The Arquette family are actors, artists, provocateurs and activists. With the image that David Arquette has crafted for himself as the family’s resident goofball, his newest film, a documentary titled Survivors Guide to Prison, is a departure from the David Arquette persona people have come to know. His latest project champions a cause close to his heart and gives a window into another side of the actor as concerned citizen and defender of personal freedom.
David, along with his wife, Christina Arquette, joined documentary filmmaker Matthew Cooke’s latest film and social movement, Survivors Guide to Prison, as producers, with actress Susan Sarandon joining the cause as the film’s Executive Producer.
This documentary film is an eye-opening, unsettling and informative look inside America’s criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex, an industry that has continued to grow exponentially with no signs of slowing down. You’ll be introduced to the players: politicians, law enforcement officers, our judicial system and the prison-for-profit industry. You’ll gain a clearer picture of the inner workings of mass incarceration in the United States of America.
As stated on PrisonPolicy.org, “[The United States] has the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.” According to SentencingProject.org, the number of people incarcerated in the American prison system has grown from 100,000 in the year 1925 to 2,000,000 by 2015, with only 52.9 percent of prisoners locked up for violent offenses. This film explores productive alternatives to our current punishment-based mass incarceration model.
Survivor’s Guide to Prison tells the story of how the U.S. as a society got to this place. You’ll hear the rules for surviving arrest, interrogation, a criminal trial, and incarceration, should you be convicted of a crime. You’ll hear evidence presented to you about a disturbing and growing trend of a guilty-until-proven innocent system that has taken hold, how to advocate for your own personal liberties, and a growing call-to-action for criminal justice reform.
You will also witness the testimony of two men who tell their excruciating true stories: Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, both of whom served lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. You’ll live their journey with them, from being falsely accused to conviction, based on the presentation of circumstantial evidence, and the impact of long-term incarceration and eventual exoneration and release. ~Allison Kugel
Allison Kugel: What attracted you to becoming involved as a producer on Survivors Guide to Prison?
David Arquette: I was first aware of the project because I’m friends with Matthew Cooke, who is an amazing Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, who worked on the documentaries Deliver Us From Evil and How to Make Money Selling Drugs. With Survivors Guide to Prison, Matthew highlights the prison system, how corrupt it is, and how it’s prison for profit. It’s a model that is outdated; it doesn’t work anymore. The punishment model has been proven not to be successful and it’s time for change. Matthew put a really amazing documentary together. My wife Christina and I watched an early cut and we both came on board as producers. We worked with Matthew and got a bunch of great people involved. Susan Sarandon is a producer on it, Gina Belafonte, Jesse Williams — just some really great people who have done a lot of great work to help change the prison system.
So many people came on board for this film. Adrian Grenier is also a producer. Danny Trejo, Ice T, Busta Rhymes, Danny Glover, Deepak Chopra, your sister Patricia Arquette, and more. When people watch the film, they’ll feel how deeply impassioned everyone who appears on screen is about this cause.
Danny Trejo, specifically, was so generous. He’s had family members who were directly affected by it, recently getting out of prison after being in for a crime they didn’t commit. He had also been in prison way back, a long time ago, when it was a different era, but it’s close to him. Danny sees what it does to communities. One of the things that’s so horrible about this current [Criminal Justice] system is that it takes parents away. The United States locks up more women than any other country in the world. You see how horrible it is, and the dangers of dismantling the family structure. The War on Drugs, and all these different initiatives to incarcerate people, has proven to be destructive to our society. A lot of the people who are involved with this project believe there is a better way that we can rehabilitate people, and treat them like human beings rather than animals.
Do you think The War on Drugs has been, at least in part, a war on minorities and on poorer communities?
Absolutely. The laws that were enacted during the crack epidemic, specifically; the fact that if you had crack rather than cocaine, you would get a far worse sentence. There are tons of people locked up for small marijuana offenses. It’s a dated model. They’ve noticed that people who get into programs when they’re locked away, thrive. Whether it’s an art program, or they get schooling. So that’s what we are looking at. We’re trying to change things. We are working with an organization called Cut50, which is Van Jones’ organization. He’s really dedicated to cutting the current prison population in half. We’ve developed a shirt with Omaze.com, and it’s called the Dignity Shirt. We’re selling this shirt to raise money for legislation reform. That is the only way things really change, is if you change them within our political system. We’re also working to get women basic human rights that they deserve. In a lot of states, if you’re giving birth in prison, they will have you shackled.
While you’re in labor?
While you’re in labor, yeah. Many women in prison are sexually assaulted. They can still be strip searched by men or watched in showers by men. There are several things we are trying to accomplish through the process of government legislation. We are fighting for basic human rights, and for people to be treated with respect, which in turn will allow them to have more dignity.
Had Survivors Guide to Prison been made in the mid-1990s during the time of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and subsequent verdict, how do you think the events of that day would have impacted the messaging and direction of this documentary?
That was a flashpoint in our history, with the black community feeling targeted and feeling not heard, and they galvanized. There were many incidents during that time that were tragic. For example, when a young black woman was killed by a Korean business owner… there were a lot of issues during that time that came up. The interesting thing is that this whole prison industrial complex has grown since then and has become a profit stream for a lot of people. We still live in a country, and in a world, that has racial injustice all around us. It’s time to speak up and be honest about it, provide change and put money into communities that have been held back. We really look at this movie as a movement rather than just a film.
What do you hope the public gains from watching this film?
It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, the title, Survivors Guide to Prison. We say that because we see people who have survived the prison system as survivors. Just calling people “prisoners” or “inmates” and giving them numbers, it’s such a way of de-humanizing them. So, the idea of this film is to bring some compassion back into the discussion. That’s what we’re trying to do with the stories we highlight in the film about two men who were wrongly accused and went away for decades (Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole). It totally transformed their lives and changed them on such a deeply painful human level. We’re telling their stories, and we want people understand that they are more likely to be locked up in the United States than anywhere else in the world. If we are truly the land of the free, we have to start making laws that allow us to be free, and we have to recognize the difference between violent crimes and non-violent crimes. We need to start prioritizing and downgrading some of the sentences.
Is there any way to separate politics from our Criminal Justice system?
I think the only way to change the Criminal Justice system is to change it through the political system. It’s where the real work happens, and the real change happens.
If a District Attorney is counting on a certain quota of convictions to get re-elected, how do you take that skewed dynamic and turn it on its head for the greater good?
That is part of the problem. Part of the problem is our bail system, not having public defenders that are up to par, and that really represent people. There has been some change with that. There are a lot of people going into that field that are doing it for the right reasons; they want to represent people who typically can’t afford a high-powered lawyer. But it’s true; in this country if you have money, the chances that you’re going away to prison are a lot less likely than for someone who doesn’t have the funds.
If you, David Arquette, were charged with a crime, chances are you would not go to prison, not for one day.
Statistically, compared to someone without money behind them, yeah. I have a far better chance. And, in the meantime, I’ll be out on bail. I won’t be sitting in a jail for a year or two until my case gets settled.
During the making of this film, did anyone bring up the phrase “white privilege” at all? The reason I ask is because it’s been said to me, and it stopped me in my tracks.
They didn’t, but it is a real thing. There is a lot of dialogue now and people are becoming “woke,” as they say. It’s time that we faced the truth about these things and realized, “Yeah! I’ve had it a lot easier!” I was a graffiti artist as a kid, so we would be out spraying art everywhere. If we got caught in a white neighborhood, we’d get taken back to our house and dropped off. I got caught in a white neighborhood by a black cop, and then I got caught in a black neighborhood by that same black cop, and he really treated us a lot differently (laughs). We didn’t get arrested because they didn’t catch us in the act. But they knew we were up to trouble, so they did things like make us kneel on the concrete and slam our faces into the ground.
How old were you?
I was probably about 16.
Was this in L.A.?
The first time it was in Hancock Park, and the second time it was down on Jefferson and La Cienega (South Central Los Angeles). And it was, uh, my white privilege was taken from me (laughs).
Are there plans to take the film to Washington and screen it before congress?
We definitely want to take it to Washington. Christina’s uncle, Mack McLarty, was Chief of Staff to President Clinton in his first term, so he’s got a lot of connections there. We’ll hopefully have a screening at the Kennedy Center, or somewhere where people can see it. A few months after it comes out, it’s going to be on Netflix and then it will be out there for everyone to see it. We have a bunch of panels that we are putting together in New York and Los Angeles, where people can come and talk and share their feelings about this issue.
Why is Hollywood so liberal and so fiercely against the conservative agenda?
As artists, part of our job is to look around, see what’s going on, and to feel emotionally connected to injustice and what’s going on in the world. There are a lot of people in Hollywood who are very religious, very straightlaced, and not your typical Hollywood kind of liberal. They are more conservative, but they are good people. I think what it really comes down to is that we want good people to thrive. We want good people to have opportunities, we want good people to make up our laws and become our politicians. I love people that are religious, that believe in Jesus, and who find hope that way; or people who are devout in their practice in other religions like Judaism or Islam. I love that dynamic because there’s a real sort of structure there. There is a real understanding of right and wrong. I do think that when you get into extremism on either side, it then becomes destructive and you start saying, “Us and Them.” The Hollywood community wants it to be “Us.” I love the kind of movements that are happening, where you see on television the diversity of skin tones that are more representative of what our actual culture is, what our population is. We are a nation of immigrants, so it is about having that represented in Hollywood on the screen.
What do you foresee the Arquette family legacy being in decades to come?
Ultimately, we’re performers; we’re entertainers. That’s what our past, and the history of our family is about. It’s been about entertaining people. It’s really what I’m passionate about. I like acting. I like making people laugh. I like the idea of somebody having a rough day at work and being able to zone out and watch something. On that note, this isn’t the film that does that (laughs).
(Laughs) No. It’s an engaging film, it really pulls you in and it’s a must-see. But it’s not an easy watch. Parts of it are actually heartbreaking.
This film is about asking some important questions. And that is another side of entertainment, shining light on darkness.
Your grandfather was a comedian, your parents were actors, your siblings are actors. Is that something you’re hoping will continue with your own children?
My daughter Coco [with ex-wife Courteney Cox] loves singing and performing. She’s really good at it, and she’s got a great head on her shoulders about it. We’ve kept everything unprofessional, like after school plays and that sort of thing. We just want to allow her the time to grow up. Growing up in L.A. is already kind of slanted, and not completely grounded in reality. We want her to have a childhood and not have the pressures of auditioning, rejection and all that stuff. It’s important.
What do you think is the right age developmentally and emotionally for your daughter, Coco, or any child, to go through the process of auditioning for acting roles?
Totally an individual thing. If she was really pushing us, like, “Listen, mom, dad, I want to do this, I want to audition,” I think there’s something to that; a kid who’s so passionate about that being their life’s goal. But she’s been cool about taking it at a slower pace.
Out of all the Arquette siblings, who would you say is the most courageous, and why?
My whole family, I just love and respect them all. Rosanna is doing so much to stand up to all of the horrors of what’s happening in Hollywood, and in businesses in general. She’s really behind the #MeToo movement, and I’m really proud of her for that. She also supports tons of different charities. Patricia is incredible. She’s got GiveLove.org, that helps places like Haiti with their sanitation system and helps to provide clean water. Alexis was amazing; the way Alexis stood up for who she was. She was out and transgender before it was really talked about as much, and she really was a hero of mine.
Is there a heavier, more serious role in you? A side of you that people haven’t seen?
I’ve done a few films where I got to tap into that and it’s always great when you have that opportunity, so I would love that. But my favorite thing is making people laugh. I love the sound of laughter. I used to say to people who were passing away, crossing over, I’d say, “Go towards the laughter.”
Instead of, “Go towards the light,” “Go towards the laughter.” I love that.
Survivor’s Guide to Prison is in theaters, on VOD and on iTunes, February 23, 2018.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.