The Best Prison Movies to Watch

Table of Contents

Prison movies are a film strand that chronicles life in prison and generally attempts to escape from prison. In this genre there are also must-see movies like Robert Bresson’s A Man Escape, one of the best masterpieces ever. Prison movies span various genres: from drama movies that analyze the nature of prisons to action movies such as up to funny comedies. The stories of the prison movies consist of escape attempts, gang activities inside the prison, efforts of wrongly accused perpetrators to show their innocence and ruthlessness of the guards and jailers. There is a whole sub-genre of movies where inmates participate in boxing matches or martial arts matches on which bets are made. Prison movies set during the war ended up being a popular sub-genre called “prisoner-of-war movies”. Prison movies are a very prolific cinematic genre that started in the 1940s that has continued to churn out interesting movies over time.

prison-movies

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

In 1947, Andy Dufresne is found guilty of killing his wife and her lover is punished with 2 life sentences in the state prison by Shawshank. Befriends Ellis “Red” Redding, a prisoner and smuggler serving a life sentence, who gets a hammer and a large Rita Hayworth poster for Andy. Assigned to serve in the prison laundry, Andy is often sexually assaulted. 25 years after the release of “The Shawshank Redemption”, a prison escape film based on Stephen King’s 1982 novel “Rita Hayworth and also Shawshank Redemption”, it remains among the best prison movies.

Brute Force (1947) 

On a dark and stormy morning in Westgate Prison, inmates were squeezed into a small cell to see Joe Collins returning from his warrant in solitary confinement from the window. Joe is angry and talks about escaping. The warden is under pressure to strengthen the security of the prison. His co-worker, Captain Munsey, is a sadist who uses inmates to pit them against each other and to create problems so that he can punish them. 

A film noir set in Westgate prison, “Brute Force” stars Burt Lancaster. Directed by Jules Dassin and written by Richard Brooks, the film chronicles the grim facts of the American prison system in the 1940s, and has continued to be staggeringly topical for over 30 years. 

A Man Escape (1956)

In Lyon in 1943, Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance, jumps out of the vehicle that is taking him to the Montluc prison. He is immediately captured and his German captors handcuff, beat and lock him up. During his time in prison, Fontaine regularly hears gunfire as other prisoners are killed. Initially, Fontaine was placed in a cell on the ground floor of Montluc. He interacts with his cell neighbor by tapping on the wall and is often able to speak with Terry, a member of a small group who is able to train in an unsupervised courtyard, from his window. Terry brings Fontaine’s letters to his family and the Resistance superiors and provides him with a safety pin so he can open his handcuffs.

It is a 1956 French prison escape film directed by Robert Bresson. It is based on a story by André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance who was held in Montluc prison during World War II by the Germans. The film was in competition at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, and is among Bresson’s masterpieces. Bresson won the Best Director award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. A Man Escape is a lesson in absolute cinematic rigor and one of the best movies of all time

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) 

Robert Stroud is locked up as a boy for committing a murder in Alaska. He reveals himself as a rebellious prisoner, struggling against a rigid prison system: while being moved by train with several other inmates, he breaks the window to allow the suffocated prisoners to catch their breath. Comes into conflict with Harvey Shoemaker, director of Leavenworth Prison. While behind bars, Stroud discovers that his mother attempted to see him but was refused. In a rage, he attacks a guard, stabbing her to death. Stroud is punished with the death penalty, however his mother manages to turn his sentence into life imprisonment. The sentence requires that he be placed in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.

The 1962 prison film “Birdman of Alcatraz” features main character Robert Stroud, played by Burt Lancaster, a guilty killer who spent much of his life in Kansas’s Leavenworth Prison. In addition to becoming a bird scholar to kill time, the once-rebellious Stroud ends up being a prisoner of good conduct throughout his life sentence, and his affair gained popularity after a biography of his life. has been written. Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand and even Betty Field are the co-stars of this famous drama, which has garnered 4 Oscar nom8nations.

The Great Escape (1963)

At the end of 1942 the German Nazi armies transferred many prisoners to Stalag Luft III, a brand new maximum security prisoner-of-war camp run by Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger. The detainee retreat council, Organization “X”, led by “Big X”, RAF squadron leader Roger Bartlett, a former Gestapo detainee, and with the assistance of senior British policeman Ramsey group captain , devises an adventurous strategy for escaping from prison. The men organize themselves directly into groups, working at the same time with 3 escape routes. 

Steve McQueen leads a stellar cast that also includes James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn in “The Great Escape”, a prison escape film set in World War II and based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 non-fiction book of the same name. The film is partly fictional, the publication is an account of the actual mass escape of various British prisoners of battle from the German POW camp of Stalag Luft III in 1944. Directed by John Sturges, “The Great Escape” is a classic film that has been enjoyed by both critics and audiences over the decades.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) 

In the early 1950s in Florida, WWII veteran Lucas “Luke” Jackson was jailed for vandalism committed one night when he was drunk. He is punished with 2 years in prison in a prison camp run by a warden called the Captain. The jailer informs the new inmates of the rules. Even small offenses are punished by placing prisoners in a small wooden cubicle on the prison lawn with little air and very little space to move.

Paul Newman has had a long and prestigious film career: among his most legendary movies is the 1967 prison drama “Cool Hand Luke”. Newman plays Lucas “Luke” Jackson, a man who is jailed for vandalism. Thanks to the role of Newman, an elegant script and masterfully shot cult scenes, “Cool Hand Luke” won 4 Oscars and has always been highly regarded by critics.

Papillon (1973) 

Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), is a burglar nicknamed “Papillon” after having a butterfly tattoo on his upper body. In 1933 in France, he was found wrongly guilty of killing a murder and was punished with life imprisonment in the French Guiana prison. On the way, she meets a guy, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a notorious forger. By resisting the fears of life in a POW camp, they both end up being friends.

Created by Dalton Trumbo and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, “Papillon” is the story of 2 boys’ attempts to escape from prison in French Guiana. Very expensive film, “Papillon” also earns more than $ 53 million at the box office. McQueen earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Henri Charriere, the inmate nicknamed Papillon. It is certainly a classic of prison movies known to many audiences. 

The Longest Yard (1974)

A former professional football player named Paul “Wrecking” Crewe abandons his beloved Melissa in Palm Beach, Florida. After taking his Maserati-powered Citroën SM without approval and being caught by police in a chase, Crewe is punished with 18 months in state prison. The director, Rudolph Hazen, is a football fanatic who runs a semi-professional group. He wants Crewe to help him coach the group. Crewe eventually agrees to play and creates a prison group.

1974’s hilarious “The Longest Yard” has been remade 3 times, but none of the sequels compare to the first film. Played by Burt Reynolds, co-star Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter and Bernadette Peter’s, along with real NFL players Ray Nitschke, Mike Henry, Jim Nicholson and Ray Ogden, “The Longest Yard” was praised and even won Golden Globe for Best Picture and was nominated for an Oscar.

Midnight Express (1978) 

On vacation in Istanbul, Turkey in 1970, American college student Billy Hayes binds 2kg of hashish to his upper body. While boarding a plane to return to the United States, Billy is arrested by the Turkish authorities, who are on high alert for terrorist attacks. Billy claims he acquired hashish from a taxi driver and also helps the authorities find it for release. At a nearby market, Billy signals the taxi driver to the cops, who arrest him, but have no plans to release Billy.

In 1970, American university student Billy Hayes was jailed in Turkey for trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish. Punished at 4 years, Hayes was later sentenced to 30 years, and made many escape attempts from his Turkish prison. Hayes’ story was told in the 1977 book “Midnight Express,” which was adapted by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, with Brad Davis playing Hayes.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979) 

In the early 1960s, Frank Morris, a cunning criminal who escaped from various prisons, reaches the maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island. The warden briefly instructs him that Alcatraz is special within the US prison system for its extremely high degree of protection and that no prisoner has ever managed to escape. In the following days Morris meets a couple of prisoners: the eccentric Litmus, who loves sweets; English, a black prisoner serving 2 life sentences for killing 2 white men in self-defense, and the elderly Doc, who paints pictures. 

With an elaborate plan, the 3 prisoners escape from the federal penitentiary of Alcatraz in 1962 through the icy waters of the San Francisco bay. Their bodies were never recovered many people think that Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin were the only ones to escape from the island prison. In 1979, Clint Eastwood, Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau played the 3 prisoners in “Escape from Alcatraz” directed by Don Siegel, a classic prison movie. 

Brubaker (1980)

In 1969, Henry Brubaker arrives at Wakefield State Prison in Arkansas disguised as a prisoner. He immediately witnesses widespread abuse and corruption, consisting of sexual assaults, abuse, worm-infected food, scams. At one point Brubaker reveals that he is the new warden of the prison. Brubaker tries to reform the prison, with an eye to human rights, often clashing with the corrupt prison authorities. 

He hires longtime inmates, including trusted Larry Lee Bullen, Richard “Dickie” Coombes, and former manager Purcell’s employee to help with reform. Influenced by the 1967 Arkansas prison scandal, “Brubaker” earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards, although it was actually based on the 1969 book Complices to the Crime.

Stir Crazy (1980)

Promising star Harry Monroe (Pryor) is working as a waiter but is fired when cooks inadvertently use his stash of cannabis as oregano during a dinner. His friend, playwright Skip Donahue (Wilder), works as a shop detective when he believes he sees a popular actress stealing and her accusation gets him fired. Skip, the optimist of the two, convinces Harry that they need to take a trip to California. They leave New York City in a battered Dodge RV, doing precarious jobs along the way. They end up committing a burglary in a bank and are sentenced to 125 years in prison. Both characters are still involved in a lot of difficulties behind bars in this one comedy directed by Sidney Poitier that grossed more than $ 100 million in the United States alone, more than any other film directed by an African American to date.

Bad Boys (1983)

Mick O’Brien is a 16-year-old Irish-American pimp from Chicago. Most of Mick’s criminal activities include stealing purses, vandalism and assault, however he wants bigger things. Mick’s effort to scam his Puerto Rican competitor, Paco Moreno, goes awry, causing Mick’s partner and friend Carl to be eliminated, and Mick involuntarily runs over and kills Paco’s eight-year-old brother when he attempts to escape from police. 

Mick is sent to Rainford Juvenile Prison. Most of the guards are just executors except Ramon Herrera who has hopes for some prisoners, most notably Mick. The 1983 prison film directed by Rick Rosenthal garnered critical acclaim, particularly for the role of Sean Penn played when the actor was 23.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

The film centers on a relationship between 2 extremely different people who share a cell in Brazil during the Brazilian military dictatorship: Valentin Arregui, who is sent to prison after being tortured , due to his activities on behalf of a subversive left-wing group, and Luis Molina, an effeminate homosexual in prison for raping a minor. Molina kills time amidst the memories of her favorite movies, a wartime romantic thriller that’s also a Nazi propaganda film. He tells the plot of the film to comfort Valentin and distract him from the harsh reality of the prison. Valentin motivates Molina to have self-esteem and educates him on politics. Regardless of whether Valentin sometimes gets angry with Molina for his superficial visions, a relationship is established between the two.

Based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 book of the same name, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” the cast includes William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga, and was directed by Brazilian director Héctor Babenco. A prison film, a story of transformation, love and crime in a Brazilian prison, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” garnered good reviews, and William Hurt received an Oscar for Best Actor and a BAFTA for the role of transgender prisoner Luis Molina. Additionally, this drama won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Non-Original Screenplay.

American Me (1992)

The film portrays 30 years of the life of a Mexican gang in Los Angeles. The story opens with a young Latin couple Esperanza and Pedro Santana who suffer discrimination from sailors. Pedro is taken to the street and beaten along with other Latin Americans with torn clothes, while Esperanza is gang raped by the sailors. The story continues years later, in 1959, and focuses on the eldest son of the Santana Montoya family, a teenager who forms a gang. They find themselves committing crimes and are arrested.

“American Me” is not a realistic representation of the power of the Mexican mafia in the California prison system in the 1950s and even 1960s. It is the story of Montoya Santana, a young man from Los Angeles who creates a gang that steals much of his life. Edward James Olmos plays the lead and directs the film, which was selected at the Cannes Film Festival but was a box office failure.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

In Belfast, Gerry Conlon is mistakenly arrested by the British security forces as a sniper and persecuted until a riot breaks out. Gerry is sent to London by his father to stop a retaliation against him. One night, Gerry robs a woman. While taking drugs in a park with his friend Paul Hill, along with Irish homeless Charlie Burke, a riot occurs in Guildford, in which 4 and a civilian are killed, as well as causing many injuries. Returning to Belfast much later, Gerry is jailed on terrorism charges and flown to the Kingdom, where he and his friend Paul are abused by authorities during interrogation.

“In the Name of the Father” tells the real events about people who were wrongly jailed for the IRA attacks of 2 bars in Guildford, England, in 1974. The film scored 7 Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Jim Sheridan), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Pete Postlethwaite) and Best Supporting Actress (Emma Thompson).

Dead Man Walking (1995)

Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to death for the murder of a teenage couple, has been on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 6 years. Poncelet asks Sister Helen Prejean, with whom he had correspondence, to assist him with a final appeal. Helen chooses to go to Poncelet, who is conceited, racist and sexist, and doesn’t even pretend to feel remorse. By encouraging a skilled lawyer to handle Poncelet’s case, Helen attempts to get him a life sentence instead of the death penalty. After many visits, she develops a relationship with him. At the same time, he meets Poncelet’s mother, Lucille, and the families of the two victims. The families of the victims do not understand Sister Helen’s efforts to assist Poncelet. They prefer “absolute justice”, that is, his life over that of their children.

“Dead Man Walking” is one of the most famous prison movies and has won 4 Oscars, including a Best Actress win for Susan Sarandon, a Best Actor nomination for Sean Penn and Best Director for Tim Robbins. The film earned over $ 80 million and received rave reviews.

Sleepers (1996)

Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra, Tommy Marcano, Michael Sullivan and John Reilly are young friends who lived in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s. Dad “Bobby” Carillo, their pastor and himself a young criminal in the past, tries to teach them to distinguish between good and evil. The boys start committing petty crimes for local gangster King Benny. In the summer of 1967, the 4 boys take a hotdog cart, which they involuntarily roll down the subway stairs, seriously injuring an elderly man. They are all sentenced to serving time at Wilkinson Home for Boys in upstate New York. During their detention they are continually subjected to sexual assaults and abuse by guard heads Sean Nokes, Henry Addison, Ralph Ferguson and Adam Styler.

“Sleepers” is a prison film about the abuse of 4 children by the guards of a youth reform center. Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup and even Ron Eldard play adult kids, seeking revenge on the guards, with Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Minnie Driver appearing in supporting roles. “Sleepers” earned $ 165 million at the box office, garnered generally favorable reviews.

American History X (1998)

High school intern Danny Vinyard annoys his Jewish history instructor Murray by choosing to write a civil liberties essay on Mein Kampf. The African American principal and Dr. Bob Sweeney inform Danny that he will be expelled. Danny’s first writing is an article about his older brother Derek, a former Sweeney trainee and former neo-Nazi leader who is released from prison that very day. Years earlier, Danny and Derek’s father, a firefighter, was shot and killed by a black drug dealer while putting out a fire in their home. Immediately after his death, Derek makes a racist statement in a television interview. Famous white supremacist Cameron Alexander ends up being Derek’s coach and they form their violent gang of white supremacists called Disciples of Christ (DOC) in Venice Beach. A competent basketball player, Derek takes control of the local courts and sets up an attack on a grocery store that employs illegal Mexican immigrants.

In “American History X” the story of Derek (Edward Norton) while incarcerated is an essential factor in the 1998 story. Edward Furlong, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach, Beverly D’Angelo, Ethan Suplee and Fairuza Balk complete the cast. Norton gained a lot of appreciation for his role as a former white supremacist and even won an Oscar for Best Actor.

The Green Mile (The Green Mile, 1999)

In an assisted home in Louisiana in 1999, Elder Paul Edgecomb gets emotional as he sees the film Stovepipe hat. His friend Elaine worries about him and Paul tells her that the film brought to mind past moments he experienced when he was a death row officer at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, nicknamed “The Green Mile”. In 1935, Paul managed the correctional officers Brutus “Brutal” Howell, Dean Stanton, Harry Terwilliger and Percy Wetmore. Percy, the nephew of the state governor’s wife, displays a perverted character, however he hides behind his family ties to avoid being held accountable; is particularly violent towards inmate Eduard Delacroix, breaking his fingers and killing his animal mouse.

Stephen King has a penchant for writing prison stories and movies: even the 1999 dream movie “The Green Mile” tells prisoners as victims in a Louisiana jail. Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Pepper, and even Gary Sinise are the cast actors of this Oscar-nominated Best Picture, Best Actor not protagonist (Duncan), Best Screenplay and Best Sound. 

Animal Factory (2000)

Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a scion of a middle-class family, is arrested for drug possession. In prison he attracts the sympathies of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who helps him overcome the terrible impact with prison. But Ron, shortly before the trial, is raped by another inmate and in revenge he stabs him along with Earl. When the events are discovered he is deemed dangerous and is jailed for 5 years.

Steve Buscemi directs this prison film set in San Quentin titled “Animal Factory”. Buscemi has put together a great cast: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, John Heard, Mickey Rourke and Tom Arnold. The film grossed just $ 43,805 but was praised by film critics.

Love at first sight – I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

“I Love You Phillip Morris” is not really a prison movie but a bizarre black comedy about a man named Steven (Jim Carrey) who leaves his fiancée and moves to Miami, where he lives a new gay life and makes a living as a cheat. Eventually he ends up in jail and falls in love with an inmate named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and spends the rest of the film trying to get Phillip out of jail. “I Love You Phillip Morris” was not very successful but was nevertheless praised by both audiences and critics alike, with Carrey’s performance cited as one of her best roles.

Caesar Must Die (2012)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar play has come to an end and the actors are rewarded with enthusiastic applause. The lights go out; the actors leave the stage and go back to their cells. They are all prisoners of the Roman Rebibbia maximum security prison. Some of them think melancholy: “since I discovered art, this cell has really ended up being a prison”. The directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani invested 6 months following the rehearsals of this production inside the prison; their film shows how the universality of Shakespeare’s language helps inmates deal with treason, power, violence and dishonesty.

Caesar must die is a docufiction set in prison in 2012 directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. The film was in competition at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear. The film is set in the Rebibbia prison in Rome, and follows the inmates in the rehearsal of a play about Julius Caesar. The film makes use of real inmates, and is shot in black and white. It is a deeply humanist film that blends light humor and psychological insight. Paolo Taviani said he hoped that even a prisoner with a terrible sentence, even with a life sentence, is and remains a human being. 

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New movies every week. Watch on any device, without any ads. Cancel at any time.