“Welcome to the United States of America,” says Danny Trejo at the beginning of the documentary Survivor’s Guide to Prison. “We call this the land of the free, but this country is home to the largest prison population in the world.” The documentary, which hits select theaters this weekend, addresses the failures of the American prison system in part through focusing on two specific cases. Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole were both accused of and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Lisker served 26 years, and Cole served 16.
For Trejo, the decision to get involved with the documentary was personal. He’s been to prison, even faced the death penalty, and has continued to stay involved with efforts to bring awareness to the criminal justice system and to reach out to those mired in the system. Of course, he’s also one of the most prolific movie stars of all time, having been in more than a hundred movies after a chance encounter on the set of Runaway Train (1985) got him his first job as an extra.
The Daily Beast spoke to Trejo by phone about the film, as well as his own experiences. Over the last three decades, the actor has built a reputation for playing tough guys (just look at Machete), but in conversation, he’s unfailingly open and sincere, particularly when it comes to discussing the justice system, as well as immigration and gun control.
You’ve spoken very openly with your experience with the prison system and it’s obviously very important to you; would you mind speaking a little bit about that?
Prison was a lot different when I was there. Right now, we have close to 5,000 jails in the United States. That’s more jails than we have colleges or universities. So, in a “free country,” that’s kind of backwards. You’re more apt to go to prison in the United States of America than in any other country in the world. That’s including China. When you hear that, you go, “What are you talking about?” But that’s the truth. That’s a fact. If you look at our prison system, it’s predominantly people of color. Then, predominantly poor. And it’s not just of color, it’s poor everybody, because poor’s got no color. Our system is broken, and people don’t wanna admit it. Our system is broken, our system is run by money.
[sirens audible in the background]
Don’t worry, if those are the cops, you’ve been with me all day.
Sorry, it’s very easy to hear from here.
We were in London one time, me and Ray Liotta, and he was in front of me, and I kind of stopped, I was looking at something, and then the police came around the corner, screaming, wah wah wah, so I ran up to Ray Liotta and went, “OK, I’ve been with you all day.” He literally fell on the floor laughing, he couldn’t believe it. I go, “Come on, Ray, don’t!”
“I’m trying to be chill about it!”
“You’re making a scene!” [laughs] It was just a joke.
To go back to what you said earlier, what do you think has been the most significant change in the criminal justice system since your experience with it?
Right now, the biggest problem is that the district attorney has all the power. It’s not even up to a judge anymore. The judge is a referee. The judge just makes sure that this is done, this is done, and this is done. Let’s say you get arrested. You have too much to drink and you get in a car accident. Even if you didn’t have too much to drink, if somebody crashes into you, it’s still your fault if you’ve been drinking. Now, you go to court, and the district attorney says, “OK, this is what we’ve got. You can do five years in prison right now for drunk driving and getting in an accident. Instead of that, why don’t you pay this $10,000 fine and just do 6 months in jail.” What would you do? You go to court, do five years, or if you’ve got enough money for the great attorney, you can do it. But if you don’t, what do you do? “Give me the five years, give me the three years.” We no longer have a system of justice, we have a system of making deals. That’s all it is. You make a deal with the district attorney, you don’t make a deal with the judge. The district attorney takes that deal to the judge, and says, “Your honor, I approve this deal.” Then that’s set. We have a deal-making system.
How did you get to be involved with this documentary?
David [Arquette] asked me. When they called me—it was so funny—they called me when my cousin, who was 17 when he went to prison, I went and picked him up at Ironwood [State Prison], he was 55 years old. So he did 38 years in prison, right? Our criminal justice system is crazy. If you’re 17 and you commit a crime, by the time you’re 25, you’re a different person. You’re a man, now. “OK, I screwed up. That was wrong.” You know what I mean? But it doesn’t matter. You’ve got this much time to do. Our sentencing is totally out of proportion to the rest of the world. Some people, it should be that way, but let’s make it fair, you know? There’s 40,000 to 100,000 people wrongly convicted who are in prison right now. Even if all of them said, “We’re innocent,” it would still take them five years to get out of prison.
That was definitely one of the most striking things about the two cases that the film focuses on, that they said they were innocent but it took so long to get through the system. Were you familiar with their stories prior to coming on board with the documentary?
The minute David asked me, I said absolutely, because it’s personal. And besides the personal interest, these cases were so crazy. This is so crazy. Our prison system—let me tell you, I speak at juvenile hall. Every time I speak at juvenile hall, I’ll speak in front of 25, 30 kids, right? I’ll look at eight of them and know that they’re on the spectrum of autism, somewhere. One kid couldn’t stand to be touched. It hurt him. The teacher grabbed him, but she wasn’t trained. She grabbed him, and he freaked out. And when they called the police, the police grabbed him. So he just totally flipped out. I was sitting there talking to him, and I could see it. This kid is right on the spectrum. “What did you do?” “Uh, nothing.” He didn’t even know what he did wrong, but he’s now caught up in the system. So every time something happens, and somebody grabs him, he’ll freak out, again. This kid is gonna end up in a state penitentiary, without a doubt, and for what? For having autism.
If you look at the prison population right now in California, 98 percent are below the poverty level. Poverty, you get in trouble. Education, same thing. Single parent, same thing. Something like 73 percent of all prisoners had single parents. I came from a really good home, but mine was drugs. Right now, right this minute, if we let all the non-violent drug offenders out of prison, our prison population would drop about 30 percent. The nonviolent, you know, guys that were caught with two, three rocks of cocaine. Get them into a recovery center, get them into some kind of treatment center.
And right now, we’re trying to send Dreamers out of the United States. Whether you’re with Dreamers or not, I just wanna give you some facts. Dreamers have to go to college. They have to be students. They have to be employed. They have to pay taxes. So either you’re going to school, working, or in college. Now, we’re sending them back. We want to send them back. Our President and our civil justice system says that they’re illegal. We have thousands of inmates in private prisons that are illegal aliens, but we’re not sending them back. Why? Because those states are getting paid to house them. Private prisons are the stupidest things in the world. You have a private prison, they’re there to make money. They get paid no matter what. I have beds for 2,000 prisoners. Well, if the state only gives me 1,000, I still get paid for 2,000. And I’m there to make money. So if it costs me $5,000 a year to take care of this prisoner, I’m there to make money, let’s cut it down to $1,000, and we’ll make more. That’s business.
I know, but that’s our system. Our system is broken. When I went to prison, you could actually go to college via correspondence. You could do correspondence courses, but they took that out, because they said, “Wait a minute, these guys that are in prison are going to college for free!” It wasn’t free, we were paying for it. But, “They’re sitting there going to college, and my kid, I gotta blah blah blah,” so they took it out.
That was in the news recently, too, that they started cracking down on the number of books, and which books, inmates are allowed to read, which just seems really unfair.
Like I said, I don’t want anything—I’m all for law and order, but the reality is, even with the police, what do you call the guys that police the police? Internal affairs? They’re cops! They’re cops, so how am I going to police the police, if I’m the police? I know cops that have put people in jail, but they know they’re innocent. And they’re still working. The cops that put the people in jail in the film are still working, they’re still police. So let’s just get there with the system, you know? I still think we need a citizens group to be internal affairs.
Let me tell you something, do you want to know how to stop all the—don’t tell anybody, OK—how to stop all the illegal weapons, all the automatic weapons, how to take them off the shelves, how to make laws against them?
You gotta bring some Mexican, 18 [years old], and you tell every young black kid, “Hey, go buy an automatic weapon,” and you see how quick that law changes. You see how quick they go, “We gotta do something.” It’s like, who’s buying the weapons? You can go, I can buy one—well, I can’t, I’m an ex-convict—but what I’m saying is that it’s so unfair. I’m not against the NRA, I think, great, arm yourselves, but the only thing an automatic weapon is for, is for killing people. Nothing else. You don’t shoot deer with an AK-47. You don’t hunt with a bazooka. That kid that just killed all those kids in Florida—if somebody has a revolver, and they’re, pow pow pow, you know after six [shots], you can rush them. But if somebody’s got a 50-bullet clip, brr-rr-rr, you know, you gotta hide. Automatic weapons are for killing people. That’s all they’re for. And I’m not against automatic weapons, I’m just stating what they’re for.
Wow, I just stood on my soapbox, huh?
I think it’s an important conversation! It feels like what everyone’s been saying about gun control has been so warped. Not just in terms of gun control, but about prisons and the criminal justice system as well. So having someone talk about it is a good thing.
People don’t realize that we have 5,000 jails in the United States. And because our prisons make money, our sentences get longer, because the longer they stay in prison, the more money they make.
Is there anything in particular that you hope this film will accomplish? Obviously, ideally, there will be more awareness about the system.
I want people to be aware of how unfair the system is, and that if they can keep 45,000 to 100,000 innocent people in prison, then they can look at it differently.
You mentioned that you also go to juvenile hall to talk to people there. Is there anything else you do in terms of activism or outreach?
I wish more celebrities would get involved, simply because young people know us. I don’t know you, but if you went to a juvenile hall, a girls’ juvenile hall, the girls don’t know you. First, you have to get their attention, which is impossible because they have none. Then, you have to keep their attention, which is impossible, because of No. 1, they don’t have none. And then, you have to deliver your message. First, you have to show them you’re cool, which, you’re 10 years older than them, you’ve lost your cool. And then you deliver your message. My message, my thing, is that I have their attention the minute I walk onto their campus. Not Danny Trejo, but the guy from Spy Kids, the guy from Heat, the guy from Desperado. If you’re Mexican, the guy from Blood In, Blood Out. It’s like, “Whoa, it’s that dude, man!” So their receptors are open, they’re listening. Teachers have come up to me, like, “How do you do that?” I don’t do that, that’s the guy from Spy Kids. They saw me on TV! So I’m not just walking in there going, “I’m Dudley Do-Right, and I’m here to help you kids.” I’m not that guy! So I wish more celebrities would get involved. Some can’t, because they’re really busy, but, y’know.
You spoke about this a little in prior interviews, but there are a lot of stereotypes about prison in film and TV. Is there anything that’s ever stopped you from taking a role?
If the bad guy gets away, that’s kind of the wrong message. But the bad guy always dies, so, OK, I’ll do it. If the bad guy ends up going off with the girl in the sunset and kills the good guy, nah. It’s stupid.
I read last year that you have another documentary about yourself in the works, Inmate #1. Can you tell me anything about that?
It’s kind of my story, you know? It’s called Inmate #1 because, for the first five years of my career, I played “Inmate #1.” I was always Inmate #1, and directors always said, “Take off your shirt,” because they wanna see my tattoos, so I took off my shirt. The first time I was interviewed, this young lady, fresh out of school, she goes, “Danny, aren’t you afraid of being typecast?” I didn’t even know what typecasting was. I go, “What do you mean?” She says, “You’re always playing the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.” I thought about it, then I said, “I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos!” So, somebody’s getting it right. I’ve had a lot of fun in this business, and I owe this business a lot.