America’s criminal justice system is badly broken. In fact, it’s a travesty of racism, graft, and corruption. There are more people serving time in the United States than in any other country, a whopping 2.2 million. That’s more than the number of people currently enrolled in an American college or university. 13 million U.S. citizens are arrested every year. That’s the populations of New York and Los Angeles combined. Arrested, every year. Disturbingly, 95% of all convictions result in plea bargains—actual trials are the stuff of movies these days—and often those plea bargains involve innocent people admitting guilt in order to get a reduced sentence.
People like Bruce Lisker. He served 22 years in jail for allegedly killing his mother before being exonerated and released. His mom died from stab wounds in the hospital while Bruce was being interrogated by the Sherman Oaks police he had called for help. He was a long-haired kid who looked like he smoked pot. He was also innocent.
And Reggie Cole. He also served time—16 years—for a murder he didn’t commit. Forced to kill another inmate in self defense, Reggie miraculously found an attorney for his new trial who also unearthed evidence to overturn his original conviction.
Matthew Cooke’s hard-hitting documentary Survivors Guide to Prison, which is a less jovial DIY experience than its title might imply, primarily presents Lisker’s and Cole’s cases as textbook examples of the injustice rampant in the U.S. prison system.
When interviewed for the film, civil rights lawyer and Stanford law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, explains the troubling stats this way: “People suggest that anywhere between three or ten or fifteen percent of people behind bars could be innocent of the crimes of which they were charged. The reality is that thousands of people every year in the United States wind up pleading guilty to crimes they may not have committed because they’re either railroaded by police officers who give them false information or coerce confessions, or because they’re afraid of facing harsh mandatory minimum sentences and believe their best chance is to just take a plea.”
So what if you’re not a murderer or a rapist or a thief yet find yourself arrested and in danger of being locked up? You’re going to need some guidance…
Executive produced by Susan Sarandon (who also narrates), Cooke’s film features commentary from such luminaries as Danny Trejo, Patricia Arquette, Deepak Chopra, RZA, Quincy Jones, Macklemore, Q-Tip, Danny Glover, Busta Rhymes, Ice-T, Tom Morello, Russell Simmons, B-Real, Warren G., Chuck D., Jesse Williams, Brandon Boyd, and others bent on exposing the shocking truth. These celebrities offer practical advice for surviving county jail. Tips such as: post bail (“the first thing you want to do is get out”), prepare for violation (“mind your own business and be respectful”), stick with your race and join a gang (“nearly one in ten prisoners suffers sexual abuse”), beware prosecutorial misconduct (“there’s no deterrents, there’s no oversight, there’s no punishment for prosecutors so they can break the law”), ask if you’re being detained, never talk without an attorney, don’t blindly trust authority figures… The list goes on. And it’s all managed with flair and matter-of-fact clarity by writer-director Cooke, who appears on film as a charismatic co-narrator.
If you’re innocent—better yet, white skinned and economically advantaged—you may never need to apply these sanguine recommendations. But as you are more likely to be sent to prison in the United States than in any other country, the film serves not only as a sobering public service announcement but as an incisive indictment of a system clearly in need of complete and dramatic overhaul.
(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth