10 Best Prison Movies, Ranked (According To IMDb)


There are a ton of prison films out there. While some films take fantasy and science fiction to delve into wonderful works of escapism, prison movies work hard to show the drama of our own world. Prison is where reality can get to its peak consequence. There is plenty of room for flawed characters, room to grow and to ask hard-to-answer questions about the legal system.

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Some are based on true stories, others are completely made up, and some have become known as some of the most famous movies of all time. While there are many high-quality stories, some are rated higher than others.

10 Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Score 7.6

man lounging with other behind bars


Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the world. It sits off the coast of San Fransisco and today it serves as a tourist attraction and museum. It served as a prison from the 1930s to the 1960s and is full of interesting stories. One such story inspired many films such as this one, an unsolved mystery to this day about how three prisoners escaped this island prison.

This movie tells its version of how the three prisoners escaped. It was named one of the best films of its time and films the famous actor Clint Eastwood.

9 Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962): Score 7.8

man with bird

Alcatraz is so famous that there is more than one film about the prison that sits as one of the best prison films out there. It tells a fictionalized life of the inmate, Robert Franklin Stroud. He was nicknamed the “Birdman of Alcatraz” because he raised and took care of some injured sparrows he found in the prison yard. He even wrote a book called Diseases of Canaries.

Not all prison movies capture the oppressive feeling of incarceration, but this one does. Like prison-time itself, the pace is slow.

8 Papillion (1973): Score 8.0

close guys

This historical drama prison film tells the story of two men who are trying to escape imprisonment in French Guiana. At the time it was made, it was quite expensive to film due to its remote locations. However, the film was so loved and popular that it got over twice its budget back.

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Like many popular prison films, the feeling of despair, hopelessness, and brutality of imprisonment is deeply captured. It shows the indomitably of the human spirit in a way that gets audiences at the edge of their seats, clinging to a little hope just like the characters in the movie do.

7 12 Monkeys (1995): Score 8.0

12 monkeys sitting characters

12 Monkeys is quite different from other prison movies, as it is also part of the science fiction genre. Prison itself is not quite the focus either, however, all the events that happen occur because the protagonist is incarcerated. As a prisoner in the future, he is experimented on and had to time travel to find a cure for a virus that killed most of humanity.

The movie gets its audience to really question what is and isn’t real. For example, you may end up asking “Is this man really from the future?”

6 In The Name Of The Father (1993): Socre 8.1

crowd and man yelling

This movie is based on the true story of the Guilford Four, four innocent people that were convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, which killed five people. The story is pretty heartbreaking, and it has that extra spice of being based on real events.

Of course, like any movie that tries to tell a story from reality, there are some facts that were left out. Despite that though, it serves its main purpose as an amazing movie about injustice.

5 Cool Hand Luke (1967): Score 8.1

man in pit with three men watching

Even those who have never seen this movie have likely heard of it since it is known as a classic. Based on a novel of the same name, the story follows a rebellious prisoner in a Florida prison camp in the 1950s.

The movie is rich in themes and symbolism with its Christian imagery and use of signs. In terms of awards, the movie won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Laurel Award for Top Male Supporting Performance. It is also included in the National Film Preservation Board.

With such a legacy, it is no wonder it has such a high score on IMDb and a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

4 The Great Escape (1963): Score 8.2

crawling under wire fence

Based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 non-fiction book of the same name, this story takes place in a World War II prison. While the book is a first-hand account of the escape of British prisoners of war from Germany in 1944, the movie is quite fictionalized. For example, the movie included Americans among the escapees when in reality it was all British.

RELATED: The 15 Best Prison Escape Films (Ranked By IMDb Score)

The movie is quite famous. Even if never seen, it has been referenced in a ton of pop culture from video games like Metal Gear to movies like Chicken Run and T.V. shows like The Simpsons.

3 American History X (1998): Score 8.5

fist bumping

While this movie doesn’t primarily take place in prison, the story is a result of incarceration. The film stars two brothers who are involved in neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements. After one gets arrested and comes back reformed, he seeks to save his brother from further indoctrination from these toxic groups. The film is not only incredibly famous but has been used for educational purposes across the United States.

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The movie won multiple awards for Best Actor and many critics have noticed that its importance has not waned at all since it first hit the big screen. In fact, it is arguable that the 90s film may be even more relatable to audiences of today.

2 The Green Mile (1999): Score 8.6

police holding large man

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, this is a prison movie that dips into the supernatural.  The story stars a death row corrections officer in the Great Depression who witnesses supernatural events after a certain inmate is brought to his facility. The movie won awards for its music, actors, and a People’s Choice Awards for best all-around motion-picture.

The movie has been known to make its audiences have moments of laughter, tears, and just leave a big impression.

1 The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Score 9.3

sitting on bench and ground talking

Based on another Stephen King book, this movie is loved enough that some would argue it is one of the best movies of all (not just of prison movies). The story follows Andy Dufresne after he is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.  When film buffs think of the prison genre, it is this movie that often comes to their minds first.

Due to its impact and cultural significance, the movie has been selected by the United States Library of Congress to be put in the National Film Registry. In a 2016 interview, King even mentioned that The Shawshank Redemption was his favorite adaptation of his work (along with Stand by Me).

NEXT: 10 Prison Dramas To Watch If You Like The Shawshank Redemption

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Updated: November 12, 2020 — 4:00 am

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