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“Survivors Guide to Prison,” by Matthew Cooke, director (Gravitas Ventures, February 2018); 102 minutes

Movie review by Steve Horn

A newly-released film that serves as an informative guide to surviving a stint in a U.S. jail or prison has hit the screens, and is streaming for a $4 rental fee on YouTube and Google Play, $5 on Amazon and is available for purchase on iTunes for $13. Titled “Survivors Guide to Prison,” the movie takes the viewer through a step-by-step process of how to make it out the other end of the tunnel if your life gets turned upside-down and you end up behind bars.

While serving as a how-to guide for each potential step of the incarceration process, the film also tells the broader tale of mass incarceration, human rights abuses in prisons and jails, the mental health crisis within penal facilities and racial biases endemic in the U.S. criminal justice system. That’s just to name a few of the myriad topics it tackles. “Survivors Guide” also utilizes the stories of multiple wrongful convictions as a way to tie the narrative together, and to demonstrate that even if you’re innocent, you could end up behind bars.

Matthew Cooke’s “Survivors Guide to Prison” has been well-received, with a 100% approval rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. Steps for survival laid out in the film include things such as “prepare for violation” and “beware of prosecutorial misconduct.” Think of the guide as the non-comedic version, as applied to the corrections system, of Chris Rock’s classic skit “How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.”

“Survivors Guide” has a high-profile list of narrators who provide commentary throughout the film, including Patricia Arquette, Danny Glover, Danny Trejo, Cynthia Nixon, Busta Rhymes, Tom Morello, Macklemore and Chuck D.

On a personal level, I was most shocked by advice given by one former prisoner. He advised those incarcerated to lift weights and get strong because prison and jail is a place where if you don’t defend yourself, you can be a target for theft, could get beaten up or far worse. That statement spoke to the broader systemic issue of violence in prison, whether physical, sexual or verbal, and how hard it can be to survive in the “big house.”

Another key issue raised in the film is that of prosecutorial immunity, or district attorneys having immunity no matter what actions they take as part of bringing criminal charges against defendants. One interviewee for the film, Jeffrey Deskovic, said he believes removing immunity for prosecutors would go a long way toward reducing wrongful convictions. Deskovic was wrongfully convicted himself, having served 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.1].

“Prosecutorial misconduct is a major cause of wrongful convictions. It’s the single thread which runs through almost all of the wrongful conviction cases,” said Deskovic, who founded and directs The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, and served as an executive director for the film. “There’s no deterrence, there’s no oversight, there’s no punishment for prosecutors. So, they can break the law and they don’t face criminal penalties even when they engage in withholding evidence of innocence, threatening witnesses, coercing witnesses. They’re above the law.”

“Survivors Guide to Prison” makes one thing crystal clear: it’s quite a challenge to make it out of prison or jail healthy and in one piece. The film does quite the public service, presenting information about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex in a novel way that is easily understandable for people who have little experience with or knowledge of our nation’s incredibly brutal criminal justice system. 


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