Guilty until proven innocent – Survivor’s Guide to Prison (Film Review)

A saturated first step towards changing America’s justice system by actor, director and activist Matthew Cooke (How to make money selling drugs, 2012). This piece provides the viewer with an almost endless list of ways one can avoid finding themselves in prison which with the statistics in mind is becoming ever more probable.

Experiences are shared from the mouths of celebrities and the public about how they’ve been mistreated by the justice system. These stories are heartbreaking and begin to build the bridge of understanding between convicts and the general public, showing just what position prisons put those that enter into. Although it means well, the documentary seems garish and loaded with information causing the viewer to surrender to the onslaught.

The piece is split with headings for each segment of the survivor’s guide which includes how one can survive an interrogation, gain bail and even avoid conflict when inside. These segments involve anecdotes and advice of not only ex-convicts but even celebrities such as Danny Trejo, RZA and Busta Ryhmes.

The piece begins similarly to a trailer for shock and awe purposes. We’re slapped with the harsh face of Danny Trejo as he gives his advice about prison without blinking and Matthew’s docile tone sharing facts and statistics as he’s under bright prophetic lighting.

The guide seems exhausting and hard to keep up with – leaving the question of whether this was intentional or not; showing just how inhospitable prison is by simply tripping over oneself with this endless “How to.” The piece is filled with found footage of the police abusing their power and the animalistic antics that take place inside, which leaves the viewer believing that there isn’t much a prisoner can do.

Luckily the piece doesn’t only contain this list of headings and talking heads. Running through the piece until the very end is the tragic story of Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole – two men wrongfully convicted with little attention paid to their case. Bruce at the age of 17 was convicted for murdering his mother due to his drug addiction and the lack of interest in his case by detective Monsue. In 1985 he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for second degree murder. Reggie at the age of 18 was sentenced to 25 years to life for the first degree murder of Felipe Angeles in 1994.

Although more attention is paid towards Bruce Lisker’s story than Reggie’s, it features honest interviews that involve both individuals re-living the conviction, the imprisonment and the release. We soon learn how Bruce missed his fathers passing whilst in prison and Reggie having to murder another gang member by the name of the “Devil” after he’d attacked him with a shank. Their stories are perfect tales to use as a way of picking at various parts of a journey that any one of the many Americans could undergo.

The piece’s biggest downfall is the look of it that manages to distract the viewer from the important point the director is trying to make. Dense with all the information it’s a let down to have it accompanied with excessive effects and jump cuts that leaves all the talking heads interrupting one another and finishing off each other’s sentences. Is this due to the fact that Matthew hasn’t got the best attention span or is it that he simply expects that of his audience? Regardless, the piece doesn’t feel fluent but more of a scramble of raw footage and talking heads, encouraging thought at times.

The ending segment is titled “Solutions” and it is the small chunk of the documentary that no longer involves individuals speaking of the issues but rather speaking of the solutions that can improve the justice system and give those convicted a better environment. Solutions such as ending the war on drugs, implementing restorative programs and no longer policing those under economic pressures are mentioned. The piece could’ve benefited from having spent more time focusing on the solutions rather than compacting it into a tiny segment at the end, but it seems to have been a piece designed to shake up the public.

The onslaught of raw footage that includes violence and blood, the harsh words shared and the deep wrinkles on the face of Danny Trejo are soon forgotten as we hear of both Bruce and Reggie’s release from prison – an unexplainable experience.

Bruce was released on bail a week after the judge had overturned his murder conviction, stating there being a lack of genuine evidence and the improper representation of his defence attorney. It was also a publicised investigation of the case in 2005 by the Times that proved there to be big holes in his case.

Reggie’s charges were passed after having the judge grant a motion on behalf of the California Innocence Project. It took a lot of hard work and toil from the California Innocence Project but they managed to find the loopholes in the case and orchestrated testimonies that had been overlooked for 14 years.

Although they’d been released, they’d still spent a considerable amount of time in prison and had forcefully adapted to such an environment which encourages paranoia. The feeling of being released from prison can be a celebratory experience, it can also leaves ex-convicts confused about what to do next. With such solutions in place it’ll give them both inside and out the necessary support to sustain themselves as good individuals.

The piece ends with an encouraging line; “This is not a film, it’s a movement” and the link to their Facebook group which is supported by over 3,000 followers appearing straight afterwards. The page is filled with petitions that require signing, stories that need sharing and a constant eye on the goings on of multiple prisons in America. The viewer can decide whether the piece is simply for educational purposes or if it’s the perfect first step for them to direct their energy towards America’s broken justice system. Pushing the oppressive effects to the side, this piece is a great platform to invoke action or to widen the heavy eyelids of the public.

If you’d like to visit their Facebook page simply follow the link: https://www.facebook.com/survivorsguidetoprison/

Dir: Matthew Cooke

Scr: Matthew Cooke

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Patricia Arquette, Danny Trejo, Busta Rhymes, RZA

Prd: Christina Arquette, David Arquette, Matthew Cooke, Jesse Williams

DOP: Matthew Cooke, Steve Minor

Music: Sebastian Robertson

Country: USA

Year: 2018

Running time: 102 mins

Available for purchase online