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EXCLUSIVE: 'Survivors Guide to Prison': An Interview with the Film Producer

by Steve Horn

 A new film, “Survivors Guide to Prison,” has hit the small screens on-demand on Amazon, iTunes, Fandango, Hulu and other online streaming venues. It provides not only a step-by-step guide to how to survive if you’re walled up in a U.S. jail or prison system, but also walks viewers through the brutal and seldom-told realities of life inside these penal institutions. It does so by presenting the audience with startling statistics and jaw-dropping horror stories of people serving time in the “big house,” making a de facto case that the title of the film could just as easily have been “How Hard it is to Survive in Prison.”

The movie hits hard and fast, and at times can be difficult to watch.

But the story also is told through the lens of survivors and offers a ray of hope for those locked away in prisons, jails and other detention facilities, whose voices often are not heard. Prison Legal News conducted a phone interview with the film’s lead producer, Steve DeVore, to talk about the issues covered in the movie, the art of making a film on this topic and the production team’s plan for getting it out to a mass audience. The interview has been edited for clarification and slightly shortened for readability purposes.

 Steve Horn (SH): Your movie ends by saying that the film should not be seen as just a movie, but also as a movement. What does your team mean by that and what do you hope to see happen with this movie moving forward?

 Steve Devore (SD): What we mean by movement is we really want people to take a call to action after seeing this film. I think this film – you’ve seen this film – it’s very disturbing at times, it’s very powerful, it pisses you off, it’s very thought-provoking and it’s very well done so I think what we mean by “Survivors Guide to Prison” is not only a film, it’s a movement, it’s really, for lack of better words, get up off your butt. If you’re really passionate about it, do something about it, call your legislators, call your Innocence Project.

 We’re trying to get the film into over 50 schools, so that kids in high school and universities can see this stuff. So that’s really what we mean by it’s a movement. We don’t want it to be done when people walk out of the theater. We really want to try to make this a really powerful movement and try to get some change, you know, some reform for what’s going on right now.

 SH: For this movie, did you immediately go to streaming online options and DVD? Did it play at any film festivals?

 SD: So, the way it worked, we’ve had many versions of this film over the last five, six years and when we got a final cut done, we really pushed it hard to the finish line. We set up a theatrical release in New York and LA for one night premiers in both cities, then it had a week-long run at each city, and after that the film went live on iTunes, Fandango, Hulu, Direct TV, all on-demand stuff. So, it’s out there right now through those avenues.

 It’s also, as part of the movement, we are trying to play it around other theaters in other cities nationwide. So that is the plan. For us, really, we want to capitalize, you know, I’m an investor in the film as well, so speaking from an investor the best thing for the film is to capitalize on getting it out to as many different places as we can right now and making sure as many people know about it and see the film. We want to make sure it’s still relevant, like there’s been so much good press thanks to people like yourself. We’ve got a 100 percent [rating] on Rotten Tomatoes still.

 SH: Yeah, I saw that.

 SD: There’s only like 160 films that have ever had that.

 SH: Yeah?

 SD: Something crazy like that so, you know, we’re really proud of it. We want to make sure that the momentum keeps going and, as you know, films can lose their steam pretty quickly. We just want to make sure that it’s not only like, we keep saying this, but this isn’t done yet, this film is just a piece of it.

 SH: I guess these two questions are related, so you took that route, it seems like you’re kind of taking slightly more of a grassroots-driven approach to getting the film out there, touring it around rather than going to film festivals and that sort of thing.

SD: Well, we definitely have a few important film festivals. For instance, there’s a film festival called the Social Justice Film Festival and we’ve entered that film festival. I think we’ve got it in about five, six festivals right now.

SH: Well, yeah, I guess that kinds of gets me to the bigger question, in terms of the motives behind the film. How did you guys come up with the step-by-step approach in terms of how to survive in prison and was that your original idea or was that something that ....

SD: The actual kind of format of the film?

SH: Exactly.

SD: Yeah, well I don’t know if you’ve seen Matthew Cooke’s first film called “How to Make Money Selling Drugs?”

SH: Oh, no I haven’t.

SD: You should check that out. The format is similar yet different, but in terms of that film took kind of like a chapter by chapter approach as Matthew did in this film a little bit. Let me back up. “How to Make Money Selling Drugs” literally took a video-game chapter approach to the film, whereas this time he did the same thing, but not so literal as his first film. But if you check out “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” you’ll get a feel of the Cooke style of filmmaking.

SH: In terms of the content, then, obviously you packed a lot of information within the – I guess there’s about 100 minutes for the film. But for your team, I don’t know if it’s you individually or the team, what most struck you about ... the information that was in there, if it was a data point, or if it was a trend, or what was the biggest take-away for you in making this film?

SD: I want to only speak for myself, I want to make sure that everybody knows that this was such a team effort – this has nothing to do with Steve DeVore being like the lead, the producer who’s on the film the whole time. So, to answer your question, what struck me personally was just, I mean, let’s be honest, I’ve gotten into a little bit of trouble in my life. There’s been situations where you’ve gotten to court and you’re like gosh, why do these court dates just drag on and drag on and drag on? But then when you hear about somebody else’s court dates, like some of the people featured in the film, those dragged on for decades to prove [their] eventual innocence. And that struck me.

I think one of the main things that I’m trying to really push to people to remember after this film – and it really struck me when we were doing the research in the film – is just how for these prosecutors there’s no repercussions for their misconduct. They’re just not held accountable for anything. Like, how many people in the world can be wrong in their job continuously and keep their jobs? So, that was one thing that really struck me. I just think that prosecutors need to be held accountable for being wrong.

SH: So, you’re saying like the whole notion of prosecutorial immunity is one of the major threads which runs through the movie?

SD: Yeah, I think it’s one of the major flaws of the justice system. Because if there were repercussions for these prosecutors, they wouldn’t just jump to conclusions to solve these cases. I just feel that the people in authority should be held accountable for being wrong, I mean everybody [else] is held accountable for being wrong.

SH: In terms of getting more to the artistic side of the movie, so a lot of the interviews look like. ... First I’ll back up a second, for those who haven’t seen the movie. Several interviewees in the film are people who have been wrongfully convicted through our criminal justice system.

But my question is: When you interviewed them it looks like the interviews, or when your team interviewed them, the interviews took place in what looked like a set that was a jail or prison cell, and I was wondering how your team came to that decision? And was it purposeful once the story was being told that at the end, they were no longer being interviewed in that same jail or prison cell, in the more free space?

SD: Yeah, that was the absolute intention. We had our production designers build a prison cell in our backyard of the office. You’ve got to give props to those who were willing to do interviews in this setting. Who in their right mind, without thinking twice, is going to just get interviewed in a prison cell when they’ve spent over a decade of their life being wrongfully accused and sitting in prison? Everybody was more than cooperative and more than supportive of the decision.

And then, yes, the idea of walking on the beach with their families and their wives and stuff like that at the end of the film, that was the total intention just to show that hey, now they’re free. And as one of the people interviewed in the film said, you know, he’s not quite sure he’s even adapted quite yet to life outside of prison. So, it’s one of the things that the prison cells for them were almost a little bit of a comfort zone when they’re doing the interview and then as you see them on the outside, you know, they’re learning, they’re still learning how to associate with society. I think they’re doing an amazing job, they’re amazing individuals, they have the best head on their shoulders and the best attitude about life and what they’ve gone through.

SH: One more artistic question for you.

SD: I’m glad you asked the prison cell question.

SH: Yeah, for sure. It struck me when I watched it. Another interesting artistic element of the film that jumped out to me was, you had to watch closely to see what you were getting at, but the whole notion of pop culture and cultural history of the United States that makes the public accept mass punishment and mass incarceration. So, you show different movies and stuff, clips of movies and commercials and stuff like that. I was just wondering what were you trying to get at when you were showing those sorts of clips?

SD: Without speaking for the director, I think the intention there was to make the viewer realize that this has been going on for years, the issues of mass punishment and cruel punishment. Very simply, we really wanted to show the audience that this has been going on for years and that we should have had our eyes opened a long time ago.

SH: Yeah. I feel like one of the things about that is it also showed how the particular issue that you tackle in the film is conveyed in pop and mass culture, too.

SD: Oh, absolutely.

SH: Right. And it was, like, it was in there. But you weren’t specifically saying, oh and here. ...

SD: Not shoving it down people’s throats. Exactly.

SH: Yeah, exactly. So, the movie’s story is told from the vantage point of people who are being interviewed that were wrongfully convicted and had their convictions overturned, a process which took quite a long time. But, you also point out in the film that that’s pretty rare that that happens, and I guess I was wondering, in the big scheme of things, it’s pretty rare and you even came out and said there are potentially tens of thousands of people right now who are locked up who shouldn’t be because they are not guilty.

So, I was wondering for the story, basically the people who you did interview to tell their stories, was it a way to show people who see this film and their families, etc., that there still is a chance that if you do appeal these cases and you do all the right things that there’s at least some chance that those convictions could be overturned? I’m just wondering, I guess, how you came to decide to talk to those people, the people whose convictions were overturned.

 SD: Well it was just, it was a big major part and portion of the film. I think that we did that because we also, we did want to leave people with a sense of hope in terms of if you’re a family member who’s watching this film, you’ve got your son, your daughter, your brother, your wife, your husband who’s in the situation, there’s still a little bit of hope.

Granted, like you said, it takes years and years and years, and I mean a lot of times entities like the Innocence Project, you know, they’re backlogged. There are so many people in the system. There’s not enough people like the Innocence Project. They just don’t have the bandwidth to get every single person out who’s in there wrongfully accused. That being said, to answer your question, it was definitely to leave people with hope that this situation can be changed.

SH: Right. I mean at the end of the day, they’re examples of survival and getting out of that system even though they shouldn’t have been there to begin with based on the actual facts which took so long to play out in court and through the legal system.

SD: Yeah, and how they were treated getting to that point was just ....

SH: It’s shocking really.

SD: ... treated like criminals, you’re treated like a criminal, like, hey, let’s be honest, the only great thing about America is you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty and that doesn’t seem like it happens.

SH: I guess the last thing that really jumped out to me based on what you just said was the whole notion of when you’re in jail and then you have to go to your court hearings. That is, you go to the court hearings and if you’re in jail, you’re already wearing the garb that they give you in jail so you show up and you look like a guilty person to a jury because you already, you’re dressed in that outfit.

SD: Yeah.

SH: Right, so.

SD: I mean, let’s be honest, it’s just that people and unfortunately our country has kind of thrown out the notion that we are innocent until proven guilty in the criminal justice system.

SH: Well, I really thought it was a great film, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk about it with us.

SD: Yeah, absolutely. We want to make sure the film gets out. I appreciate you taking the time to write something up and taking a moment to see the film. I really appreciate it.

 Steve Horn is an investigative reporter for the Human Rights Defense Center, publisher of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News.

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