Orange Is the New Black (and 10 of the best films & TV shows about being in prison)
Coming next week to DVD in the UK is Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black. If you’re wondering why you haven’t caught this show on television, that’s probably because the series by Jenji Kohan, the woman behind Showtime’s Weeds, is one of an increasing number of original series’ featured exclusively on Netflix, following in the footsteps of shows like House of Cards and Hemlock Grove.
Based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman - who is also the show’s protagonist, played by Taylor Schilling – the show details the story of how the New York-based Kerman finds herself incarcerated for 15 months in a women’s federal prison, the result of a decade-old misdemeanour in which she naively agreed to help launder and ex-lover’s money as part of a large and complex drug operation.
The comedy in the show is all borne out of Kerman’s apparent suburbanite respectability; this isn’t your average drug money runner, rather a middle class New Yorker who finds herself having to deal with the consequences of her past, as well as explain it all to her family. As such she finds herself in a minimum security prison with a bunch of tough women and struggles to adjust to her new surroundings.
Kohan obviously has form with dealing with this kind of subject matter, as any fans of Weeds will know, and manages to bring humour and humanity to the storytelling. A second season is already on the way and due to begin in June this year. Unfortunately though it will still be Netflix only, at least until the next DVD hits the shelves, so for those who don’t fancy coughing up for the monthly subscription fees we’ve picked out ten of the best films and TV shows set behind bars…
Directed by Barry Levinson and featuring a stellar cast that includes Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon and Minnie Driver among others, this 1996 film tells the story of a group of friends who are locked up in a juvenile detention centre following a prank that goes horribly wrong, severely injuring an elderly man in the process. While inside they are subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the prison guards. Ten years later following a chance encounter in a bar, the boys get their chance to exact revenge and expose the corrupt prison wardens for what they really are. Brilliant written and acted, we can’t recommend this film highly enough.
Twists, turns and double-crossing are the order of the day in this hit drama series from Paul Scheuring, starring Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell as two brothers, one of whom is jailed and handed a death sentence for a crime he did not commit. All is not as it seems, however, and when his brother uses his knowledge as a structural engineer to break him out, a manhunt ensues between the authorities and agents of a shadowy organisation known simply as ‘The Company’ Packed with intrigue and suspense, this is not to be missed.
The Shawshank Redemption
A film that surely needs no introduction, Frank Darabont’s 1994 movie stars Tim Robbins as a man who is facing life imprisonment when he is wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife. After several unsuccessful attempts to prove his innocence and clear his name, instead he crafts a plan to become the first man to escape from Shawshank prison. Also starring Morgan Freeman, this a classic that deserves its plaudits
Cool Hand Luke
This 1967 classic from director Stuart Rosenberg stars Paul Newman at the height of his powers as Luke, a bank robber who is part of a ‘chain gang’ of prisoners who keeps escaping, then subsequently being caught. A film in a similar vein to The Great Escape and Rebel Without A Cause, Cool Hand Luke was an example for any nonconformist, and the films still stand up over 40 years later.
How could we not include this classic 1970s series from the genius mind of Ronnie Barker? Originally a one-off pilot called Prisoner and Escort, taken from a series called Seven of One, Porridge stars Barker himself as Fletch, a petty criminal serving a stretch in HMP Slade for the latest in a long list of misdemeanors, where he bides his time by scamming other prisoners and generally making life a misery for the long-suffering prison wardens, particularly the straight-laced Scotsman Mr. Mackay. Still funny after all these years.
Stretching the prison drama genre as far as it will go – and then a little further – The Prisoner stars Patrick McGoohan as a man who resigns from his job as a secret agent, only to be drugged and wake up on a mysterious, isolated prison island known as ‘The Village’. Referred to by his captors only as ‘Number 6’, his attempts to escape are foiled by some strange inflatable menaces known as ‘escape orbs’. Set in the oddly beautiful Welsh town of Port Merion, this show has developed an avid cult following and must be one of the most often quoted shows in history.
Starring a young Ray Winstone, this brutal depiction of life inside Borstal is a million miles from the relatively friendly surroundings of something like Porridge. Edgy, violent and poignant, Alan Clarke’s 1977 film was originally intended as a series for the BBC, the show was pulled after the broadcaster became concerned about the levels of violence, so was remade as a film which aired for the first time in 1983 on the brand new and substantially less ‘establishment ‘ upstart Channel 4. Well worth a look, but not for the faint of heart or easily offended.
American History X
Starring Edward Norton, this 1998 film from director Tony Kaye tells the story of a white supremacist who is sent to prison following an incident in which he murders two black men who try to steal his pickup truck. Inside however he befriends a black man and begins to question some of the teachings of his neo-Nazi mentor, as well as the attitudes of both himself and his friends. Norton gives a stellar performance in this hard-edged, thought provoking and occasionally brutal drama.
The weirdest on this list by some distance, Superjail! Is an animated series that was broadcast on Cartoon Network’s late-night counterpart Adult Swim, home to shows like Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Largely set in a dimension referred to as ‘5612’, this show is as hallucinogenic as it is violent, characterised by disorientating shifts in both setting and plot that leave the viewer a little frazzled.
The Green Mile
We couldn't have a list of prison films without including The Green Mile. Frank Darabont's second film on this list, the film stars Tom Hanks and Michal Clarke Duncan as a prison warden and a prisoner with a God-given gift for healing the sick, giving the warden a huge dilemna when his boss' wife becomes ill and he is faced with a choice of whether or not his charge should be executed as sentenced.