If ever a proselytizing documentary could be described as assaultive, “Survivors Guide to Prison” might sport that label as a badge of honor. Filmmaker Matthew Cooke (“How to Make Money Selling Drugs”) launches a frenetic barrage of facts and figures, cautionary tutorials, and worst-case scenarios, in the manner of someone wielding blunt instruments to strike illuminative sparks.
His outrage likely will prove highly contagious for audiences exposed to his free-wheeling critique of the U.S. criminal justice system, which starts out as a series of practical warnings to anyone (of any racial or ethnic background) maneuvering through close encounters with zealous cops and aggressive prosecutors — the useful advice includes admonitions to be polite and, if possible, shut the hell up — and gradually expands in scope to question the need to incarcerate so many people in a supposedly free society.
Danny Trejo, Ice T, Danny Glover, and Busta Rhymes are among the notables who hit all the right talking points while providing salient advice in sequences introduced with such titles as “Surviving Arrest” and “Surviving Interrogation.” Cooke himself periodically provides gravelly voiced on-screen narration (he is lit and photographed in a manner that suggests a participant in a found-footage horror movie) while Susan Sarandon remains an unseen voiceover contributor.
Between the two of them, the film supplies an exhaustive and exhausting overload of information about a variety of topics, including the exploitation of inmate laborers at for-profit prisons, the various ways wrongly accused men and women are coerced into plea-bargains (that is, forced to plead guilty to avoid even longer sentences), and the unimaginable horrors endured by inmates who receive inadequate treatment for mental disorders, or are psychologically scarred by extended stays in solitary confinement.
Cooke — who is credited as editor and co-cinematographer as well as director — favors the harsh lighting, rapid-fire cutting, and faux scratchy visuals one might normally associate with decades-old music videos for punk rock bands. The stylistic gimmickry proves to be surprisingly potent, however, when it comes to hammering home key points about the baked-in injustices endemic to a system where arresting officers and prosecutors are more or less given free rein to do whatever they want, to whoever they want.
Gradually, “Survivors Guide to Prison” narrows its focus to concentrate on two wrongly convicted men, Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker, who spent decades behind bars because ambitious and/or ill-trained police officers and prosecutors rushed to judgment, then relied on a system geared toward covering their mistakes. Cole is African-American and Lisker is white, and that doubtless is what Cooke wants to stress: When it comes to miscarriages of justice in our country, no one is safe from being a victim of a system that stacks the deck against those who cannot afford adequate legal defense.