Arts & Events

‘A Survivor’s Guide to Prison’

Grand Cinema hosts discussion about mass incarceration

According to a study conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, one is more likely to go to prison in the United States than anywhere else, given that our incarceration rate is  four times higher than the international average. On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the Grand Cinema decided to contribute to the national conversation on mass incarceration by hosting a screening of the documentary “A Survivor’s Guide to Prison,” in addition to holding a post-film discussion with a panel of local activists, experts and politicians.

Directed by Matthew Cooke, “A Survivor’s Guide to Prison” was released on Netflix in February of this year and explores the United States prison experience largely from the perspectives of two wrongfully convicted men, Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker. Narrated by Cooke, Susan Sarandon and a host of other relevant pop-culture figures, the film covers everything from how to keep confrontations with police from escalating, to the plea-deal process, to surviving solitary confinement and adjusting to life after prison.

The film’s narrative is framed as free advice for anyone who may find themself arrested. However, the film quickly expands in scope to address the question on everyone’s minds: Why is it that in our so-called free society, so many people are being incarcerated?

To summarize, the short answer is that on virtually every level, the United States Justice System incentivises putting people in prison and keeping them there.

After the screening, the Grand Cinema held a discussion. Many of the panelists, in addition to being activists, community leaders and academics, were also formerly incarcerated themselves. In fact, all but one of the panelists (Washington State Senator Jeannie Darneille) had had direct experience with the criminal justice system at one time or another.

The first question that Philip Cowan, Executive Director of the Grand Cinema and discussion host, asked the panel was about their general impressions of the film, either moments that resonated with them, or aspects that the film might have missed about the prison experience.   

Chris Poulos, attorney and executive director of the Washington State Reentry Council, expressed how the film had brought back memories he hadn’t encountered in quite some time.

“I used to always talk about my story, but now I’m mostly talking about policy,” he said.

Even when Poulos did share his personal experience, he went on to explain, he didn’t dwell on the details of prison, as much as his life afterwards.

“I don’t tell my prison experience; I never really told that. I talk about the recovery and reentry. I never really talked about the trauma, and this brought all of that right back,” he said. The theater fell silent, as Poulos wiped tears from his eyes.

While many shared in Poulos’ emotional reaction to the film, the panel was also cognizant of its blind spots. Chanel Rhymes, Program Analyst for the Washington State Supreme Court Minority and Justice Commission, expressed her disappointment at the film’s male-centered perspective.

“African-American women and Native women are the fastest-growing populations in prisons right now,” she said. “A woman’s prison experience is completely different than men’s.”

Poulos also expressed his resentment towards the film’s preoccupation with violence in prison: “Sisterhood and brotherhood can be found in prison,” he said.

While he did not deny that incidents of violence certainly occur in prisons, he took issue with its depiction in the documentary. “The idea that it’s just who’s gonna stab who first all the time is not the situation,” he went on. “Some of the most wonderful men and women I’ve met are people who are incarcerated, have been incarcerated and the people I did time with.”  

Indeed, the dehumanization of prisoners, both in life and in their media representations, was a salient theme throughout the night. And it was the courageous vulnerability displayed by Poulos and his fellow panelists that was the most valuable aspect of the event.

It is rare to have the opportunity to hear directly from those who are most affected by large systemic issues such as mass incarceration. In fact, it is this distance that often makes it that much easier for the average person to remain complacent. In giving these individuals a platform to speak directly to the community, the Grand Cinema provided an invaluable resource for the city of Tacoma.

Regardless of the film’s flaws, the screening that night achieved at least two things: starting a conversation and providing a space for members of the community to engage with one another, face to face, about issues that matter.