Busta Rhymes Hosts a screening of "Survivors Guide to Prison" / by Dena Mekawi

Written by David Alm, contributor on Forbes;


Dena Mekawi (Founder of Style & Resilience) and Ardita Jani, artist and designer for Style & Resilience had the honor of customizing a hand painted jacket for Busta Rhymes for the screening of this powerful film. Dena Mekawi, uses art and communication to highlight social issues curated the idea, while Ardita Jani hand painted. 

Social activism in partnership with YWCA Brooklyn, FAMM, #cut50, Sankofa.org and React To Film. 

The American criminal justice system trades in neither criminals nor justice. This is the premise of Survivors Guide to Prison, a new feature-length documentary from director Matthew Cooke, whose 2012 film How to Make Money Selling Drugs also couched a social justice message in a mock-how-to guide to make a serious point.

The difference is that Survivors Guide to Prison wants you to take its title -- and its advice -- to heart. The film reports that the United States now has so many laws in the books that the average American commits three felonies per day without even realizing it. Add to that a broken justice system governed less by due process and a presumption of innocence than by money, racism and a punitive approach to reform that does anything but, and the need for such advice starts to make sense.

Making matters worse, the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world and each year arrests 13 million -- more than the entire populations of New York and Los Angeles combined -- and not a single state has use-of-force laws that meet international standards. If you are a person of color, the likelihood that you will be arrested, and convicted, multiplies exponentially. A black man will receive a 20-percent longer sentence for the same crime as a white man, and African Americans comprise more than a third of the total prison population, despite comprising only about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Once inside, the injustices compound, and those of us on the outside know little of what really goes on. As Cooke notes in his narration, most of our understanding of American prisons comes from "corporate and commercially funded television" programs like MSNBC's Lockup, which the film suggests only contributes to our misguided belief that if you're in prison, you must belong there, and that prisons are essentially doing society a favor by isolating those who would otherwise break it apart. Ironically, Cooke later notes, the same Americans who blindly trust the justice system to exact justice are, in other contexts, equally prone to distrust the government.

Narrated by Cooke and Susan Sarandon, and featuring a parade of celebrities -- Chuck D, Patricia Arquette, Danny Glover, Danny Trejo, Macklemore, Deepak Chopra and Quincy Jones, among others -- Survivors Guide to Prison suffers somewhat from so many facts and figures that it can be hard to adequately digest, and its occasionally disjointed narrative conflates the numerous issues at stake, from wrongful conviction and inadequate treatment for the mentally ill to the ineffectiveness of cages as a mechanism of reform. It also relies too heavily on the stylistic tropes that seem to plague every documentary and TV show about prisons, especially those that Cooke rightly criticizes -- jumpy camerawork, scratchy title screens, frenetic cuts.