The gulags at home – a review of the “Survivors Guide to Prison”

activist, author, former political prisoner

“What you see in most TV shows, that’s not reality.” -Danny Trejo

by Camille Marino
June 12, 2018

I’m watching the mainstream news this morning and listening to politicians and talking heads discussing human rights violations in North Korea after Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un yesterday. This may be the optimal moment in time to analyze the gulags and human rights abuses that serve as a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the US. I thought 13th was the most important documentary I’d seen until I watched Matthew Cooke’s Surviviors Guide to Prison on Netflix last week; both, however, are required viewing for anyone concerned with institutional racism, institutional slavery, and industrialized mass incarceration.

Danny Trejo opens the film: “Welcome to America. We call this the ‘land of the free.’ But we are home to the largest prison population in the world.” Once a person is arrested, many expect that they’re entitled to a trial where a Perry-Mason-type advocate will vehemently fight to prove his client’s innocence in the adversarial courtroom. If one even gets to trial, I think something one of my lawyers once said to me resonates: “you want a Perry Mason defense on a McDonald’s budget.” Without money, you’re already guilty. So before one is arrested is probably the best time to learn some facts of life according to this documentary:

  • we have more prisons than colleges & universities;
  • 1/3 of women incarcerated globally are locked up in the US;
  • 13 million million people (the poulations of New York & Los Angeles combined) are arrested every year;
  • our “use of force” laws do not meet even basic international standards;
  • the Wall Street Journal suggests that we have so many laws on the books that the average American commits 3 felonies a day without even knowing it.
  • a man who served time in Iranian solitary confinement confirms that solitary in the US is harsher;
  • international human rights laws do not allow more than 4 months of isolation;
  • we keep prisoners in isolation for years;
  • prison slave labor provides massive profits from some on the most profitable corporations;
  • you’re more likely to go to jail here than anywhere else in the world.

Survivors Guide to Prison examines how the mentally-ill are warehoused inside prisons. It discusses how medical care is basically non-existent despite popular fallacies to the contrary. This film demonstrates with stark realism exactly why you should never answer questions without a lawyer present. And the all-important issue of being intimidated into taking a plea deal.  On a personal note, I cannot stress enough how much we need to resist succumbing to the plea deal. If everyone arrested demanded a trial, the system would shut down.

All of the information is relayed through  the stories of two wrongly-convicted, long-term prisoners. Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole. Lisker is white, Cole is an African-American, but they share a common denominator — neither can afford to buy anything resembling justice inside a system where the goal is to chalk up convictions and profits for shareholders.

In 1985, 17-year old Lisker returned to his Sherman Oaks home one day and found his mother stabbed to death. He called the police, was subdued, and after his mother died while he was being interrogated, he was arrested. Despite identifying the actual murderer from day one, incompetent police and malicious prosecutors made sure that the grieving son would pay for the crime. After 26 years, through the efforts of many people including one cop who challenged the cover-ups within his own department, Bruce Lisker was released in 2009.

In 1995, 19-year old Cole was arrested at his home for the murder of a man weeks earlier outside a south Los Angeles brothel. Despite no evidence and based on the testimony of a pimp, he and a friend were given life sentences with no parole. In prison, Cole refused to succumb to intimidation and was forced to murder another inmate rather than become a victim himself. If convicted of murder a second time, he’d have received a death sentence. The California Innocence Project stepped in and he was ultimately released 15 years after his first wrongful conviction.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to be a rapist, a murderer, or a thief to be arrested. A cop simply has to not like you. Once you find yourself behind bars, if you don’t have the financial resources to buy a modicum of justice, I hope you’ll have watched this film instead of walking into a system designed to enslave you blind.




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