Documentary Recommendation: Survivors Guide to Prison (2018)

Statistic from Survivors Guide to Prison: “80 percent of former prisoners end up right back in jail.”


When I was in school learning all about the criminal justice system, I took the stance of prisons as a necessary evil.  I knew they were basically an American experiment, if you will, that failed miserably but knew it would never be put back into the bottle.  I have the same viewpoint for the “drug wars” America keeps fighting.  Are highly addictive drugs bad?  For the most part yes.  Would I rather have someone smoke marijuana or inject heroin into their arm?  I’d rather have the person smoke pot.  It carries less of a chance of contracting diseases from dirty needles and is less destructive as well as addictive (although some may argue this point).  Is murdering someone you know or don’t know bad?  For the most part yes.  I have more understanding for a woman or man who can’t escape a vindictive partner or spouse that leads the killing of that vindictive person compared to a woman or man who wants to kill someone to see what it feels like.  There are many crimes carried out with varying degrees of circumstances, but with most anything isn’t black and white although it seems to be treated that way.

There are noticeable flaws in the criminal justice system from the police departments to the courtroom policies to prison system rules.  It might surprise you I used to work in a women’s prison, and since leaving that kind of work over ten plus years ago, my views have changed considerably in some areas.  Do I think it’s a lost cause?  No, not at all.  Do I think it needs major reform?  Yes, in many areas.  Do I think there are people who no matter what you do are drawn to violence and will likely never change?  Yes, I do and these are the individuals where prison is the right place for them.   Do I think mental illness and drug addiction are two issues plaguing America?  It’s obvious the answer is yes to both and until they are looked at seriously, both will never improve.  The criminal justice system has become a revolving door of failure that has spread to more failure in other areas of society.  It’s all interrelated, always has been, and always will be in most cases. 

Survivors Guide to Prison is more than just a few celebrities and Matthew Cooke speaking to its viewers.  They point out the weaknesses in the organizations that make up the criminal justice system.  If America has ever come to a “do or die” moment on its timeline, the next ten to twenty years will show the results of what actions were taken and ignored.  There’s convincing evidence and statistics throughout this documentary that points to combination of a sobering and hopeful end.  I understand a few bad grapes (the nicest word I can think of) are in any kind of profession and those bad grapes dominate the news headlines, but instead of being an entry point to improve an organization or institution, it often becomes the opposite.  It fuels the animosity on both sides and common ground whittles down to nothing.  This is where society needs to change as pointed out in an example by an LAPD officer.

To think you’re immune to it because you’d never do anything to be put in prison, that’s fine and dandy, but the criminal justice system isn’t perfect and innocent people end up in prison and on death row.  This documentary follows two people, Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, both who spent years in prison for murders they didn’t commit.  These two individuals are clear examples of where the American criminal justice system failed.    There’s never not room for prison reform and improvement, which we need more of especially in the southern states.  I realize instituting change takes time, but dismantling what hasn’t worked has been ignored, time and time again, by those who should be listening.  Some think a few wrongly convicted people is okay because its collateral damage, but I think it’s appalling because it’s more than a few who end up in this position.  My tattoos can be a clear identifier that lets people know I’m not the same Asian woman who doesn’t have tattoos on her arms.  This doesn’t mean I walk around worried I’m going to be confused with someone else, but being aware of all possibilities is something I would encourage anyone to do (within reason).  Watching this was a trip down memory lane, but more than anything it was a reminder of how many things have not changed that need changing.



Producers: David Arquette, Gina Belafonte, Matthew Cooke, Steve De Vore, Robin C. Garvick, Adrian Grenier, Christina McLarty Arquette, Bryn Mooser, Susan Sarandon, and Jesse Williams

Director: Matthew Cooke

Writer: Matthew Cooke

Narrator: Susan Sarandon

Major Cast: Patricia Arquette, Jesse Williams, Danny Trejo, Danny Glover, Ice-T, RXA, Quincy Jones, Busta Rhymes, Tom Morello, Q-Tip, B-Real, Russell Simmons, Macklemore, Deepak Chopra, Matthew Cooke, Brandon Boyd, Warren G, Justin Brooks, Bruce Lisker, Reggie Cole, and Michael Semanchik

Rating:  TV-MA

Running Time: 1 hour and 42 minutes

I rate Survivors Guide to Prison Four Fingers and One Thumb at 100%




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