“Survivors Guide to Prison” Will Piss You Off — In a Good Way

Matthew Cooke’s dense, expansive film is about more than just how to survive


The messy but compelling activist doc Survivors Guide to Prison often suggests a carelessly assembled trio of short films that all happen to be about America’s corrupt and dehumanizing penal system. Thankfully, two of the three parts of writer-director Matthew Cooke’s sensationalistic PSA prove compelling.

Cooke, speaking through a script read by producer and on-camera interview subject Danny Trejo, initially promises to deliver a step-by-step primer on what to do if you’re arrested, detained, convicted, and incarcerated. But then Cooke somewhat gracelessly introduces and interweaves two other competing throughlines: a breakdown, through statistics and anecdotes, of who it is who goes to jail in America and how the system is broken; and a case study of Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, both wrongfully convicted and imprisoned because cops, judges, and lawyers repeatedly pressured them to forfeit their right to a trial in exchange for (never-delivered) leniency and reduced sentences.

Cooke’s shortcomings as a storyteller are distracting whenever he forces an eclectic group of celebrity experts — including Quincy Jones and Deepak Chopra — to recite unhelpfully basic FAQ-style survival tips, like “always be polite [to a police officer] and never engage [with them unless you have a lawyer present].”

Thankfully, Cooke crams in so much persuasively appalling information — especially during a tangential aside on mentally ill patients’ high death rates — that it’s easy to forgive him for seemingly trying to push all viewers’ proverbial buttons at once. Survivors Guide to Prison may not be a polished work of social commentary, but it will effectively piss you off.

Survivors Guide to Prison
Directed by Matthew Cooke
Gravitas Ventures
Opens February 23, Roxy Cinema Tribeca

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 21, 2018

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