Review: Words from the wise in documentary ‘Survivors Guide to Prison’


While a fair amount of its subject matter overlaps with Ava DuVernay’s incendiary “13th,” Matthew Cooke’s “Survivors Guide to Prison” nevertheless serves as a valuable primer for those estimated 13 million Americans who are arrested every year.

Taking aim at the nation’s broken criminal justice system, the slickly packaged documentary divides its telling factoids (e.g. since the 1980s, the state of California has seen the construction of 22 new prisons) among several chapters ranging from “Surviving Solitary Confinement” to “Surviving Getting Out.”

An involving through-line is provided through the case histories of Bruce Lisker of Sherman Oaks and Reggie Cole from South-Central, a pair of articulate, wrongfully convicted men who languished in prisons for a combined 42 years before they were freed.


Armed with an A-list producer roster including Susan Sarandon (who also shares narration duties), Danny Trejo, David Arquette and Adrian Grenier, activist-filmmaker Cooke, whose previous output includes 2012’s “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” certainly isn’t the first person to call out racial bias and the troubling truths behind plea deals.

But even though such post-arrest words of wisdom as “Get a good attorney” and “Shut your mouth” might seem obvious, when they’re dispensed by the likes of tough guy Trejo, rapper Busta Rhymes and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, former inmates all, it remains advice well-heeded.


‘Survivors Guide to Prison’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood; also on VOD

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