'Survivors Guide to Prison' Filmmakers Discuss "Really Barbaric" U.S. System

“We have the largest prison population on the planet and it’s not because Americans are uniquely evil,” writer and director Matthew Cooke tells THR.

You’re more likely to go to prison in the United States than any other country in the world, as writer and director Matthew Cooke argues in his new film Survivors Guide to Prison. With the help of two men who spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, Survivors Guide to Prison exposes a seemingly broken justice system that needs to change.

Cooke and the documentary’s producer, David Arquette, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss their eye-opening film. “We’re the largest prison population on the planet and it’s not because Americans are uniquely evil and criminal, and therefore more Americans are in prison,” Cooke said. “It’s because we’ve got this really barbaric system in place and we need to take a look at it.”

Cooke and Arquette also explained the personal experiences that put them on a path to creating the documentary. “I had the opportunity to teach acting class in San Quentin for two days and that was a really eye-opening experience, just to see these people and talk to them about their story and how they ended up [there],” Arquette told THR. “A lot of time, almost everyone I had talked to was a victim of abuse. So they’re going through all this pain and they’ve built up this sort of attitude towards life with, ‘I’m going to make sure I get them before they get me.’ Which just led them to a life of crime.”

Cooke also argued that Survivors Guide isn’t a police-bashing film that intends to serve a political agenda – it’s about caring for the victims. “If we care about victims of crime, if we want victims of crime to heal, to be able to overcome whatever befell them, if we want to help people and save them from a life of crime, if we want to make society more harmonious and just, then we use a completely different system than the prison model,” he said.

Survivors Guide to Prison is out now.