Prison Stories Through The Lens

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Life behind bars has been glorified in music and other popular culture and depicted in countless films and television programs. It’s a reality though, that most of us are glad we’ve never had to experience firsthand.

There are plenty of documentaries, “based on a true story” stories and fictionalized accounts on the small and big screens. Two personal favorites feature the veteran actor Morgan Freeman: “Brubaker” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” The History Channel has also tapped Freeman to host its program on notable jailbreaks.

Let’s take a look at these and a few other examples of art imitating jail and prison life.


Leon Isaac Kennedy stars in the 1979 cult classic about a hitchhiker who ends up behind bars and has to join the prison’s boxing team to win parole. Sequels followed in 1982 and 1987.

Creed III

What happens to a dream deferred? A part of another boxing movie franchise, “Creed III,” released in February, focuses on a man who is released from prison and wants his delayed shot at the title. Jonathan Major stars opposite Michael B. Jordan in the latest installment of the “Rocky” spinoff.


This 1980 drama stars Robert Redford as a new warden at an Arkansas prison who poses as an inmate to witness firsthand allegations of corruption, abuse and murder by staff. Based on the true story, the film’s cast also includes Yaphet Kotto, Morgan Freeman and Richard Ward.

Stir Crazy

The late, great Sidney Poitier directed this 1980 classic. The dynamic duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder star in this prison buddy film about two friends framed for a bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in prison.

Bustin’ Loose

A year after going “Stir Crazy,” Richard Pryor was “Bustin’ Loose.” Pryor stars as a backsliding parolee who is given a last chance at redemption, tasked with driving a group of challenged schoolchildren to Philadelphia. Cicely Tyson plays their teacher.

The Green Mile

The late Michael Clarke Duncan stars as a death row inmate in this 1999 fantasy drama. The film, based on a Stephen King novel, is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Duncan plays John Coffey, a large Black man who has the supernatural ability of healing and resurrection.

The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins star in the 1994 film adaptation of a Stephen King novella. Robbins plays a banker who is convicted of killing his wife and her lover. Freeman is the older inmate he befriends on the inside.


“You gonna eat your cornbread?” While the 1999 film stars two of the best Black comedians, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and has countless light moments, it takes on some pretty serious topics including being falsely imprisoned, racism and corruption in the legal system, homosexuality, and the fate of old-timers in prison. Also stars Bokeem Woodbine, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Oba Babatunde and Anthony Anderson.

Black Mama, White Mama

A blaxploitation-era drama about two women – a prostitute and a revolutionary – who escape during a transfer to a maximum security prison while chained together. The 1973 film stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov. “Black Mama, White Mama” is said to be the female version of the classic “The Defiant Ones.”

The Defiant Ones

The 1958 film stars the late legendary actors Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts, one white and one Black, who must learn to get along to avoid recapture.

The System

“They got us locked up like animals and now we gotta fight like them.” Singer-actor Tyrese Gibson stars in this 2022 film about a war hero and father who gets caught up and is forced to go undercover at a notoriously dangerous prison to gain his freedom and help his daughter. As in “Penitentiary,” there’s a fight club element. Terrence Howard also stars.

Madea Goes to Jail

On a lighter note … everyone’s favorite gun-toting granny finally gets locked up in this 2009 comedy-drama and quickly makes prison her bit-h. Tyler Perry writes, directs and stars alongside Keshia Knight-Pulliam, Derek Luke, David Mann, Sophia Vergara and Viola Davis.

3 Strikes

Brian Hooks, N’Bushe Wright and Faizon Love star in this 2000 comedy about a man facing 25 years to life if he can’t prove his innocence in time. Cast includes David Alan Grier, Mo’Nique, Meagan Good and Oakland rapper E-40.

When They See Us

Ava Duvernay’s 2019 miniseries is based on the case of young Black and Latino men falsely accused of raping a white woman jogging in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The four-part drama debuted in May 2019 with an ensemble cast including Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk, Michael K. Williams, Blair Underwood, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash and Aunjanue Ellis.


A 2016 American documentary from filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The film explores the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States” and gets its title from the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the country and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime. The film explores continued slavery in the form of overpolicing and mass incarceration, and the big money that is made through the prison industrial complex.

If Beale Street Could Talk

A Black couple discovers how racism can interrupt lives as an expectant father is jailed following a false accusation of sexual assault. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel, also touches on the reality of Black men often being forced to take plea deals even when they haven’t even committed a crime. Regina King won an Oscar for her 2018 role as a mother trying to free her son.

Just Mercy

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx star in this 2019 legal drama, based on the real-life struggles of justice champion Bryan Stevenson in his efforts to free an innocent man sentenced to death for killing a teenaged white girl in the South. The film’s cast also includes Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr.

The Hurricane

Denzel Washington portrays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the real-life former boxer who was falsely convicted of a triple murder. The 1999 film tells the story of Carter and a Black teen and his adopted family who work to free Carter after he has spent decades behind bars. Based on the 1974 autobiography Carter wrote while imprisoned, “The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to 45472.”

South Central

Guns, drugs and gangs are bad news for a parolee in this 1992 film set in South Central Los Angeles. Bobby Johnson, played by Richmond native Glenn Plumber, gets out of prison after 10 years, only to discover that in his absence, his son has followed his footsteps into crime and gang life.


Sean Penn and Robert Duvall star in this 1988 film about a veteran cop and a rookie policing gang violence in East Los Angeles, but all I hear when the movie is mentioned is Ice T’s title track from the soundtrack, “I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking … /I don’t need your assistance, social persistence/Any problem I got I just put my fist in/My life is violent but violent is life/Peace is a dream, reality is a knife/My colors, my honor, my colors, my all.”


Football legend-turned-activist Jim Brown starred in this 1969 prison drama alongside Gene Hackman. It’s based on a real incident in which a group of violent inmates stage a takeover. Awaiting parole, Brown’s character wants no part of the insurrection, but gets dragged into it.

American Violet

A single mother must make an agonizing decision: plead guilty and go home a convicted felon, or maintain her innocence, fight the charges and risk a lengthy prison sentence. This 2008 drama is based on a true story of 15 Black Texans who were rounded up in a series of drug sweeps and indicted in 2000.

Civil Brand

A group of imprisoned women, led by actress LisaRaye McCoy, rebel against abusive prison staff in this 2002 drama. Ensemble cast includes N’Bushe Wright, Monica Calhoun, Clifton Powell, Mos Def and McCoy’s real-life sister, rapper Da Brat. 


A talented teen is forced to fight for his innocence and integrity after getting implicated in a robbery-turned-murder in this 2018 Netflix original movie. The cards, and the criminal justice system, are stacked against him. Cast includes Kelvin Harrison Jr., John David Washington, Jeffrey Wright and rapper A$AP Rocky.


You had me at Alfre Woodard. The prolific, award-winning actress plays a prison warden in this 2019 film by Chinonye Chukwu. The drama follows the beleaguered warden and a death row inmate who proclaims his innocence, but is running out of appeals that can keep him from a lethal injection. Also stars Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce and Danielle Brooks of “Orange Is the New Black” fame. (More on that show below).

Since I Been Down

This 2021 documentary by Gilda Sheppard represents a 12-year journey to investigate the circumstances and inequities that have landed so many Black youth in prison. Features the efforts of Kimonti Carter, who is serving life without parole in a Washington state prison thanks to the notorious three-strikes law, to transform inmates’ lives through education.


“There’s no place like home.” That was the tagline for the gritty drama that aired on HBO from 1997-2003. For six seasons viewers got to know the inmates who called a fictional New York maximum-security men’s prison home. “Emerald City” was an experimental cell block where staffers emphasized rehabilitation and responsibility during incarceration. There was always so much more going on, including power struggles between gangs and white supremacists, moral dilemmas, drugs, rape and murder. The cast included Ernie Hudson, Eamonn Walker, Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaye, Granville Adams, the late Lance Riddick and Harold Perrineau, who doubled as the show’s narrator.

The Last O.G.

Tracy Morgan stars in this comedy series created by Jordan Peele and John Carcieri. “The Last O.G.” centers around a man who gets out of jail and is shocked to learn how much the world has changed since he was away. He attempts to take his prison recipes to the next level and serve his community. The show debuted on Netflix in 2018.

For Life

A legal drama based on the story of Isaac Wright Jr., a man who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison and later became an attorney. “For Life” debuted in 2020, but lasted only two seasons.


Kerry Washington stars as an adult daughter and relationship therapist who reconnects with her father, played by Delroy Lindo, when he gets out and moves in with her and her teenage son. The Hulu comedy series debuted in 2023 and is based on the experiences of showrunner Tracy McMillan.

Orange Is the New Black

I love a show with great character development. The series focused on the women sentenced to time in a minimum security prison and brilliantly fleshed out the character’s backstories and what led them to being there. I binged the Netflix series with millions of others and watched as the women adjusted to life behind bars. The show ran from 2013-2019 and made stars of an ensemble cast that included Danielle Brooks, Samara Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox and Adrienne Moore.

The Redemption Project

CNN commentator Van Jones visits prisons across the country and listens in as offenders come face to face with those impacted by their violent crimes as part of the restorative-justice process. Jones is also the founder and co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and

Time: The Kalief Browder Story

This six-episode documentary/miniseries follows Kalief Browder, a Black teen from the Bronx, New York, who spent three years in the notorious Rikers Island even though he never was convicted of a crime. Sadly, Browder committed suicide in prison in 2015. The docuseries aired on Spike in 2017 and now streams on Netflix.

History’s Greatest Escapes

I have a pin that says, “I want Morgan Freeman to narrate my life.” The History Channel tapped the award-winning actor and voice-over king for this 2021 docuseries. Episodes include the tales of four men who tried to escape the Bay Area’s notorious Alcatraz and that of James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ray was described as a “notorious escape artist.”

First and Last

This unscripted Netflix series offered insight into the criminal justice system as it tracked prisoners coming into Georgia’s Gwinnett County Jail and as they left. The show’s first and only season debuted in 2018.

60 Days In

A&E’s “Brubaker”-esque show follows seven individuals as they go undercover at North Carolina’s Pitt County Detention Center on a mission to evoke change. Season 8 features Sacramento native Curtis Williams, who was known as “Clydell” while undercover. Willams served real stints in prison, including being sentenced to 17 years for a robbery. Today he shares prison-related content on his YouTube podcast to change stereotypes about formerly incarcerated people.

The Last Graduation

Forty-three men died in the infamous 1971 rebellion at New York’s Attica state prison as inmates called for more rights and better treatment and living conditions. In this 1997 documentary, researcher Barbara Zahm explores the uprising and the college prison program created in its wake to address some of Attica’s issues and its ultimate loss of federal funding.

Scared Straight

This original reality prison documentary debuted in 1978. The film followed a group of troubled teens as they’re taken to New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison through a diversion program that exposed them to actual inmates and the harsh realities of incarceration. The film spawned several sequels and a TV series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” that aired on A&E from 2011-2015. Reality TV has since produced documentaries such as “Girls Incarcerated,” “Love After Lockup,” “60 Days In” and “Jailbirds,” which features inmates in Sacramento’s county jail.

Interactive element: Observer Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow has shared her favorite prison films. What are yours and why? Share on WHAT (Observer platform).

Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.

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