Best Prison Movies of All Time

September 30, 2017 by John Harrington

Source: Courtesy of Gaumont Film Company
Prison movies have been a staple of cinema since the dawn of the motion picture industry in the early 20th century.

Movie directors such as Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, and Mervyn Leroy used incarceration-themed movies to expose what they believed was a dehumanizing penal system in the United States. From their perspective, American prisons were managed by sadistic guards and corrupt administrators who turned a blind eye to the violence all around them. Hollywood viewed penitentiaries as places where people were brutalized rather than reformed.

Warner Bros. Studios produced many of these movies in the 1930s. In contrast to the musicals from MGM and other studios that made films moviegoers could watch to escape the grim realities of the Great Depression, Warner Bros. used prison movies as a bully pulpit to address the social ills of the time. Gritty dramas such as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’’ and “Each Dawn I Die’’ advocated for reforms of the prison system. Later, Warner Bros. movies such as “Caged’’ in 1950 showed the inhuman conditions in women’s prisons as well.

Click here to see the best prison movies of all time.
Click here to see our methodology.

To find the best prison movies of all time, 24/7 Wall St. considered audience and movie critic reviews from several sources. Included on the list are prisoner of war-themed movies as well as a film showing beloved cartoon characters escaping their version of prison.

Even though the prison genre depicts a bleak, helpless future for those incarcerated, many films hold out the possibility of redemption and the chance for a new life. Among these is “The Birdman of Alcatraz,’’ a story about a violent prisoner who develops an interest in canaries and writes books on the birds and their diseases. In “The Shawshank Redemption,’’ a man wrongly convicted of murder overcomes brutality from other inmates and an oppressive warden as he is unrelenting in his near 20-year plan of escape.

Here are the best prison movies of all time.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

25. Sleepers
> Released: 1996
> Starring: Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt
> Prison: Wilkinson Home for Boys
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 1 win & 4 nominations

Source: Courtesy of First Look Pictures

24. Chopper
> Released: 2000
> Starring: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, Vince Colosimo
> Prison: Pentridge Prison
> Awards won: 12 wins & 14 nominations

[in-text-ad]

Source: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

23. Carandiru
> Released: 2003
> Starring: Enrique Diaz, Wagner Moura, Caio Blat
> Prison: Carandiru Penitentiary
> Awards won: 13 wins & 25 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

22. Escape from Alcatraz
> Released: 1979
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom
> Prison: Alcatraz
> Awards won: N/A

Source: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

21. The Experiment
> Released: 2001
> Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski
> Prison: N/A
> Awards won: 14 wins & 13 nominations

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

20. Birdman of Alcatraz
> Released: 1962
> Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter
> Prison: Alcatraz
> Awards won: Nominated for 4 Oscars. Another 4 wins & 8 nominations

Source: Courtesy of FilmDallas Pictures

19. Kiss of the Spider Woman
> Released: 1985
> Starring: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga
> Prison: Unnamed Brazilian prison
> Awards won: Won 1 Oscar. Another 12 wins & 10 nominations

[in-text-ad]

Source: Courtesy of IFC Films

18. Into the Abyss
> Released: 2011
> Starring: Werner Herzog, Richard Lopez, Michael Perry
> Prison: Polunsky Unit
> Awards won: 2 wins & 13 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Icon Film Distribution

17. Hunger
> Released: 2008
> Starring: Stuart Graham, Laine Megaw, Brian Milligan
> Prison: Maze Prison
> Awards won: 45 wins & 33 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

16. The Green Mile
> Released: 1999
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse
> Prison: Cold Mountain Penitentiary
> Awards won: Nominated for 4 Oscars. Another 15 wins & 30 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

15. Midnight Express
> Released: 1978
> Starring: Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins
> Prison: Sağmalcılar Prison
> Awards won: Won 2 Oscars. Another 14 wins & 14 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

14. Starred Up
> Released: 2013
> Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
> Prison: Unnamed British prison
> Awards won: 17 wins & 19 nominations

[in-text-ad]

Source: Courtesy of Allied Artists International

13. Papillon
> Released: 1973
> Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory
> Prison: Devil’s Island
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 2 wins & 1 nomination

Source: Courtesy of Focus Features

12. Dead Man Walking
> Released: 1995
> Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky
> Prison: Louisiana State Penitentiary
> Awards won: Won 1 Oscar. Another 20 wins & 19 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Island Pictures

11. Down by Law
> Released: 1986
> Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
> Prison: Unnamed Louisiana prison
> Awards won: 4 wins & 6 nominations

Source: Courtesy of New Line Cinema

10. American History X
> Released: 1998
> Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
> Prison: Unnamed California prison
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 4 wins & 13 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

9. In the Name of the Father
> Released: 1993
> Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Crosbie
> Prison: Brixton
> Awards won: Nominated for 7 Oscars. Another 7 wins & 27 nominations

[in-text-ad]

Source: Courtesy of UGC Distribution

8. A Prophet
> Released: 2009
> Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
> Prison: Unnamed French prison
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 48 wins & 48 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

7. White Heat
> Released: 1949
> Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien
> Prison: Illinois State Penitentiary
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 1 win & 1 nomination

Source: Courtesy of Orion Pictures

6. The Silence of the Lambs
> Released: 1991
> Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
> Prison: Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane
> Awards won: Won 5 Oscars. Another 49 wins & 38 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

5. Cool Hand Luke
> Released: 1967
> Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin
> Prison: Unnamed Florida prison
> Awards won: Won 1 Oscar. Another 3 wins & 9 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

4. Toy Story 3
> Released: 2010
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack
> Prison: Sunnyside Daycare
> Awards won: Won 2 Oscars. Another 58 wins & 91 nominations

[in-text-ad]

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

3. The Shawshank Redemption
> Released: 1994
> Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton
> Prison: Shawshank State Penitentiary
> Awards won: Nominated for 7 Oscars. Another 19 wins & 30 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Gaumont Film Company

2. A Man Escaped
> Released: 1956
> Starring: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
> Prison: Montluc prison
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 BAFTA Film Award. Another 3 wins & 2 nominations

Source: Courtesy of Janus Films

1. La Grande Illusion
> Released: 1937
> Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay
> Prison: German P.O.W. camp
> Awards won: Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 6 wins & 1 nomination

Methodology:
To determine the best prison movies, 24/7 Wall St. created an index based on each film’s Rotten Tomatoes average critic rating, Rotten Tomatoes average audience rating, and Internet Movie Database average user rating. To be considered, each film needed to have at least 5,000 Rotten Tomatoes user ratings, 10 approved Tomatometer critic reviews, and 10,000 IMDb user ratings.

We averaged the user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb and weighted by the number of votes for each. The combined user rating was then average with the Rotten Tomatoes critic rating.

To be considered, a film had to be either primarily about life in prison or set in a prison.