Prison Movies: Films of Incarceration

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) or Furyo is a Japanese prison movie by Nagisa Ōshima.

Although to our knowledge there is no such thing as a literal prison horror movie—meaning there is no movie that takes place in prison that also has vampires, werewolves, and demon-possessed succubi—but prison movies can all classify as horror films based on the fact that prison itself is horrifying.

According to the book Prison Movies, Cinema Behind Bars, author Kevin Kehrwald describes the horror of prison life succinctly and poetically.

The gangster’s perverse pursuit of the American dream is irrelevant to the prisoner for whom that dream has already failed. At their core, prison films are about self-preservation at the hands of oppressive authority. 

The films on this list convey the horrors of prison and force us to consider whether placing human beings in cages has anything to do with rehabilitation and justice as much as it has to do with collective sadism and a thirst for vengeance. They also deal with how broken people struggle against the system that broke them.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

This film holds the prestigious honor of being the first film in the Criterion Collection.

The story of two French prisoners of war in a German camp during World War I was directed by legendary auteur Jean Renoir and was picked by Orson Welles as his favorite film of all time. The two prisoners repeatedly attempt to escape but are continually foiled by the German guard, played by famous actor Erich von Stroheim, who finally sends them to a place where escape seems impossible.

Brute Force (1947)

Audiences were shocked at the film’s violence, which surpassed what other films of the time typically displayed.

Burt Lancaster delivers the performance of a lifetime as Joe Collins, an inmate who seeks revenge against a sadistic chief guard. The film was written by Richard Brooks, who decades later would make the films In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The film culminates in a prison riot which shocked audiences at the time. It was inspired by the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz” that took place at the notorious island penitentiary in 1946. The AV Club gave it a glowing review: “Tough, smart, and humane, Brute Force is one of the greatest prison films of all time.”

Stalag 17 (1953) 

Stalag 17 is based on a play written by two prisoners of war held in Austria during WWII.

The enigmatic but handsome William Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor by portraying an American soldier who runs the black market at a Nazi prison camp and is suspected of indirectly leading to the deaths of two soldiers. The film took its name from an actual German prison camp. Its release was delayed by a year until the Korean War ended and all American POWs from that war were released.

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Inmates unite against a sadistic warden in Riot in Cell Block 11.

Filmed at the notorious Folsom State Prison and starring actual inmates as extras, the plot deals with a group of prisoners who organize not to overthrow the prison and escape, but to force reform due to the cruel and unusual conditions inflicted upon them by the sadistic warden. TV Guide, which calls it a “powerful and intelligent film,” lists the inmates’ grievances: “The prisoners are fed up with pointless activities, sadistic guards, bad food, shoddy recreational facilities, dilapidated cells, and the fact that truly dangerous inmates (like Gordon) are thrown in with the mainstream population.”

A Man Escaped (1956)

Director Robert Bresson himself was a prisoner of war during WWII. His entire cast consisted of non-professional actors, yet A Man Escaped is still considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Based on the prison memoirs of a French POW named André Devigny who escaped from German captors in 1943, A Man Escaped works its terror through understatement—legendary director Billy Wilder’s cinematic version of a hit Broadway play has Nazi guards clawing on one side of the cell door while a French prisoner shudders in fear on the other. The Guardian says the plot involvesa German spy planted among the Americans with a knockabout tale of hungry, frustrated men digging escape tunnels, fighting among themselves, defying the guards and desperately surviving.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Producers decided not to hire extras and instead used Ceylonese locals and crew members to fill the screen.

In this classic based on a novel by Pierre Boulle—who also wrote Planet of the Apes—British POWs in Burma are forced by their Japanese captors to build a bridge across the Mekong Delta. The whole time they devote their sweat and blood to building the bridge, they are unaware that an American soldier (William Holden) plans to blow it up the moment they’re finished.

Le Trou (1960)

Three members of the actual prison escape served as production consultants while the set was being built.

Le Trou (The Hole) tells the story of a prisoner who is forced to switch to another cell where four prisoners have slowly been plotting an escape. Tension grows as they size up the new cellmate and decide whether he can be trusted while they slowly and painstakingly carve their way out through dirt and rock. Director Jacques Becker died only a few weeks after filming was finished.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Robert Stroud (pictured above) and mobster Al Capone are two of the most infamous inmates at Alcatraz due to their pop-culture fame.

Based on the real-life story of Robert Stroud, who was imprisoned for life at age 19 after killing a guard and then became a world-renowned expert on bird diseases merely by handling birds and researching them behind bars, Birdman of Alcatraz features Burt Lancaster in another career-defining performance. The screenplay was based on a nonfiction book about Robert Stroud written by Thomas E. Gaddis. The film received four Oscar nominations.

The Great Escape (1963)

Star Steve McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed when caught by German police for speeding near the filming location.

Steve McQueen is the alpha tough guy among a squad of other tough convicts such as James Garner, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn in this cinematic retelling of a 1950 nonfiction book called The Great Escape, which told the true story of a 1944 mass escape of Allied soldiers from Germany’s Stalag Luft III POW camp.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Director Stuart Rosenberg forbade the presence of wives on set so the cast could tap into the real world of a chain gang.

A young Paul Newman burns up the screen starring as a down-and-out hard-luck nobody named Lucas “Luke” Jackson, who gets drunk one night, vandalizes a few parking meters, and finds himself on a chain gang in a brutal Southern prison. Strother Martin plays the cruel warden who tells miscreants that they’ll “spend a night in the box” for the slightest misbehavior. George Kennedy stars as a big sweaty horse of a Southern convict and may have won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor based solely on his lascivious leering during the scene where the chain gang watches a buxom blonde wash and soap her car. Paul Newman wins a prison contest by eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. The ending is too depressing to reveal here, but it’s a grim indictment of the individual’s struggle against authoritarian cruelty.

Army of Shadows (1969)

This suspenseful horror was adapted from a 1943 book heavily inspired by the author’s personal experiences in the French Resistance.

Banned for almost 40 years because it offended the sensibilities of the political revolutionaries who’d overtaken Paris in May of 1968, Army of Shadows details the struggles of French Resistance members as they try, and fail, to evade capture by the Germans. Roger Ebert said, “It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France.”

Riot (1969)

A real-life prison warden, Frank A. Eyman, plays the warden in this prison movie.

Women in Cages (1971)

This sexploitation film stars Pam Grier (right) as a cruel prison guard.

Along with Caged Heat and many others, Women In Cages is one of many “hot girls behind bars” sexplotiation films. This one stars blacksploitation star Pam Grier as a sadistic lesbian guard named “Alabama” and involves heroin smugglers trying to hatch an escape plot. Quentin Tarantino loved Women in Cages, calling it “harsh, harsh, harsh”; he named a  character in his film True Romance “Alabama” as a homage.

Papillon (1973)

Despite being a large production, this film was shot chronologically so actor Steve McQueen could build his character naturally onscreen.

Set in the brutal real-life penal colony called Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Papillon tells the tale of the strange friendship that develops over decades between prisoners with fundamentally different personalities—the strong and violent convict (Steve McQueen) and the quiet, intelligent one (Dustin Hoffman). They realize that with McQueen’s brawn and Hoffman’s brains, they may be able to find a way out of that jungle island hell. 

The Longest Yard (1974)

Going against advice of prison officials, Burt Reynolds regularly spent his lunch breaks sitting and socializing with prisoners.

Burt Reynolds stars as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former pro quarterback who is now in prison after stealing a car. Eddie Albert stars as the mean warden whose behavior inspires Reynolds to form a football team of inmates and challenge the warden and his guards to a match on an even playing field. Legend has it that after filming wrapped at Georgia State Prison, the actual inmates challenged the actual guards to a football game and were beating them so badly that the game was called to a halt at halftime with the inmates leading 66-0.

Midnight Express (1978) 

While shooting a scene in which an inmate’s tongue is bitten off, the crew became deeply disturbed and walked off set. Actor Brad Davis held a pig’s tongue in his mouth for this scene.

Oliver Stone directed this extremely grim true-life saga of a young American named Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) who was arrested by Turkish authorities at the airport as he tried to leave their country with hashish taped all over his torso. He was originally sentenced to four years for attempted drug smuggling, but due to certain unpleasant events that occurred in the decrepit Turkish prison, his sentence is extended to 30 years. And after he kills a man who’d relentlessly tormented him in prison, he is sent to the psychiatric prison, where all the “bad machines” go. Midnight Express, which is Turkish prison slang for an overnight prison escape, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979) 

This film was shot on-location at the real Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

In its mere 28 years of existence, no one was ever known beyond a reasonable doubt to have successfully escaped the legendary Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. The only ones suspected to have perhaps escaped were a trio named Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, Clarence and John. In 1962, they were able to escape their cells and leave the island on a homemade raft. But since they were never seen again, it is possible that they drowned—which was the official declaration of death. Clint Eastwood plays Frank Morris.

Brubaker (1980)

Modern-day Hollywood royalty make appearances early in their career. Nicolas Cage appears as an extra and Morgan Freeman makes his first credited role in this crime drama.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), Brubaker stars Robert Redford as the reform-minded titular lawman who goes undercover in an Arkansas penitentiary to witness conditions as an inmate before setting out to mend the system. Brubaker is based on the real-life story of Tom Murton, who uncovered the Arkansas Prison Scandal and wrote of how cruelly the inmate “trustees” treated the convicts who were below them on the pecking order:

Discipline was routinely enforced by flogging, beating with clubs, inserting of needles under fingernails, crushing of testicles with pliers, and the last word in torture devices: the “Tucker telephone,” an instrument used to send an electric current through genitals.

Escape From New York (1981)

The character Snake Plissken’s iconic eyepatch was Kurt Russell’s idea.

Kurt Russell stars as Snake Plisskin, a swaggering, super-macho action hero whose style could reasonably pass for that of any white pro wrestler of the early 1980s. His job is not enviable, though: New York City has been transformed into one giant high-tech prison for all of the nastiest criminals in America.

Violence in a Women’s Prison (1982)

Laura Gemser (center) deals with hostile guards.

Released in Italy as Violenza in un carcere femminile tells the story of Emanuelle (Laura Gemser, who is sent to prison ostensibly on drug and prostitution charges but is actually an undercover reporter for Amnesty International. Her time behind bars turns out to be far more unpleasant than she’d expected. According to AllMovie.com, the film “doesn’t skimp on the nastiness, presenting a three-way catfight on a floor full of feces, Gemser nibbled by rats in solitary confinement, a homosexual who is sodomized to death after his straight cellmates are aroused by a striptease, and various rapes, tortures, and vomit scenes.”

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) 

The director decided to cast David Bowie as the lead after seeing his performance in the Broadway production The Elephant Man.

Rock star David Bowie stars as a steely, ice-cold British colonel who, as a POW during World War II, engages in a war of wills with a sadistic Japanese camp commander (Ryuichi Sakamoto). Directed by Nagisa Oshima, whose In the Realm of the Senses told the true story of a Japanese geisha who became so obsessed with a soldier client of hers that she cut off his penis and wandered around town in a daze with it inside her for days.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

William Hurt’s Oscar win marked the first Academy Award won by an actor playing an openly gay character who also dressed in drag.

The first independent film ever to be nominated for Best Picture, Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the intricate story of a gay pedophile (William Hurt, who won the Oscar for Best Actor) who becomes cellmates with a radical political prisoner in a South American penitentiary and how they become friends despite their stark differences.

Caged Fury (1990)

This women-in-prison film is an exploitation movie from the 90s.

This women-in-prison film is a remake of a film of the same title that was made only seven years earlier. It involves an escape plot at a female prison where everyone just happens to dress like strippers and prostitutes rather than inmates. The warden (Mindi Miller) is a sadistic lesbian who often trades early releases in exchange for sexual favors. TV Guide panned the film as “a pitiful, disjointed example of the women’s prison genre at its trashiest.”

American Me (1992)

Two rival gangs in East L.A. agreed to a truce to allow the film to shoot on their streets.

Edward James Olmos’s ironically titled and gritty tale of how the Mexican Mafia seized power in California prisons during the 1950s and 60s focuses on the character of Montoya Santana, who starts a gang in LA and winds up spending most of his life in a cage.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis shed thirty pounds for his role as the falsely accused 1974 London bomber.

Receiving seven Academy Award nominations—including for Best Picture, Director, and Actor—In the Name of the Father tells the real-life saga of two groups—the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four—who were framed and falsely imprisoned for the bombings of two Irish pubs in 1974. 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Actor Morgan Freeman and author Stephen King consider this project to be one of their favorites within their respective scopes of film work.

Based on a long short story…OK, a short novel…OK, all right, a novella…by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as two men from completely different backgrounds who, over the course of being imprisoned together for decades, discover one another’s humanity in several touching ways. It received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).

Dead Man Walking (1995)

The title is a slang prison term for death-row prisoners being escorted to their execution.

Roger Ebert gave a perfect rating to this story of a sociopathic inmate on Louisiana’s death row (Sean Penn) who develops an odd friendship with a nun (Susan Sarandon, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress). Ebert wrote, “It demonstrates how a movie can confront a grave and controversial issue in our society and see it fairly, from all sides, not take any shortcuts, and move the audience to a great emotional experience without unfair manipulation.”

Con Air (1997)

Comedian-actor Dave Chappelle played the role of inmate “Pinball” in this crime thriller.

Not purely a prison movie since most of it takes place on a transport plane after prisoners hijack it, Con Air stars Nicolas Cage as Cameron Poe, a recently paroled ex-con who has the misfortune of finding himself on this plane. This action-packed escape thriller stars John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames.

The Green Mile (1999)

Whenever Stephen King visited the set, Tom Hanks remained in character as death-row corrections officer Paul Edgecomb.

Another Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile stars Tom Hanks as a guard in a Louisiana penitentiary who observes how a gentle giant of an inmate—a black man imprisoned for raping and murdering two white girls—demonstrates supernatural powers which suggest he may be entirely innocent. 

The Longest Yard (2005)

Adam Sandler (right) reprises Burt Reynolds’s role as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe.

Thirty-one years after the Burt Reynolds version, Adam Sandler recreates the role ex-NFL quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, who organizes a football game between prisoners and guards at a penitentiary. Actors include wrestling stars Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kevin Nash, Goldberg, and The Great Khali as well as ex-NFL stars Michael Irvin, Bill Romanowski, Brian Bosworth, and Terry Crews. The film became the second highest-grossing sports comedy ever, behind Sandler’s The Waterboy.

Gridiron Gang (2006)

Phil Joanou’s directorial work earned this film $38.4 million in box office sales.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as a football coach who teaches a group of juvenile inmates the value of teamwork and camaraderie not only in winning football games, but in navigating the often dangerous game of life. The Mirror savaged the film, claiming that The Rock “gives what could be mistaken for the worst performance ever seen.”

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Since Christian Bale lost 55 pounds for his role, the film was shot in reverse continuity so his character’s weight would decay naturally in the final cut.

Based on a true story about a naval aviator named Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) who was shot down during the Vietnam War and wound up as a POW in a Laotian prison camp, Rescue Dawn was directed by legendary German auteur Werner Herzog and based on an adapted screenplay from his own 1997 documentary film about Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Bronson (2008)

Tom Hardy starred in this biographical film centered around Britain’s most violent criminal.

This British prison drama is based on the true story of Michael Peterson, a boxer who was sentenced to a seven-year prison stretch at age 19 for robbery and wound up spending thirty years in solitary confinement. Somewhere along the way, he decided that his alter ego was movie star Charles Bronson—a fact which even Charles Bronson, who praised this movie, eventually noted.

Female Convict Scorpion (2008)

Female Convict Scorpion: Forced into committing murder, a girl winds up in prison.

Badgered by a group of violent thugs, a girl named Nami winds up murdering her fiancé’s sister, which lands her into a brutal prison. Rather than folding under pressure, though, she fights her way through the prison hierarchy and embarks on an attempt to escape. Blu-Ray.com panned the film, saying it “only hints at a larger scale of madness, remaining subdued for the majority of its run time for reasons not fully understood.”

Hunger (2008)

With the help of a nutritionist and 900-calorie-a-day diet, Michael Fassbender lost 42 pounds in preparation for this film.

Director Steve McQueen of 12 Years a Slave fame debuted with this tough, gritty film about the 1981 prison hunger strike led by Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands inside Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. In the most famous scene, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) delivers a 15-minute soliloquy on injustice that was filmed in only one take.

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Jamie Foxx received a NAACP Image Award nomination for his outstanding performance.

A complicated legal drama about a man who witnesses the murders of his own family members, but due to a lack of compelling evidence winds up pleading guilty to manslaughter simply to put one of the real killers away. As he realizes that the system is corrupt from both the inside and the outside, he becomes a serial killer.

A Prophet (2009)

To give the film added authenticity, director Jacques Audiard hired ex-cons as advisers.

Tahar Rahim stars as Malik, who entered a brutal jail at age 19 with little hopes of ever making it out alive but works his way to the top of the prison hierarchy by becoming an assassin ands a drug smuggler. In the process, he must negotiate the power struggle between Muslim and Corsican inmates, who vie for power within the prison walls.

Maximum Conviction (2012)

Keoni Waxman directed this highly graphic and violent action thriller.

Action hero Seven Seagal teams up with wrestling superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin as military black ops operatives who face the unenviable task of transforming a secret military penal facility into a new civilian prison with minimum bloodshed in the process. Mondo Bizarro offered measured praise, saying “The film has many good points, many decent points…and Seagal.”

Escape Plan (2013)

Stallone and Schwarzenegger team up as convicts in Escape Plan.

Eighties action gods Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up in this prison-escape thriller. Stallone plays a world-renowned expert on maximum-security prisons who finds himself locked down in one of the world’s most tightly guarded penitentiaries The Austin Chronicle gave the film a thumbs-down, complaining that “The most surprising thing about this movie, outside of its length, is just how unsurprising it really is, especially regarding its tired climax.”

Starred Up (2014)

Screenwriter Jonathon Asser’s personal experience working as a volunteer prison therapist inspired this story.

Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) enters prison at age 19 and immediately gets into trouble for assaulting another inmate. Will group therapy, as well as the intervention of his father—who is an inmate in the same prison—save Eric from spiraling irredeemably out of control? The title refers to the practice of prematurely switching a young prisoner from a juvenile institution to an adult prison.

Riot (2015)

A Russian mob kingpin named Balam (MMA superstar Chuck Liddell) attempted to kill both a policeman named Jack Stone (Matthew Reese) and his wife but only managed to kill his wife. In order to get revenge against the mobster, Stone pulls off a bank robbery so he can be placed in the same prison as Balam. Even though the warden and guards are afraid of Balam, Jack Stone isn’t.

Other Prison Movies

Looking for additional prison movies on Netflix, Amazon, or other streaming services? Creepy Catalog has you covered.

  • Caged (1950) was shocking for its time, as it depicts a teenage widow whose soul hardens when she’s placed behind bars and forced to deal with prison life.
  • Revolt in the Big House (1958) is a black and white b-grade noir prison film. The acting is quite good and there are a lot of twists and turns in it.
  • Caged Heat (1974) is a cheap exploitation film by producer Roger Corman featuring Linda Blair (The Exorcist) and other hot, sexy girls trapped behind bars that are looking to take revenge on a sadistic warden.
  • Penitentiary (1979) an American blaxploitation drama film from the 70s about a man defending himself in jail.
  • Stir Crazy (1980) is the most popular of the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder collaborations and involves them getting sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
  • Bare Behind Bars (1980) a female prison movie from Brazil that is deeply bizarre.
  • Bad Boys (1983) stars Sean Penn in an early role as a young Chicago thug who winds up in prison long before he expected.
  • Animal Factory (2000) Steve Buscemi directed this tale of a young man who is mentored and kept safe by an older man he meets in prison. 
  • Half Past Dead (2002) involves a man who goes undercover in prison to find his wife’s killer. He finds far more than that.
  • In Hell (2003) a sadistic prison warden forces inmates to battle one another to the death.
  • Gridiron Gang (2006) youths at a juvenile detention center find meaning and camaraderie by playing football together.
  • Big Stan (2007) Rob Schneider stars in this comedy about a frail man who is sentenced to prison for fraud, so he learns martial arts to protect himself.
  • Death Race (2008) a warden forces ex-cons to compete in a deadly car race.
  • I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) Jim Carrey stars as a closeted gay man who leaves his wife and family, then ends up in jail.
  • R: Hit First, Hit Hardest (2010) a jailhouse-picture from Denmark about the worst prison in Denmark; a grippingly real tale that was filmed in actual prison close to Copenhagen.
  • Get the Gringo (2012) a career criminal winds up in a tough Mexican prison, where he must struggle for his life.
  • Maximum Conviction (2012) a group of organized mercenaries seizes and takes over a prison.
  • Lockout (2012) a prisoner is offered freedom if he can save the president’s daughter from a prison in outer space.
  • Escape from Pretoria (2020) directed by Francis Annan, this new movie is a prison escape tale based on a true story of a real-life escape of political prisoners in South Africa in 1979.