Films set in a prison environment can come in a wide range of prison settings. These can include a general prison, a prison for Death Row inmates, a psychiatric prison, a detention camp, a youth offender’s institution or a prisoner of war camp, for example. Prison films can take place all inside a prison, or the narrative can occur in and outside of a prison, and often involve a prison escape (which is unsurprisingly quite a common trope for a prison film).
Prison has been the setting of many films and television programmes over the years, one of the best television programmes being Oz (1997-2003). Oz was a six series American programme created by Tom Fontana which depicted the daily lives of the staff and the prisoners at an experimental prison which housed possibly the most scary and violent prisoners in the country. The writing, direction, script and acting was incredible, and although incredibly bleak and violent, it was also immensely enjoyable.
There have also been the less critically acclaimed but highly enjoyable programmes such as Prison Break (2005-2009), Bad Girls (1999-2006) and Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979-1986). More recently Orange is the New Black (2013-ongoing) has shown that there is still very much an audience for a good prison drama.
It is quite a challenging task to choose only the 20 best prison films in existence as there are obviously so many, but the following films are picked for their overall quality, and their power to be remembered. Films from all over the prison genre spectrum are included. Most of the films listed star a mostly male cast, which is common for prison films. Unfortunately at present there are a lack of very good films set in a female prison, but hopefully more will be produced in the near future.
20. Cube (1997)
Cube is not really a conventional prison film; however it is of course set in a prison of sorts. Cube begins when a small amount of inmates wake up in a cuboid prison, with no idea of how they have arrived there. They discover that this cuboid prison leads into other cuboid rooms; however grisly deaths and injuries occur when the prisoners enter these new rooms.
The prisoners must therefore work out if it is even possible to escape from this horrible world they have woken up to. The prisoners are unable to trust each other but must commence a journey to escape their prison by outwitting it and trying to gain each other’s trust on their journey out.
It is surprising how gripping and tense the film is considering it almost takes place in the same room with the same people for the entire feature length. The film immerses the audience into a claustrophobic, tense and taught atmosphere. The script is well written and performed by the characters and the pacing keeps the audience intrigued.
It is something of a ‘cult’ film, so definitely not for everyone, but it certainly succeeds in keeping the audience on a hook throughout. It mixes elements of the horror and mystery genres spectacularly and is quietly brilliant.
19. Starred Up (2014)
Starred Up stars Jack O’Connell as Eric, in a role he often plays, an arrogant thug on the wrong side of the law, but in this case it is probably the toughest character he has ever played. He is a troublemaker and marked as one by the prison staff. He is extremely troubled and violent, so much so he is transferred to an adult prison, in which he quickly becomes known as a violent and misbehaved trouble starter.
However he comes up against someone who has a different effect on him than before whilst in prison, another prisoner in the facility, his father. Rupert Friend also shines as the prison counsellor who tries to get through to Eric. Starred Up is a brutal prison survival film with a mesmerising performance by Jack O’Connell.
18. Das Experiment (2001)
Das Experiment was based on the 2001 Stanford prison experiment depicting how a ‘normal’ person will adapt to their environment, when given certain psychological stimulation. In Das Experiment 20 volunteers are given roles as prisoners or guards in the experiment.
Over time and scarily enough they begin to act as if they are really prisoners and guards. This begins to culminate in the ‘guards’ acting violently against the ‘prisoners’. It is a gripping film, and so interesting to see how the volunteers adapt to their stimuli. It really is amazing to see how they actually become real prisoners and prison officers. Moritz Bleibtreu is fantastic as prisoner number 77.
Das Experiment was again remade in 2010 starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker which failed to live up to the brilliant original, although it is still worth a watch.
17. Scum (1979)
One of the most controversial films on this list, Scum was released to a court battle instigated by Mary Whitehouse. Scum is set in a young offenders’ institution and it is absolutely brutal.
Ray Winstone plays Carlin in a purely terrifying performance. He is an angry, violent and hard man who at first accepts beatings from the officers and from the kingpin in the prison, Banks (Phil Daniels), but his unrepentant inner violence erupts and he snaps, eventually leading to Carlin becoming the main man of the prison. Scum is brutal and harrowing, and whilst it’s not for the fainthearted, it had to be included on this list for its performances alone.
16. Con Air (1997)
Con Air is perhaps the least serious film on this list, but it has to be included for its iconic bunny and prison with wings, nonetheless. A person can not get bored watching Con Air, once you get past the romantic sub plot in the first ten minutes, then it’s just a thrill ride from there. Nicholas Cage is brilliant, but the true shining stars here are the supporting cast including John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Danny Trejo who play some of the other prisoners on the plane.
Nicholas Cage plays Cameron Poe, an honourable man caught up in a bar fight whilst protecting his wife. However, during the course of this fight, he ends up accidentally causing someone else’s death and thus ends up in prison for manslaughter. He spends his time in prison working out, reading and writing letters to his wife and child, his love for them being his main instigator to stay out of trouble.
When he is due to be released he hitches a ride home on a plane full of some of the nastiest prisoners around. Obviously being a Nicholas Cage film, the journey doesn’t go as planned and shortly after take off the prisoners take control of the plane.
It is a thrill ride from there, with Poe trying to do everything he can to stop the prisoners escaping whilst protecting his friend and prison officers, with the help of US Marshall on the ground, Vince Larkin (John Cusack). Con Air is thrilling and over the top, but a real treat to watch.
15. In the Name of the Father (1993)
In the Name of the Father is based on the real story of the Guildford Four, the four people wrongly convicted of the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in 1974. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, who is arrested for the bombing in Belfast due to him being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is sentenced to long term imprisonment along with the others.
Gerry progresses in prison from bitterness to redemption when he discovers the real perpetrator of the bombing in his prison. With a great supporting cast including the late great Pete Postlethwaite as Gerry’s father, and Emma Thompson as a lawyer, this is a brilliant film depicting real life events. Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely remarkable as ever in this role, and he carries the film with his passionate performance.