The 20 Best Movies Set in a Prison Environment

14. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)


Escape from Alcatraz stars Clint Eastwood as a prisoner inhabiting the infamous Rock on an island outside San Francisco. Eastwood plays Frank Morris, a seasoned con with a knack for breaking out of prison. However, he is sent to Alcatraz, American’s ‘inescapable’ maximum security prison to serve his life sentence. Unfortunately Alcatraz has a cruel warden (I’m sure there must be some nice ones out there), who clashes with Frank, and the prison is incredibly brutal.

Whilst in his cell one evening he realises that the walls are old and failing apart, and over time starts to hatch a plan with two other prison inmates to try and escape the Rock. Like other great prison escape films it is very tense. Watching the meticulous planning involved is incredible and as the audience you are there with them as they try to escape wishing and hoping that they make it.

Escape from Alcatraz was based on a true story of the inmates who escaped from Alcatraz in the middle of the night, but were never found. This could mean that they did escape or they could have drowned in the vast waves of the San Francisco Bay. However, no bodies were ever found. The fact that they were never found adds a certain magic to the film, the idea that these three people maybe, just maybe, managed to pull off a brilliant escape.


13. Papillon (1973)


Papillon is a brilliant prison film. It stars Steve McQueen as ‘Papillon’ who is in prison for a very very long time, after being wrongly convicted of murder. He befriends Dustin Hoffman’s forgery expert, Louis Dega, and suffers the usual prison problems, such as solitary confinement and his friends and fellow inmates dying without seeing freedom ever again. However, Papillon’s solitary confinement is highly unusual.

After Papillon defends Louis against a guard, he is sent to solitary confinement and in thanks to Papillon Louis sneaks him some food. When the guards find out about the food they try their best to make sure Papillon tells them who it is, but he does not give in and tell them. He therefore ends up spending two years in solitary confinement.

Eventually, on his release the two begin to plan their escape attempt. Papillon is a true tale of friendship throughout prison walls; these tales are captivating when loyalty and friendship happen even in such a dreadful place.


12. Escape from New York (1981)

Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter depicts his vision here of a future place of 1997 (so long ago now) in which Manhattan is turned into a maximum security prison island in which the scariest people of the earth rule. Once inmates are sent there they don’t come out. The US president (Donald Pleasance) ends up on a hijacked aeroplane and has to use an escape pod. Unfortunately for him he ends up crash landing into the city centre prison.

The New York Police Commissioner bribes ‘Snake’ Plissken (Kurt Russell) into going into the city and rescuing the president from the frightening world he has entered. But finding the president is not easy. Kurt Russell plays the part of anti-hero, Plissken to perfection. The film is typical Carpenter, spectacular and thrilling to watch.


11. Bronson (2008)


Bronson stars Tom Hardy who morphs into the role of real life notorious prisoner, Charles Bronson. Bronson spends most of his life in solitary confinement after becoming one of the UK’s most dangerous, violent and prolific men.

The film depicts Bronson in his stage of life where he has been sent to prison for seven years, although after this he was constantly in and out of prison and he is still incarcerated now. He is often referred to as the most violent prisoner in Britain. The film begins by depicting his childhood and showing his violent tendencies back then, and then moves on to his later life and his altercations with staff at the prison and surviving in mostly solitary confinement.

The visual feel of the film is highly entrancing especially with the colour and light that is used. Bronson is highly gripping, but never tries to dip in to why Bronson is as violent as he is. The audience can almost feel what it would be like to be trapped in that cell for all those years. Tom Hardy excels as Bronson; he is outstanding in the role, completely embodying his huge character.


10. Dead Man Walking (1995)

Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking is set in between Death Row and the outside world in which the two main characters live. Sean Penn plays Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to death for the rape of a woman and the murder of a young couple in the woods. His friend was also found guilty but was sent to prison, not death row.

Susan Sarandon plays the kindly own clothes nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who Matthew calls on to help him in his final weeks and with his last appeal, telling her that he is innocent of the crimes committed.

The two form a bond throughout, Sister Prejean not knowing how to handle the situation to begin with but becoming attached to Matthew as the film moves on. When Matthew’s appeal is rejected he moves straight to death row and Sister Prejean tries to help him come to terms with what he has done and help him through the process leading to his execution.

Sean Penn is brilliant at playing his role and invoking sympathy for a character who has done despicable things. Even though he admits his guilt at the end and bares his soul to Sister Prejean it is still devastating to watch the eventual execution.

It is all in all a heart-breaking film, from the subject matter and the families dealing with the tragedy that was caused in the heat of the moment on a fateful night of violence. Sarandon as ever adapts to her character with skill and the film is well handled by Tim Robbins as Director.


9. The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile

Frank Darabont wrote, directed and produced this film, which is impossible to watch without shedding a tear or two. Michael Clark Duncan plays gentle giant, John Coffey, who ends up on Death Row in 1935 for the murder of two young girls. He is innocent of that crime and was actually only trying to help the girls after they were attacked by someone else.

Duncan is brilliant at transforming to his character, and the other cast add to this, each character written and performed to perfection. Sam Rockwell plays one of the villains of the death row cells they exist in in Louisiana, America. Tom Hanks stars and shines as the prison guard, Paul Edgecomb, and his growing friendship with Duncan’s John Coffey is lovely to watch. Doug Hutchison plays Percy, the part of evil and nasty guard to perfection; it is easy for the audience despise him.

The dynamic of the prison guards and the prisoners in the small Death Row prison works well, and their characterisation is brilliant. However, all the while we know the inevitable and heart-breaking conclusion of what will happen at the end. It is a moving story of life, death, kindness and acceptance.


8. Hunger (2008)


Michael Fassbender stars in Hunger and plays IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. Hunger is based on the true story of Bobby, the man who started hunger strikes in 1981 in the Maze prison. Bobby Sands was the first of the political prisoners to start a hunger strike that heartbreakingly culminates in his death. Fassbender reportedly lost over 40 pounds to take on this role.

The film was the first feature film directed by well respected director, Steve McQueen. McQueen’s writing and directing techniques are clearly sublime, as the film is just fantastic. Hunger is a compelling drama, although obviously a hard watch with the subject matter, it is a beautiful film and a brilliant tribute to Bobby Sands.