While none of us want to spend time behind bars, we seem to have a morbid fascination about what life is like on the inside, and what it would take to escape! Luckily most of us can get our fix with a good old-fashioned prison film.
Unlike almost any other genre, most prison movies are serious action films, we rarely see a comedy take (though there is one on our list). I suppose this is because the loss of our freedom is one of the things people fear most. Seeing life from a prisoner’s perspective can make us feel morally ambiguous and we believe that crime should be punished, but feel for the suffering of our protagonists.
So if you are looking to feel a little morally ambiguous tonight, here are the best prison films currently available on Netflix.
IMDB Score 6.5/10
This Mexican film, written and directed by Amil Galván Cervera and Mitzi Vanessa, puts us in a 1980s Mexican prison. A young car theif named Zambrano, played by Adrian Ladron, finds himself in a violent prison, which he must learn to survive. One ray of hope for Zambrano is to join the prison’s American football team. He soon finds out that more than just a sports team, they are also the prison’s enforcement squad. This is a much darker take on existing English language prison sport team films such as Mean Machine and The Longest Yard (also currently on Netflix).
IMDB Score 8.2/10
The title of this form refers to the 13th amendment of the constitution, which abolished slavery, but with the qualifier that it could still be used as punishment for a crime. This documentary then looks at the true story of the prison business, and the enormous profits that are being made from mass incarceration and work gangs.
IMDB Score 7.7/10
A pretty new movie from director Alvaro Brencher, and movie from Uruguay, this might be one you haven’t already seen. It looks at the 12-year incarceration of Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group active in the 1960s and 70s. In the film, some of our protagonists are kidnapped by representatives of the military dictatorship. The kidnappers aren’t allowed to kill the prisoners, but they are allowed to try and drive them mad. Three men are left in solitary confinement for 12 years, including a future present of Uruguay. Launched at the Venice Film Festival, it was selected as the Uruguayan entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
IMDB Score 6.8/10
This Arabic film mixes comedy and tragedy to create a compelling piece of drama. From Jordanian director Mahmood al Massad, it is based on the true story of a carpenter who finds himself in prison after being falsely convicted. While he initially struggles to adapt to prison life, he soon finds that it offers him a type of freedom he did not have on the outside, and slowly transforms. It manages to show both the camraderie and the discomfort of prusin life.
IMDB Score 5.3/10
Written by and starring George Basha, he finds himself in prison for manslaughter for defending his wife, and must get through the physical and mental challenges of prison life. Things are made more difficult when he realises that the prison boss has it in for him. He learns the hard way that there is only one rule in prison: watch your back.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
IMDB Score 8.1/10
Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, Paul Newman plays Luke, a man who gets sent to a Florida chain gang for two years. While he and his fellow inmates are treated harshly, Luke manages to maintain his spirit. This movie won the Oscar for best screen play, and has some memorable scenes which form an essential part of our pop-culture.
IMBD Score 7.7/10
The only documentary film that we have snuck onto the list, this film by David Sington tells the story of Nick Yarris, a convicted murder who spent 21 years on death row in Pennsylvania. He was released in 2004 when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Yarris is the only person to appear on film throughout the documentary, and he tells a compelling and painfully honest story. Launched at the 2015 London Film Festival, it was nominated by best documentary. It certainly takes a British view of the American justice system.
Freedom at Midnight (2018)
IMDB Score 7.4/10
This Indian Malayalam language thriller stars Antony Varghese, Vinayakan and Chemban Vinod Jose and is about an ordinary man surviving in a brutal prison, and hatching a daring escape plan in order to save the woman that he loves. While the plot may sound familiar, it is executed quite differently. All the jail sequences were shot in a real prison at Thiruvananthapuram, giving the film a very realistic feeling.
IMDB Score 5.5/10
Another foreign film making it onto the list, this time from Cambodia, this is probably more of an action film set in a prison than a prison movie per se. The suspected head of a vicious gang known as the Butterfly Gang is arrested. In order to mitigate his sentence, he offers to reveal the real leader of the gang, who of course puts a bounty on his head. This causes everyone in the prison to fight to get their hands on the traitor first, who must be defended by the police who failed to leave the prison before the fighting began. Sounds formulaic, but surprisingly well made and acted, and a good action watch.
Lucknow Central (2017)
IMDB Score 6.2/10
In this Hindi-language prison film, a musician is wrongly convicted of a crime and finds himself in a maximum-security prison. What to do? Team up with fellow inmates to make a band of course. The music that forms the backdrop of the story helps tell the story of our lead character’s adjustment to prison life. Starring Farhan Akhtar.
Mexicanos de Bronce (2016)
IMDB Score 6.9/10
In this documentary, we follow a Mexican man named bullet, who has spent half his life in prison. He is about to be released for the third time, but what will be different this time that he does not find himself right back behind bars? What he and other prisoners think of the outside world is looked at in-depth.
IMBD Score 7.4/10
An Italian prison drama from director Alessio Cremonini, the film stars Alessandro Borghi as Stefano Cucchi, who died in 2009 in unexplained circumstances. After being arrested on a minor drugs charge, Cucchi is held in preventive custody, where he loses a lot of weight, seems to have been beaten up, and then suddenly died. In this film, Cucchi’s family battle to learn the truth about what happened to him. Launched at the Venice Film Festival, it was the opener of the Horizons section. It is designed to make us ask questions.
IMDB Score 7.3/10
Since we are all a bit obsessed with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau following his rise to fame in Game of Thrones, this is a great film for exploring what else the actor has to offer. In this American film, Coster-Waldau plays a family man who does to jail for 16 months after causing the death of his friend in a car accident. He finds himself doing the unthinkable when he is forced to join a white supremacist group in the prison in order to survive. Coster-Waldau plays the gritty character well, and makes us all question what we would do to survive.
IMDB Score 6.3/10
An Australian crime thriller directed by Julius Avery, it stars the always impressive Ewan McGregor alongside a top-notch Australian cast. A new young inmate, played by Brenton Thwaites, arrives in prison he comes to the attention of the charismatic Brendan Lynch (McGregor), Australia’s public enemy no. 1. In exchange for protection within the brutal walls of the prison, our hero agrees to do favours for Lynch after his release in six months, including help him escape. The film is gritty and smart, and good to see McGregor plating a different character.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
IMDB Score 6.9/10
Since the Hollywood movie about this experiment is no longer available on Netflix, check out this more raw portrayal of the horrifying experiment. A psychology professor at Stanford offers twenty students the opportunity to participate in an experiment, where they will take on the roles of either prisoners or guards, to see how the prison system encourages toxic behaviour, on both sides.
Survivor’s Guide to Prison (2017)
IMDB Score 6.9/10
Packaged as a survivor’s guide, with segments dealing with different aspects of prison life, this documentary results in a stark look at the reality of the US prison system. While the celebrity cameos are fun, the interviews with inmates and prison officers are truly revealing.
No Longer Available on Netflix
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
IMDB Score 7.1/10
Don’t let the terrible name put you off this surprisingly good, if unbelievable, film. Vince Vaughan plays a former boxer turned drug mule. When a deal goes south, not only is he sentenced to three years in prison, but on the outside his pregnant girlfriend is kidnapped. The only way to save his girlfriend is to get himself thrown into maximum security in order to kill another inmate.
IMDB Score 3.2/10
While the movie actually never mentions the name El Chapo, this movie nevertheless recounts the prison escape of the Mexican dug kingpin Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo. We see the Mexican government trying to return him to prison, while the US government wants him dead. Not the best made movie, but an interesting look at the story, leading actor Irineo Alvarez does a good job carrying the movie. Sadly, it is definitely not as good as the 2017 Story House Entertainment TV series starring Marco de la O.
IMBD Score 7.8/10
Who doesn’t like a good story of revenge? Based on the classic 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, it tells the story of Edmond Dantes, who is imprisoned in Chateau d’If for 13 years before managing to hatch his escape. Of course on gaining his freedom he sets out to get revenge on the friend who put him there and, of course, stole his girl. This movie will always be memorable for introducing most of us to the talent of Jim Caviezel. Guy Pierce also makes another amazing villainous turn.
Escape Plan (2013)
IMDB Score 6.7/10
Sylvester Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a businessman and structural engineer who is known as the greatest escape artist of all time, and helps design high security detention centres. When he is framed for a crime he did not commit, he finds himself in a maximum security prison, and of course must escape. Stallone is supported by a nostalgic line up including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dave Bautista. The sequel Escape Plan 2 is also available on Netflix.
IMDB Score 6.5/10
While not involving ‘real’ inmates, this film certainly takes a good look at the psychology of prison life. Volunteers arrive for a psychological study where half will act as prisoners and half as guards. They are given strict rules to follow and told they will be paid if they can follow the rules for two weeks, and that the experiment will be stopped at the first sign of violence. Sounds easy, but the weight of their roles starts to play on the psychology of the players. This movie is based on a real experiment which shows what prison conditions do to people, and not just the inmates.
IMDB Score 7.4/10
This German prison drama directed by Chris Kraus, followed a piano teacher Krueger working in a prison, played by Monica Bleibtru, and a young inmate Jenny, played by Hannah Herzsprung. Brought together by their love of the piano, Krueger discovers that Jenny is talented and was coached to play as a child by her adoptive father and organises fer her to compete in a pretigious competition. Over the course of the film Jenny’s unhappy back story unfolds, and she struggles to lift herself up in a prison environment designed to keep her down.
IMDB Score 8.6/10
Adapted from a Stephen King novel and starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, this was always a must-see film. The film focuses on Paul (played by Hanks obviously) a death row officer during the Great Depression. One of Paul’s new inmates John (played by Clarke Duncan) is a gentle if slow black man accused of raping and murdering two white girls. In the brutality of the prison, John soon starts displaying supernatural powers, which prove to Paul his innocence. What can Paul do in these circumstances? I guess you will need to watch to find out.
IMDB Score 6.6/10
Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor on film together as lovers, yes please. Carrey plays a con artist who finds himself in prison and falls in love with his fellow inmate, Phillip Morris (McGregor). They do through a series of releases and prison breaks in order to be together. Based on a true story, this directorial debut from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa has just the right balance of heart and comedy. While it might not have the grit that most people are looking for when it comes to prison movies, it won’t disappoint.
IMDB Score 5.9/10
Based on the true events of 38 IRA prisoners escaping from HMP prison in 1983 – it was the biggest prison escape in Europe since WWII. Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and an impressive if not well-known supporting cast. Considered controversial by Unionists for only showing one side of the story, this film brings a lesser known part of history to light.
Michael Inside (2017)
IMDB Score 7.2/10
Another Irish prison film, this movie stars newcomer Dafhyd Flynn as 18-year-old Michael McCrea who is trying to keep on the straight and narrow despite a difficult family history, but finds himself serving a three month prison sentence. From Michael’s perspective we are then given an unflinching portrait of the grim toll that prison can make on the young men that find themselves there.
Midnight Express (1978)
IMDB Score 7.6/10
Starring Brad Davis, this film based on the novel by Billy Hayes was adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone. Davis plays Hayes, who was a young American student sent to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. The title of the book is local slang for an escape attempt, and Hayes participants in one when he finds that his original four year sentence has been extended to 30 years.
The Next Three Days (2010)
IMDB Score 7.4/10
Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson, this is a remake of a 2008 French film. Banks plays a woman who claims that she is wrongly convicted of murdering her boss, and has been sentenced to life in prison, and Crowe plays her husband, who becomes obsessed with breaking her out. Naturally Neeson is a prison break expert, who help’s the couple hatch a plan.
IMDB Score 5.2/10
Police Officer Jack Stone orchestrates a bank robbery specifically to get himself thrown into prison with the notorious Russian gangster Balam who seems to be able to control both the mob and the police from behind bars. Jack (Matthew Reese) pursues Balam (Chuck Liddel), who lives in surprisingly cushy surroundings, in order to avenge the death of his family (of course). Formulaic, this is a fin no thinker, and we get to see an older Dolph Lundgren strut his stuff, for nostalgia’s sake.
IMDB Score 7.4/10
Prison movie directed by Michael Bay and starring Sean Connery, Nicholas Care and Ed Harris – yes please. An FBI chemist (Cage) and an SAS captain (Connery) are tasked with stopping a group f rogue US Force Recon Marines (led by Harris) who have seized control of Alcatraz – the ultimate prison – and attach San Francisco. While this might seem formulaic, it blurs the line between right and wrong and offers enough twists to keep you hooked. Plus, Sean Connery speaking, what more could you want.
IMDB Score 9.3/10
Probably the best prison movie of all time, it is definitely one to watch while it is still available to stream. A man, played by Tim Robbins, is sent to prison for life for a crime that the audience probably thinks he didn’t commit. He must learn to live in his new environment, and learns the stories of the other inmates, in particular Red played by Morgan Freedman, and that not everything in the world is black and white. The twist at the end is also pretty crazy. It was nominated for seven academy awards in 1995, though didn’t gain the gong.
IMDB Score 4.8/10
Dean Cain (yes of Lois and Clarke fame) stars as a detective who deliberately gets arrested to avenge the murder of his wife (sound familiar?). While in prison he discovers yet another criminal enterprise that he, as a good detective, must now thwart. This is part of a six-film deal with WWE studios as stars wrestler Big Show as one of our criminals. This is another film that sticks to formula, but if you are a fan of the genre, is not a bad way to spend a few hours.