Documentary Review: Survivors Guide To Prison

We review insightful and engaging new documentary Survivors Guide to Prison…


Written by Maisie Williams


In this insightful and engaging film, director and activist Matthew Cooke explores the corruption and abuses of the American criminal justice and prison systems. Featuring testimonies from a number of criminal justice lawyers, journalists, ex-inmates, prison guards, along with actors and rappers, the documentary attempts to dissect the issues experienced by those put behind bars and those who work within the system. The US prison population currently stands at 2.2 million, more than both China and Russia, and includes a third of the world’s incarcerated women.

The documentary includes personal anecdotes from wrongfully convicted ex-felons Bruce Lisker, who spent 26 years behind bars, and Reggie Cole, both falsely accused of murder on the basis of false or little evidence; as well as providing harrowing statistics and imagery of the reality of life within America’s prisons, discussing issues such as poor police training, lack of access to adequate healthcare, dehumanising practices and the overreaching role of authority.

With 13 million Americans arrested by law enforcement each year, we see familiar faces such as Danny Trejo and Busta Rhymes provide tips and advice as to what is within your legal right in the almost inevitable likelihood that as an American you will be taken into police custody; including exercising your civil rights, what to do in a hostile police interrogation and surviving life inside county jail.

Survivors… is also a highly educational film without ever being preachy or derailing its core message. It also acknowledges the role of other societal institutions and intersections that mean that the prison experience is not the same for every inmate. The mainstream media in recent decades has become increasingly guilty for its sensationalist coverage of criminality and court cases, shaping public perceptions of criminals and how justice should be rightfully delivered. This is an important factor to consider when looking at the historic representations of certain racial and ethnic groups within America.

The widespread institutional racism of the American criminal justice system, such as over-policing and stereotyping powerless and impoverished communities, has particularly targeted African- Americans, and it is deeply explored over the duration of this film. From the well-documented ‘War on Drugs’ in the 1980s and 90s, communities of colour have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for drug possession, despite using drugs recreationally at relatively the same rates as white people. We also learn shocking stats such as black men on average are sentenced to a 20% longer sentence then white men for committing the exact same crime. The film deliberately brings these facts to the forefront of our attention to highlight that there are undeniable systemic problems in regards to racial treatment and justice.

The controversial existence of For Profit prisons is also attacked. These require large populations of prisoners in order to continue making huge economic profits. As the film quite simply puts it, the more prisoners they house, the more money they make, implying that mass incarceration is being used as a business model for capitalistic gains, with these companies having no incentives to minimalize criminality and violence. They suggest that this therefore has a wider impact on the continued privatisation of US prisons, such as the ability to financially bribe and influence lawmakers when it comes to policies regarding law enforcement and immigration.

Other issues addressed include how prisoners are often used as labourers for multi-million-dollar corporations, such as Walmart, AT&T and Bank of America. Whilst the 13th Amendment of the American Constitution abolished slavery, many argue that it has been re-established here as a form of modern day slavery, as prisoners are exploited without any access to basic workers’ rights such as a capped minimum wage.

In this era of the Black Lives Matter movement, debate over the standard of police training and the school-to-prison pipeline, it is evident that the ways in which the American prison system currently operates is in desperate need of an overhaul, for the benefit of US taxpayers, underprivileged communities and most importantly the inmates, who are trapped in a cycle of injustice, violence and punishment. The speakers featured suggest that there is a dire need for re-investing money into transformative programmes for inmates, such as restorative justice workshops, which involve inmates listening to the struggles victims and their families have endured, as well as arts funding and re-education. All of which have been statistically proven to lead to much lower rates of reoffending. Investment is also sorely needed within impoverished communities that are being crippled by economic desperation and lack of employment opportunities which leads to individuals turning to crime.

Ultimately, this documentary attempts to kickstart an honest and in-depth debate about the ongoing concerns that persist within American prisons nationwide in order to inspire a movement that is equipped to combat the discrimination and moral bankruptcy of the current criminal justice system.




If you’d like to find out more information about the issues raised in this film then visit


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