filmmaker Matthew Cooke's film How to Make Money Selling Drugs. It was an irreverent and unique look at the drug trade, dispelling myths we've learned from popular culture about what it is like to be a small time dealer or drug kingpin through the how-to guide the title suggests. His newest film, Survivors Guide to Prison takes on a similar gimmick, this time with a sharper focus on the federal prison and court systems.
Where How to Make Money Selling Drugs was largely a tongue-in-cheek romp, Survivors Guide to Prison is a much sterner, bleaker look at its subject matter. It doesn't as completely take on the gimmick, either, with a barrage of statistics and jumping through prison issues in between the guide.
The guide includes chapters on "Surviving an out of control police officer," "Surviving county jail," "Surviving solitary confinement," "Joining a prison gang," among others.
Stylistically, Survivors Guide to Prison is quick, flashy, and produced within an inch of its life. Cynically, you could say it comes off like part of an A&E doc series. But it is undoubtedly seductive and informative. And the subject matter is worth taking deadly seriously so it doesn't feel off base.
And at its heart, the film is anchored by two stories of men who were convicted of murders that they didn't commit. Their stories are heart-wrenching. They are also perfectly aligned with all the system flaws and pitfalls that are being discussed by the film. Their resonance is how the film argues that they aren't particularly unique, however, that the mistakes made by the authorities could happen to anyone.
The film boasts an incredible cast of talking head contributors and narrators. Along with the number of law enforcement experts, lawyers, activists and former convicts are celebrities spanning from Danny Trejo to Deepak Chopra.
Seeing Busta Rhymes emotionally break down while recounting the story of a woman who was arrested for possession of $5 worth of crack cocaine finally being released after over 30 years is incredible. Sensitive Busta Rhymes is something I didn't know I needed in my life.
Survivors Guide to Prison offers countless numbers of prison statistics, many of which are hard to believe -- they also aren't sourced on screen, which makes it a little more difficult to take them at face value.
A few of the most astonishing ones: There are so many laws on the books that the average American citizen commits 3 felonies per day without realizing it; The combined populations of Los Angeles and New York are arrested every year.
One salient point made in the film is the paradox of authority. In an era where so many distrust our politicians and lawmakers, we are so willing to blindly trust authority figures like the police, judges, and prosecutors. Survivors Guide to Prison makes sure to acknowledge that there are authority figures who are heroes while reminding that they are not our allies.
There are many other great observations and segments but the film washes through them so quickly to make its next point that there are diminishing returns. On the other hand, the film absolutely works as a pastiche of all the various problems with the system, so it can work as a whole.
Survivors Guide to Prison is ultimately like a good 100 level survey course on the issues and there is value there. And while its style might be unusual for a *serious* documentary, it packages its commentary in a successfully entertaining way, even if the content is far from enjoyable.
Still, I won't condone or appreciate the lack of proper punctuation in the title.