'Survivors Guide to Prison'
Prison isn’t a great place. We know this. Prison is also a business, and that business is booming, so it’s not as if things are going to change. Director Matthew Cooke’s sensationalistic and celebrity-filled (starring Danny Trejo!) new documentary attempts to unpack everything that’s wrong with the U.S. penal system. He uses many manipulative techniques to get his points across with the subtlety of blunt force trauma.
Still, it works. The film may not change the world, but if it captures the attention of a few more people and raises awareness about some issues, that’s a victory unto itself.
‘Survivors Guide to Prison’ is all over the place in terms of focus. Cooke opens the film speaking to the camera (or speaking through the likes of Danny Trejo) by announcing that this movie will offer a guide to how to behave when wrongfully arrested and incarcerated. However, the doc doesn’t really stick to those convictions. Instead, it spirals out into numerous tangents. It’s essentially an exploration of who is more likely to go to jail in the U.S., the ways in which the system is broken, and who profits from the corruption.
Those are all important messages and Cooke touches on many more. All are broken down into bite-size statistics, stories, and bold face statements. He has a bizarre group of celebrities spitting out these facts and observations, ranging from Deepak Chopra and Susan Sarandon (who narrates and produced) to Quincy Jones and RZA. Unfortunately, they rarely get a chance to actually speak their minds in Cooke’s didactic and machine gun-edited essay. The famous folks are mostly reading off a script. That feels like a missed opportunity, even if the oddball celebrity lineup spit out some insightful words along the way.
Beyond the catchall rants, ravings and factoids, Cooke also has some stories to tell. He has a few victims of the prison system in Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker to explore (or gently exploit). Lisker was incarcerated for murdering his own mother. He was innocent, but the detective assigned to his case was convinced otherwise despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Lisker was forced to take a guilty plea and lie about the crime to reduce his sentence. Cole also served 16 years for a murder he didn’t commit and was forced to kill another inmate in self-defense while serving out that wrongful sentence. It was only when a new lawyer for the second killing came on board that evidence was unearthed and got Cole free. Both are horrible stories. Both subjects are eloquent speakers who deliver their tales with horrifying objectivity. They provide a solid backbone for the doc that all of Cooke’s other thoughts and tangents spring from. As to why he chose these particular stories amongst a terrifying number of others that were similar? That’s impossible to say. Like everything about the film, it’s a bit haphazard and unclear.
Anyone with a low threshold for manipulative editing techniques and posturing “cool guy” aesthetics won’t get much out of how ‘Survivors Guide to Prison’ is put together. It’s stylish, but it feels more influenced by ‘Hard Copy’ and ‘TMZ’ than anything resembling tasteful and thoughtful documentary filmmaking. It could be argued all those techniques are necessary to grab attention. This is essentially a feature-length PSA meant to smother viewers who wouldn’t regularly watch such things through enough jarring edits, famous faces, assaulting text, and a loud proclamations.
It’s pandering and a also a bit tacky in how the movie aggrandizes its maker throughout. There are better documentaries to be made about this subject and plenty that already exist. However, ‘Survivors Guide to Prison’ is passionately produced and brings up so many subjects that a few rarely discussed issues slip in amidst a sea of easy observations (like the tragic treatment of inmates who suffer from mental illness, or how government institutions like the military use prison labor for profit).
‘Survivors Guide to Prison’ won’t win any awards, but it does get plenty of blunt points across in accessible and superficially stimulating ways. Given the subject matter, that’ll do. It’s important to talk about these things, even when they aren’t discussed perfectly.