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Survivors Guide to Prison

“Cruelty is one of the oldest festive joys of mankind . . . it is imagined that the gods too are refreshed and in festive mood when they are offered the spectacle”

A capacious, all engrossing, and maddening demonstration of our criminal justice system driven by a well-intentioned director (Matthew Cooke) who missed an opportunity to offer the sacrifices of truth in the form of a mini-series. Survivors Guide to Prison tells of the systematic failure in America’s incarceration ideals, riddled with the complex dynamics of administrative loopholes, red tape, and the all too human tendency of human beings to wrong one another for personal advancement. As Justice Gorsuch wrote in Yellowbear v. Lampert: “it is so easy for governmental officials with so much power over inmates’ lives to deny capriciously one more liberty to those who have already forfeited so many others.”

The film covers the gamut: from the wrongful incarceration of Reggie Cole and Bob Lisker, to the complicit suicide of Kalief Browder, to the inhumane conditions in county prisons (rivaled by the treatment of immigrants by ICE agents), to the administrative system rooted in plea bargain missions highlighted by another recent film (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) the critics largely tripped over in their rush to embrace this years sub-par Oscar darlings. And so much more. 

Unfortunately, the celebrity cameos provided more of a distraction: reading prepared material and reiterating rudimentary talking points without meaningful restrospection. While in one sense, the idea of physical and psychological incarceration should be engaged by disciplines across the spectrum, watching Q-Tip trying to play act only took away from the thrust of the presented material, especially when the individuals are notorious thespians.

More effective would have been removing these entertainers and aiming to drive home concepts surrounding the philosophical underpinnings of the birth of the prison (see Foucault), the subsequent sprouting of mass incarceration, and the labor market that its become as a corollary to the post-reconstruction Jim Crow Laws that attempted to restore slavery through  legal instrumentality (see: Ava DuVernay’s film, 13TH, + the important book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow). Whatever pretense we might offer when we grow cynical at Black Lives Matter (and much is problematic) must be met with a minimal form of intellectual investment into these issues.

In the end, what David Edelstein (Vulture) says of 13TH is equally true here: “the movie is frankly exhausting, with too much information . . . to do justice to here. You simply need to see it. Even in its overreaching, it’s vital.”


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