Nobody wants to go to prison voluntarily, but everyday hard life behind bars fascinates many people. The criminal inmates, the many conflicts, and the spectacular escapes are exciting and entertaining at the same time. Film fans often not only get to know the brutal side of the prisoners but also get an insight into the often tragic life story of the criminals. The following list deals with the 25 best prison movies of all time.
1. The Green Mile (1999)
Paul Edgecomb is a warden at Cold Mountain State Prison in the U.S. Every day, and he guards prisoners sentenced to death. The inmates often don’t have it easy, as Edgecomb’s colleagues take every opportunity to make the men’s lives hell. Until one day, inmate John Coffey shows up. His striking appearance causes a sensation, and Edgecomb quickly discovers that Coffey is a man with a very special gift. A deep friendship develops between the two men.
Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan as prison warden Edgecomb and inmate Coffey touch the audience’s hearts and provide suspense, drama, and emotion. The successful prison film “The Green Mile” is based on Stephen King’s series of novels of the same name and was nominated for four Oscars.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Although bank manager Andy Dufresne maintains his innocence, he is sentenced to two life terms for the murder of his wife and her lover. Shortly after, he lands in the dreaded Shawshank prison, known for its brutal inmates and corrupt wardens. After initial difficulties, Dufresne makes friends with fellow inmate Red and helps the wardens with their banking business. As a result, he quickly comes to enjoy privileges but gets deeper and deeper into a tangle of illegal dealings. Escape seems to be the only way out.
The acting talents of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman make “The Shawshank Redemption” a suspenseful prison drama that captivates viewers. The prison film was nominated for seven Oscars and is based on Stephen King’s work “Spring Awakening: Pin-up.”
3. Papillon (1973)
Henri Charrière, better known as Papillon, is convicted of murder. Life awaits him in the inhumane penal colony of French Guiana. The prisoner who did not commit the crime does not want to resign himself to his fate. He makes friends with the good-natured Louis Dega, and together they make escape plans. A return to freedom, however, seems impossible. Hard punishments and torture await Papillon, but even after years, no one can break his urge for freedom.
Accompanied by melancholic music, actors Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman impressively show how harshly and inhumanely prisoners were treated in French Guiana. Papillon’s courage and hopeful outlook on the future make him a hero to viewers around the world.
4. Sleepers (1996)
The four friends, Michael, Shakes, Tommy, and John, get into many mischiefs. When one of their pranks gets out of hand, the boys end up in juvie. There begins the hell on earth for the teenagers because they are brutally mistreated by warden Nokes. Many years later, Michael works as a prosecutor, and Shakes has become a journalist. Tommy and John are still criminals and murder the hated Nokes to take revenge for the past. When the two are on trial, Michael and Shakes come to the aid of their old friends.
The combination of brutal prison life and deep friendship makes “Sleepers” one of the most interesting prison films of all time. With their acting talents, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro win over movie fans worldwide.
5. American History X (1998)
Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard is sent to prison after murdering two African Americans. He quickly realizes that his racist attitude is wrong. He befriends African-American inmate Lamont and distances himself from the neo-Nazi scene. Back at liberty, he finds that his younger brother Danny is slipping deeper into the neo-Nazi scene. He tries everything to save his brother from making this mistake.
Edward Norton, in the role of the former neo-Nazi Derek, shows that being in prison has made him a better person. With dramatic and expressive scenes, the film “American History X” sheds light on the topic of racism and makes you think about it.
6. The Next Three Days (2010)
72 Hours revolves around a jailbreak. In the course of the story, we learn that Lara Brennen was unjustly imprisoned because of the death of her employer. Despite several appeals, the mountain of evidence against them makes it difficult to prove their innocence.
With all hope for her release lost, her husband John begins to plan an escape from prison for his wife. John meticulously researches the prison’s protocols, produces fake passports, sells all their belongings, and prepares to escape prison. As the time window for the prison break is very narrow, John, Lara, and their son must make it at any cost.
The film received a mixed reception from critics. Crowe and Banks have been praised for their portrayals of John and Lara Brennen. Some critics, however, think the jailbreak is unrealistic.
7. The Rock (1996)
General Francis Hummel threatens to wipe out the population of San Francisco with poison gas. He takes hostages and entrenches himself on Alcatraz prison island in order to extort 100 million dollars from the U.S. government. When a U.S. Navy rescue mission fails, bomb specialist Stanley Goodspeed and former Alcatraz escapee John Patrick Mason must take matters into their own hands. Only with a lot of effort and a great willingness to take risks do the two men manage to save the city.
With thrilling chases and spectacular stunts, “The Rock” captivates viewers from the first to the last minute. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery even received an MTV Movie Award for “Best Movie Duo” for their acting talents.
8. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Inmate Frank Morris has already broken out of jail several times and been brought to the maximum security prison Alcatraz. The harsh conditions are hard to bear, so Morris makes escape plans again. After months of preparation, he finally manages to leave the prison through a ventilation shaft, along with brothers Clarence and John Anglin. The three men escape from the island in a homemade rubber dinghy.
“Escape from Alcatraz” is one of the most spectacular prison movies of all time because the plot is based on a true story. With brains and skill, actor Clint Eastwood succeeds in the role of Frank Morris in the impossible: the escape from Alcatraz.
9. The Experiment (2010)
Travis, an American who loves to travel, wants to earn money for a vacation in India and volunteers as a test subject for a psychological experiment. The participants are asked to act out everyday life in prison and are assigned as prisoners and guards. Travis presents himself as a recalcitrant inmate, and soon the game turns bitterly serious. The supposed guards start torturing the prisoners, and the experiment gets out of hand.
“The Experiment” shows how quickly people get out of control and become aggressive. The prison movie is based on a real psychological experiment, making it quite interesting for the audience.
10. Escape Plan (2013)
Ray Breslin is a well-known expert on prison breaks in maximum security institutions. He co-owns a business with Lester Clark and works with his employees and pals Abigail and Hush. Breslin’s escape strategy is based on three basic principles: Familiarity with the facility, adherence to routine, and internal or external support for escape. Then he delivers a report to his client, pointing out the flaws in the system. Breslin and his team receive five million dollars from CIA agent Jessica Miller to evaluate a state-of-the-art facility.
Breslin accepts the challenge but soon discovers that he has been deceived. Hobbes, the sadistic prison guard, pays special attention to Breslin. He acts on his employer’s instructions and his henchman Drake’s help to break Breslin. However, inmate Rottmayer develops a relationship with Breslin and helps him devise a plan to escape and discover who betrayed him. Will they be successful in their endeavor?
11. Starred Up (2013)
Violent Eric Love spends much of his youth in jail. As an adult, he continues his criminal career and ends up in the same prison as his father, Neville. Eric’s extremely aggressive behavior quickly pushes the guards to their limits. Neville approaches his son, but the relationship between father and son is strained, and many arguments ensue. Eric refuses any help and seems lost.
The prison drama “Starred Up” shows the hard everyday life in prison and focuses on the complicated relationship between father and son. The grim dialogue and brutal violence scenes shock but immerse viewers in the inmates’ world.
12. Dead Man Walking (1995)
Felon Matthew Poncelet is convicted of murder and sits on death row. As his execution nears, he turns to nun Helen Prejean for help. Although Poncelet appears cold-blooded and shows no remorse, Sister Helen advocates for his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. In the process, she encounters the relatives of the murder victims, who cannot understand Helen’s efforts and react with disapproval. Poncelet is not pardoned, but he can admit his guilt with Sister Helen’s help.
With moving images, “Dead Man Walking” gives an insight into the emotional world of a murderer who puts aside his cold-heartedness to be able to die in peace. Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon touch the audience’s hearts as the murderer Poncelet and the nun Helen.
13. The Great Escape (1963)
During World War II, American and British prisoners of war were taken to a German camp considered particularly escape-proof. However, Major Roger Bartlett, known as Big X, is not deterred by it. With other prisoners, he decides to dig three tunnels leading to freedom. 250 men plan their escape, but only three fugitives make it to a new life in the end. A large number of prisoners are killed during the outbreak.
“Broken Chains” is a historical prison drama based on a true incident. Although many prisoners have little in common at first, their sad fate unites them. Above all, the cohesion between the desperate men moves viewers to tears.
14. The Last Castle(2001)
Because General Irwin refused an important order, he was imprisoned in a military prison as punishment. He quickly makes an enemy of the prison warden, Colonel Winter, when he criticizes his inhumane methods. But Irwin does not want to put up with the problems in prison and allies with other prisoners. During a riot, Irwin loses his life and gets Colonel Winter arrested. Inmates eventually hail Irwin as a hero.
With Robert Redford in the role of the strong General Irwin, “The Last Fortress” becomes a gripping prison drama. The high walls and gloomy cells not only act as a deterrent but also give the viewers a realistic picture of the sad everyday life in prison.
15. Hunger (2008)
In a Northern Ireland maximum security prison, inmates demand to be recognized as political prisoners. The group around leader Bobby Sands launches several protests to enforce their demand, but without success. As a last resort, the men go on a hunger strike. Priest Moran wants to dissuade the inmates from their plan, but Bobby Sands cares so much about his political goals that he would even sacrifice his life.
“Hunger” dramatically and relentlessly shows how a group of men starve themselves to death. Actor Michael Fassbender even lost 20 kilos during filming to make the hunger strike look realistic. The British prison film was very successful, especially in Europe, and won several awards.
16. Felon (2008)
When family man Wade Porter catches a burglar in the act, he fights back with a baseball bat. The burglar dies, and Porter has to go to prison. In the beginning, he is drawn into the criminal machinations of other inmates. When prison guard Jackson forces him into brutal fights with other prisoners, Porter is shocked and desperate. Mass murderer John Smith, of all people, proves to be a loyal friend and helpfully assists him.
To realistically portray everyday prison life, “Felon” was filmed in a disused prison. Many of the supporting actors are former prisoners who were able to bring their own experiences to the film. Due to the acting talent of Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, the fight scenes seem particularly real and intense.
17. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Gerry Colon lives in Northern Ireland and is convicted, along with friends and relatives, of a London pub bombing in which they were never involved. In prison, he has to share a cell with his father, Giuseppe, with whom he has a difficult relationship. Father and son quickly reconnect as they work together to bring the truth to light. When Giuseppe dies after a long illness, Gerry must continue the fight for justice alone.
“In the Name of the Father” deals with the failure of justice and the emotional relationship between father Giuseppe and son Gerry, which moves the audience to tears. The prison film, based on a true conflict between Northern Ireland and England, was nominated for seven Oscars and enjoyed great popularity worldwide.
18. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a crime comedy set in the 1930s. The film’s director, Wes Anderson, brings together an ensemble of seventeen great actors to make a funny movie to create.
At the Grand Budapest Hotel, an aging concierge takes a young valet under his wing and teaches him how to survive by seducing hotel guests. He tells him about his longest affair with Madame D., who has recently died. As they both walk to her estate, they learn of her will in which she has left him a priceless painting.
Gustave, the concierge, is immediately arrested on suspicion of a crime. It is now up to the house servant and a young baker to get Gustav out of prison and prove his innocence.
The film has been consistently praised for using the history and horrors of the time for subtle jokes and biting humor. Ralph Fiennes’s performance was outstanding, while the rest of the ensemble added to the drama and comedy with great aplomb.
19. The Longest Yard (1974)
Former football player Paul Crewe ends up in jail. There he not only trains the guards but also forms an inmate team. Both teams compete against each other, but the guards do not play fair. Warden Warden Hazen threatens to frame Crewe for murder if the inmate team doesn’t lose on purpose. At first, Crewe is rattled and weakens, but as the guards play increasingly brutal games, he regains his fighting spirit.
The combination of everyday prison life and exciting sporting event makes “The Toughest Mile” quite interesting for viewers. It’s mainly the brilliant action scenes during the football game that provide a lot of suspense. Leading actor Burt Reynolds convinces in the role of Paul Crewe with acting and sporting talent.
20. Bronson (2008)
Michael Peterson ends up in jail for a robbery. There he trains hard to fight with prisoners and guards. Even the stay in a mental hospital can not stop him. When he is released from prison, he calls himself Charles Bronson and earns his money with illegal fights. After only a short time, he has to go back to prison. Creative teaching is supposed to help Bronson, but there is no end to his violent acts.
The prison movie “Bronson” is based on the life of the real Charles Bronson, considered the most dangerous prisoner in Great Britain because of his aggressiveness. The drastic scenes and outbursts of violence give the audience an insight into the everyday life of a highly aggressive person. Mainly thanks to the spectacular performance of actor Tom Hardy, Bronson is perceived as shocking and fascinating at the same time.
21. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Luke Jackson has to go to jail for property damage and has a hard time bending the rules. He often rebels against the guards and is soon admired by his fellow inmates. But two failed escapes lead to Jackson being regularly harassed by the guards. As the injustices get worse, he escapes again. He is determined not to go back to prison and does not give up hope for a life in freedom.
With strength, endurance, and wit, actor Paul Newman wins the audience’s hearts in the role of Luke Jackson. For his acting performance in “The Indomitable,” he was even nominated for an Oscar.
22. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Violent Robert Stroud has killed two people and has to stay in prison for the rest of his life. One day he finds a sick bird, which he nurses back to health. He begins to breed birds and finds new meaning in life. Although Stroud has improved, he is transferred to the prison island of Alcatraz. There he has to put up with the harassment of the hateful warden Shoemaker, who even forbids him to breed birds. Enraged, Stroud writes a book about the unjust rules in prison.
“The Prisoner of Alcatraz” is based on the true story of Robert Stroud, who became a successful birdwatcher during his decades of imprisonment. The prison film largely manages without typical scenes of violence. The many hopeful and peaceful moments make the plot so special.
23. Bad Boys (1983)
Mick O’Brien grows up in difficult circumstances. The teenager earns his living with criminal businesses. One day Mick accidentally runs over the brother of his rival Paco and ends up in juvenile jail as a result. At first, he can hold his own against the other inmates. However, things escalate when his rival Paco is sent to the same prison and vows revenge.
“Bad Boys – Small and Dangerous” relentlessly shows viewers how quickly teenagers go off the rails. It is largely thanks to the talented Sean Penn that the everyday prison life of teenagers is portrayed so genuinely and realistically in the film.
24. Get the Gringo (2012)
This film was released in 2012 under two names and is known as ‘Get the Gringo’ in some countries and ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ in others. It was directed by Adrian Grunberg and written by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, and Stacy Perskie. The film stars Mel Gibson and Kevin Hernandez in the leading roles.
When Gibson’s character is sent to a corrupt Mexican prison on false charges, he meets a young boy who grew up in prison with his mother. His liver perfectly matches gangster boss Javi, who needs a transplant. Gibson takes on the gang to save the boy and falls in love with his mother. Surprisingly, the film was only moderately successful at the box office. This is in contrast to the reviews of the film, which have been mostly positive.
25. Escape from Pretoria (2020)
Escape from Pretoria is the true story of three political prisoners who broke out of their Pretoria jail to continue their anti-apartheid protests. Tim Jenkins and Stephen Lee were arrested for anti-apartheid protests and were sentenced to 12 years and eight years in prison. In prison, they meet fellow political prisoners Goldberg and Fontaine. While Goldberg keeps them from escaping, he still teaches them the system in prison. Fontaine, Lee, and Jenkins immediately start planning their escape and put it into action in a gripping and exciting film.
The film received mixed reviews, with critics saying the film didn’t do justice to the story based on facts. However, the lack of depth is made up for by the gripping action in the plot.