Survivors Guide to Prison – a movie as a movement

By Andrew L. Urban.

American filmmaker Matthew Cooke says of his 2018 film Survivors Guide to Prison: “This is not just a film, but also a movement. We hope to swing the pendulum on legislation. We want prison reform, specifically prosecutorial reform and accountability on all levels of law enforcement, bail reform, mandatory sentencing, and solitary confinement and restorative justice programs.”

Americans are the most imprisoned citizens in the world, according to the film, which reports that there are over 14 million arrested each year, “with total discretion given to police officers”. There are over 5,000 prisons in the US – more than colleges and universities.

The film is built around the stories of Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole who spent year after year in prison for murders they didn’t commit.

Wrongful convictions are mass produced in a system which relies on plea deals for its high rate of convictions. The Innocence Project in the US estimates there may be between 40,000 and 100,000 Americans currently in prison, wrongly convicted.

Prosecutorial misconduct and bad lawyering are some of the main problems, but the system’s eagerness to incarcerate drug users is another – a constant theme. They, the drug users, represent a vast section of inmates, and black Americans represent the biggest racial group. These may not be new facts, but the film presents them in context and reveals the many flaws inherent in poor policing (poor training) and poor legislation, with an urgent and sincere drive.


Inmates and investigative journalists provide poignant and persuasive arguments for change and the film ends with some positive propositions to make a difference for the better, eg, end the war on drugs, provide citizen oversight within the system and make those within the system accountable.

This is an astonishingly effective exposition of America’s disastrous criminal justice system – even if it does have an axe to grind. The axe is worth grinding, anyway. The editorial line is that the system is a horrendous affront to the very notions of justice and that prisons are doing the opposite of what we want them to do, namely rehabilitate, not just punish. Oh, they do the punish all right, far too well.

Many of the themes echo problems in Australia – not least wrongful convictions that result from systemic flaws in the legal system.

(Narrated by Susan Sarandon, Danny Trejo; written and directed by Matthew Cooke.)

The film is released in the US via selected cinemas and internationally on VOD from February 23, 2018.

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2 Responses to Survivors Guide to Prison – a movie as a movement

  1. David Grenier says:

    The question I have is this: How do we change a punishment system into a justice system?
    There are a number of examples in the world of justice systems, like Sweden, that address the breaking of laws with medical, educational, and life support programs. Has anyone proposed a step-by-step approach to moving the US system in that direction?
    A Lobbyist for Police organizations once told me that the US can not be like Sweden because Sweden is a monoculture and the US is not. But the “Survivor’s Guide to Prison” highlights the fact that our system does treat our people as a monoculture by incarcerating (punishing) everyone in a like manner, no matter what culture they came from. Since the US is determined to have a single solution to this complex problem, why can’t we have a solution that treats every individual uniquely and seeks to address that person’s issues and return him/her to society instead of punishing all of us for the crime committed.
    I am a Vietnam Veteran who knows what war is, and I am tired of talking to police officers who believe that they are at war with the public. We need to change this dynamic so that the law enforcement officer can see their job is to serve as the first responders of a true justice system and not as law enforcers.

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