“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

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