What is a prison movie?

What I call a “prison movie” is a movie about the prison world, all kinds of prisons included : detention centers, psychiatric prisons, military prisons… I have limited the genre to the movies about the prison system and in which the interior of the prison is the main subject of the story.

Only a few of prison movies are well known to the general public. I am pretty sure that you know the American success One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) by Miloš Forman or The Green Mile (1999) by Frank Darabont.

But, in fact, the genre of prison movies is broader. Did you know that during the 70’s there was a wave of “women in prison films” such as The Big Doll House (1971) by Jack Hill? Did you know that Kristen Stewart played a guard at Guantanamo in Camp X-Ray (2014) by Peter Sattler?

The world of prison is also present on the TV, especially with the three most famous and success TV series Oz (1997-2003) on HBO, Prison Break (2005-2009) on FOX and Orange Is the New Black (2013-present) on Netflix.

I think that prison movies and series are very interesting for two reasons : firstly the spectator is immersed in a claustrophobic world which is conducive to action and suspens, secondly these movies and series are a way to denounce the prison environnent. It is a good narrative sub-genre as well as a militant way of expression.


I have defined six different sub-genres of prison movies :

  • Adventure prison movie

In adventure prison movies, the main character is a hero who has to show courage to survive in a prison environment.

Most of the time, the main character is a pretty and strong virile man, a badass who likes to fight with the cellmates. In adventure prison movies, the hero often tries to escape from the prison.

Adventure prison movies include also the fantastic movies in which there are mysteries that the protagonist tries to resolve.

Some of typical examples: Le Trou (1960) by Jacques Becker; Escape from Alcatraz (1979) by Don Siegel; Lock Up (1989) by John Flynn; The Green Mile (1999) by Frank Darabont; Prison Break (2005-2009) by Paul Scheuring; Shutter Island (2010) by Martin Scorsese; Escape Plan (2013) by Mikael Håfström…

Escape from Alcatraz (1979) by Don Siegel
  • Social prison movie

Contrary to the hero in the adventure prison movies, the main character in the social prison movies is a victim. He has difficulties to integrate himself into the prison. This sub-genre is more realistic and it emphasizes the themes of integration and detention conditions that adventure movies don’t deal with: sexuality abuse, homosexuality, bad treatments, racism, dirtiness, loneliness, suicide, death sentence, emigration…

This genre is more recent than the other, probably because medias began lately to speak about the conditions of detention. Before this “liberty” of information people didn’t really know or care of what happened behind the bars.

Furthermore, there are more and more movies about women. They are no longer represented as sexy women in cage but equal to the men. In France, a lot of prison movies about women were released in the 2010’s: Ombline (2012) by Stéphane Cazes, Jailbirds (2015) by Audrey Estrougo or Down by Love (2016) by Pierre Godeau.

Social prison movies are also more international. All over the world, especially in Europe, directors denounce detention conditions of their country: France, England, Danemark, Germany, Spain…

Some of typical examples: Midnight Express (1978) by Alan Parker; Oz (1997-2003) by Tom Fontana; A Prophet (2009) by Jacques Audiard; Dog Pound (2010) by Kim Chapiron; R (2010) by Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer; Starred Up (2013) by David Mackenzie…

Starred Up (2013) by David Mackenzie
  • Historical prison movie

Historical prison movies refer to specific historical facts. It could be an adventure or a social movie, but in which there is a historical issue, like World War II, Vietnam War, hunger-strikes, riots, escapes…

Some of there movies are based on true stories, on characters who really existed, like The Road to Guantánamo (2006) by Michael Winterbottom which is also a documentary, others build a fiction story, with fictional characters, but inspired by History, like Rescue Dawn (2006) by Werner Herzog.

Some of typical examples: The Great Escape (1963) by John Sturges; Carandiru (2003) de Héctor Babenco; The Road to Guantánamo (2006) by Michael Winterbottom; Rescue Dawn (2006) by Werner Herzog; The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) by Kyle Patrick Alvarez…

The Great Escape (1963) by John Sturges
  • Comedy prison movie

There are not many comedies about prison, and most of them are not really masterpieces… It is clear that prison issue is not suitable for comedy. It is very difficult to build a story on prison world because the reality is too hard to turn it into derision.

There is probably only one work which uses humour perfectly. It is the TV series Orange Is the New Black (2013-present) created by Jenji Kohan. If it works, it is because the TV serie is not just a comedy. It is also very realistic about the detention conditions. In Orange Is the New Black, the characters are endearing because they are funny but also because they are confronted with hard reality.

Some of typical exemples: Porridge (1974-1977) by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais; The Longest Yard (2005) by Peter Segal; Big Stan (2008) by Rob Schneider; Get Hard (2015) by Etan Cohen; Orange Is the New Black (2013-present) by Jenji Kohan…

Orange Is the New Black (2013-present) by Jenji Kohan
  • Exploitation prison movie

Sometimes, a sub-genre prison movies could be mixed with another genre like erotic or horror. During the 70’s, there were a lot of erotic movies with women in prison. It became a sub-genre in its own right called “women in prison”.

As for horror, there is not much movies about prison. Maybe because it is difficult to give diversity to the public. There are a lot of movies about victims captured and enclosed in a cage or something like that (for example the saga Saw) but the horror movies which take place in the prison system are very rare.

Some of exploitation prison movies are mixed with another sub-genre like blaxploitation or nazisploitation. The movie Black Mama, White Mama (1973) directed by Eddie Romero and with the star Pam Grier is a blaxploitation prison movie with erotic elements.

These movies are caracterized by their low budget. The prison issue is just an excuse to erotic or horror plots. They not really denounce detention conditions.

Some of typical examples: 99 Women (1969) by Jess Franco; The Big Doll House (1971) by Jack Hill; Women In Cage (1971) by Gerado de León; Black Mama, White Mama (1973) by Eddie Romero; Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) by Don Edmonds; Prison (1987) by Renny Harlin; Werewolf in a Women’s prison (2006) by Jeff Leroy; The Human Centipede III (2015) by Tom Six…

The Big Doll House (1971) by Jack Hill
  • Documentary prison movie

There are a lot of documentaries about prison and about all kinds of detention issue: human rights, women, sexuality, death sentence, injustice…

It is very difficult to the directors to have the right to shoot in a prison, because most of the time they will denounce the detention conditions and the administration doesn’t want to have bad publicity. That’s why, for the documentaries, I enlarged the genre to the films which not only take place inside prison but also outside the system.

Some of typical examples: Scared Straight! (1978) by Arnold Shapiro; The Road to Guantánamo (2006) by Michael Winterbottom; My Greatest Escape (2009) by Fabienne Godet; In Prison my whole life (2011) by Marc Evans; Into the Abyss (2011) by Werner Herzog; Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons (2016) by Paul Connelly…

Into the Abyss (2011) by Werner Herzog

2 thoughts on “What is a prison movie?

  1. I feel that is one of the so much important info for me.
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