15 Timeless Prison Movies Everyone Should See

Ah, prison movies. They have violence, action, cleverness, deception, and sometimes humor, but most of all violence. Did I mention that prison movies have a lot of violence? Which ones are your favorites? If you haven’t seen all of the ones below, you need to fill in the gaps and see them. The older ones are legendary classics with the more recent ones some of the most talked about movies of our day.

birdman15. The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

This movie is based on the true story of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate at Alcatraz that was known for his life with birds. Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of him stirred up sympathy among the public. People seemed to forget that Robert Stroud was a real man that committed real murder.

It’s amazing what Hollywood can do for a person’s character! However, any movie that can make a cold blooded killer look sensitive and make you have sympathy for him gets my vote.

history14. American History X (1998)

Not all of this movie takes place in prison, but an important part of it does. You won’t see any humor in this movie as the plot revolves very heavily on racism and the behaviors of the Neo-Nazis. Don’t at all mistake that the movie depicts this as acceptable, but rather shows the dark side of it and how no good can come out of its racism.

The main character, played by Edward Norton, eventually realizes his errors and changes his ways. However, his brother is headed down the same path of self-destruction and he must find a way to help him realize that the cycle must be broken. The movie is a very intense drama and in the end displays the message very clear that no racism is acceptable.

badboys13. Bad Boys (1983)

There are three movies by this name: one in 1961, one in 1983 (starring Sean Penn), and one in 1995 (starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence). The movie that’s # 13 on the countdown is the one starring Sean Penn. The majority of the movie takes place in juvenile hall.

There’s an ongoing fight between Sean Penn’s character and this other teen who’s just nasty and the kid won’t leave Penn alone. Finally at the end, there’s an awesome fight scene in which the guards are kept away and the two battle it out. Penn is, of course, victorious.

greenmile12. The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile is a movie based on Stephen King’s novel starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan. A man is wrongly convicted of killing two children and is sentenced to death.

The story revolves around the accused man and the prison guards on death row. The man that’s wrongly convicted changes the outlook of one guard (Tom Hanks) as he narrates and tells you that a miracle happened…

la11. Escape from L.A. (1996)

This is a great action -packed movie. If you like violence, you need to see this movie! The movie doesn’t take place in your traditional prison where there are walls and cells. Instead, the movie takes place in 2013 and the U.S. has made L.A. the prison for all really bad violent offenders.

They aren’t in lockdown, but they can’t leave L.A. and must fend for themselves. You can imagine the turmoil. The worse criminal of all has managed to steal the President’s super weapon with the aid of his own daughter, so the President forces Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to get it back. Great action, wonderful deception, and some good sub-plots. This is a must see.

chicago10. Chicago (2002)

Okay, this is a prison movie, but it’s the most different one you’ve ever seen. It’s in a female prison and it involves a crime hungry Chicago. There’s some shooting yet not a whole lot of violence, but this prison movie definitely has deception and humor.

However, one thing most prison movies don’t have that this one does is sexy women. You’ll see Queen Latifa, Catherine Zeta-Jones, RenĂ©e Zellweger, and even a little bit of Lucy Liu. This is done in the form of a musical, but it’s great and most importantly sexy. If you don’t think you’d like it, then just watch this video of the “Cell Block Tango“. Change your mind?

ny9. Escape from New York (1981)

Oh, look. It’s another “escape from…” movie. Yep, and it’s starring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken again. This one came before Escape from L.A. and the plot in this one is that the criminals, in New York City this time and not L.A., kidnapped the prisoners.

If Snake gets them back, he gets a full pardon for his crimes. This one also has a lot of violence, action, suspense, and deception, and is a classic Kurt Russell action flick.

blues8. The Blues Brothers (1980)

Okay, it’s true that the majority of this movie doesn’t take place in a prison. However, the beginning and the end do and it revolves around the Blues Brothers going back to prison. It’s still one hell of a movie.

There’s not too much in the way of violence, but there’s a lot of humor. With John Belushi and Dan Akroyd as the Blues Brothers, you know it’s got to be good.

escape7. The Great Escape (1963)

This is a great classic based on a true story. The setting is World War II. The movie is about prisoners of war and how they outsmart the guards and escape.

Starring tough guy Steve McQueen, this movie is humorous and very well done.

yard6. The Longest Yard (1974)

The original The Longest Yard from 1974 is a classic, though it’s remake isn’t bad either. Burt Reynolds plays a former football player, turned convict. The inmates are to play a football game against the guards, but the warden asks Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) to throw the game and in return, he can have an early release from prison.

This brings upon a dilemma. I’m sure you already know what happens, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious and a must see.

faceoff5. Face/ Off (1997)

This movie is awesome and brings a new concept to the table. Bad-ass and violent career criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) and his cohorts are planning a terrorist act, but the FBI isn’t sure of the details. An unfortunate accident puts Troy in a comma and the FBI uses new technology to take his face off and attach it to FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) so he can go to prison with some of Troy’s cohorts to find out the details.

The plan would’ve worked out great except that Castor Troy woke up, had the plastic surgeon who performed the procedure put Archer’s face on him, killed everyone that had knowledge of the top secret mission, and proceeded to live Sean Archer’s life. The unique story line and compelling drama makes this movie imperative to see.

alcatraz4. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

First thing’s first. Clint Eastwood’s in it, you know it has to be good. This movie is based on the true story of Frank Morris, an inmate at the prison of Alcatraz, the prison they said no one could escape from. Morris managed to do it.

Clint Eastwood portrays Morris in the movie and it’s about how they believe Morris accomplished the feat. This is not only a great classic movie, but a part of our history.

pap3. Papillon (1973)

Papillon is another movie based on a true story – this one of Henri Charriere (potrayed by Steve McQueen), who was nicknamed “Papillon”, which is the French word for butterfly.

The setting is French Guiana, South America, where Papillon is sentenced for a crime of murder that he didn’t commit. This is the story of his continuous attempts to escape the prison.

shaw2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

This movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is a close call for first place. It takes place in the 1940s and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a professional banker is wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

The movie depicts his struggles and accomplishments in prison. With a lot of interwoven subplots, theft, deceptions, and violence, this movie is one of the greatest prison movies ever made.

luke1. Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is a true rebel even by Southern chain gang standards. This is a movie about nonconformity in that Luke Jackson refuses to conform. He continues to escape from prison and gets recaptured. They try to break him, but they just can’t. If you haven’t seen this movie, you won’t believe all of the stuff they put him through.

We also get a famous quote from this movie spoken by “Captain”: “What we have here is a failure to communicate“. Though The Shawshank Redemption is close to as good, Cool Hand Luke wins a first place spot for me.

Out of all the prison movies ever made, these are the fifteen best. With great actors from Steve McQueen to John Travolta, this is a true medley of greatness. Each one of these movies brings uniqueness about it that you can’t get from any other movie. All of these movies are a must for every man’s collection.

Leave a Comment

  1. tash says:

    Really, to have Escape from New York, Escape from LA, and FaceOff – such crud in the list of great prison movies is somewhat embarassing.
    How about such classics as
    "I am a fugitive from a chain gang" starring PAul Muni,
    One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. starring Tom Courtenay – I have not seen a more harrowing prison movie.
    Also checkout "A town like Alice" – Peter Finch (about an open prison in Malaysia plus romance.

  2. Jay says:

    Does anyone know the name of the movie where the inmates take over the prison. At the end, the army comes in and deploys smoke. The announce that whomever is standing will be shot. And that is what they do. The whole time there were inmates trying to keep a few of the cool guards safe and they succeed.

  3. nem says:

    jay, maybe it was 'the last castle'

  4. Greg says:

    No offense but your list is garbage. Ever y Great prison movie list needs to include; Blood in Blood Out, American Me, Dead man Walking, and Murder in the First. You dare to include Chicago (a Musical) Pull out your "Man" card..its been revoked.

  5. ryan biddle says:

    no one mentions the all time great SCUM let alone BRONSON

  6. john says:

    http://www.prisonmovies.net/ , iv got alot of prison movies and watched many , and ther are by far alot you could state b4 most of these , bad boys green mile shawshank amazing movies ! wer is—– in the name of the father !i like__ animal 1 and 2 , half past dead 1 and 2 ,lockdown 2000 , locked down 2010, state property 2 i could go on and on .
    PRISON BREAK FANS!!! prison break makers have also made 2011 tv show BREAKOUT KINGS , have a look its good they use cons to catch cons who have broke out http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1590961/

    as for your prison based films try http://www.prisonmovies.net/prison-movies and imdb for the trailer if one catches your eye