Interview by Christine Thompson
You’re more likely to go to prison in the USA than any other country in the world, so in the unfortunate case it happens to you, this is the SURVIVORS GUIDE TO PRISON. Following the stories of two innocent men, Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, who spent decades behind bars for murders they did not commit. Gripping testimony from inmates, guards, staff, cops, analysts, lawyers and reformers, SURVIVORS GUIDE exposes the failed “punishment model” and examines the dramatic programs proven to work. We spoke with filmmaker/activist Matthew Cooke.
SURVIVORS GUIDE TO PRISON was released in theaters, VOD, and Digital HD on February 23rd.
AMFM: I love the fact that you cared enough to draw some conclusions and advocated for change. I love that. I’m sure this is going to hit a nerve, everybody knows somebody who’s been in jail. What was the impetus? Personal or outrage at the system?
MATTHEW COOKE: A tiny bit of both, but mainly outrage at the system. It’s just a very complicated issue to even begin to talk about, because the criminal justice system deals with how we as human beings in a society decide to address conflict. So if conflict or harm takes place, what are we going to do? In a country with 350 million people, we’ve got to have some type of structure in place, based on where we are right now in our evolutionary moment. We need some sort of imposed upon or agreed upon structure to handle harm and conflict. It’s foundational, it’s the most basic public policy we can collectively agree to and determine together.
So it’s on us as citizens to determine what this public policy is. My question back to anyone who asks is “how can we NOT involve ourselves in some way. So I’m a filmmaker, and I just went and made a documentary about it. But I really didn’t set out by saying, “hmmm…I’m a documentary filmmaker, what’s a good topic.”
This is not just a film, but also a movement. We hope to swing the pendulum on legislation. We want prison reform, specifically prosecutorial reform and accountability on all levels of law enforcement, bail reform, mandatory sentencing, and solitary confinement and restorative justice programs.
That’s not what I did. I’m a citizen of the United States. If Democracy is going to work, then each of us needs to engage in their own way. So I did some research, talked to some friends, and put together a kind of public service announcement. I made it as engaging and entertaining as possible, while trying to pack a semester’s course load of education based on the five years of research we all did. Then we tried to pack into a hundred minutes in such a way that it doesn’t waste anybody’s time. I wanted to make it as useful and beneficial as possible.
AMFM: And that you did. It was an eye opener. Five years of research? What was the first resource you went to? Libraries? Psychologists? Human stories?
MATTHEW COOKE: Human stories first. It’s a monstrosity. We have the largest prison population on the planet, and our success rate at turning criminals into productive members of society is really bad. We’re using fire to fight fire.
The best way to tell a story like that is not to dive into statistics, I went about trying to find the right stories and people that could help. I think that we’re so brainwashed in the United States – some of it’s purposeful and some it is because we just don’t know any better. We take the information that we have and pass it on to other people. They’d have us believe our punishment model and our prison model is as natural as the sun, sky and air we breathe. It’s not.
Sp the best way to show that is by getting to know somebody on the inside. Who’s going to be on of the easiest people to relate to? Innocent people. There are tens of thousands of people who aren’t guilty of the crime in which they are convicted. My intention was to go through and find someone who has gone through the system, and is innocent of their crime. I found Bruce Lister and Reggie Cole. I thought it was important to have a black man, a white man, a brown man and women. Every color. I’m trying to show that this affects everybody. I think there’s a tremendous amount of racism in this country. We were built on slavery and we are feeling the effects to this day. So it was important for white people to see another white person so they aren’t prevented by their own psychology from relating to people of color.
AMFM: I love the way you presented the documentary interrogation style. You don’t let anybody off the hook here. I did hear that little jab at the media being culpable as well.
MATTHEW COOKE: I think the problem with the media is they are in a most difficult situation that they like to sell advertising, and the thing that sells advertising the fastest is conflict of course. In depth studies and reporting is a lot more difficult than talking heads. I’m speaking less of you than the 24 hour news channels. To a great extent they didn’t even cover this movie. Whereas you have watched the film, you have interesting questions that are coming from your heart about it. We just did a morning show with a hip hop station in Los Angeles, Power 106. These guys all watched the movie, they’ve done all this research about it. They had all the pertinent questions…so prepared. It was wonderful. So there are organizations that do great reporting, but our main 24 hour news stations – they are failures. And they really promote the conflict.
And look at our movies. Let’s talk about that for a second. There is rarely an archetype that wins without the use of force or violence. We fall into that lowest revenge reaction with so many of our stories. That reflects in our culture and our law enforcment. You know “Might Makes Right.” It’s really actually not effective. It doesn’t make victims of crime heal. It doesn’t make our streets safer. It doesn’t increase our harmony or increase our pursuit of happiness. At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is really not controversial at all, our culture is stuck in a punishment/revenge cyclical way of thinking. And I’m critiquing us all. We’re all culpable. Me too. I’m not on a high horse. It’s just that we need to do it together.
AMFM: Yes, we do need to do it together. I love the fact that documentary filmmaking can present ideas like this to a large group of people. Especially with the new ways that people are watching content…like binging on Netflix You know you’re going to reach a large audience with this because it’s such a hot topic. So what is your hope for this?
MATTHEW COOKE: My hope is two-fold. First, people don’t look at prison anymore as a natural and inevitable way to address crime. I hope that people see what we came to find out while working on the film, prisont takes a bad situation and makes it much worse.
SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
THE DIGNITY CAMPAIGN:
Leading up to the release of Survivors Guide to Prison, we are partnering with Van Jones’ #Cut50 on their Dignity Campaign, which aims to bring Dignity back to incarcerated women. To support this campaign, we have a t-shirt line, link above (link will be active soon). What we are talking about is changing the way we treat women in prison. For example, in many states pregnant women are forced to give birth in shackles and are often kept in solitary confinement during pregnancy endangering them and their baby. The overwhelming majority of women in prison are sexual assault survivors, yet male guards can strip search women and supervise them in showers, and 80% of women in prison are mothers; yet many are sent hundreds of miles from their families making it impossible for their children to visit. Alicia Keys is our main spokesperson on this campaign, joining her are celebs Susan Sarandon, Patricia Arquette, Courteney Cox, Emily Ratajkowski, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chelsea Handler, Common, Senator Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Francis Fisher, Alyssa Milano, and the list goes on.
For more information, please visit: https://www.cut50.org/dignity_ak