If you watch TV shows, prison is a scary place. That’s something you never want to experience during your time on earth. Luckily for most of us, watching prison life on the small screen is the closest thing we can get to real time. Most depictions of prison life seen on prison television shows are extremely scary. Images of violence and gang culture became prominent. Everything from stabbings in the yard to rapes in the bathroom are shown in detail.
But despite the gruesome nature of prison life, what we see on screen is often fascinating. Whether you’re watching a documentary series showing real life in prison or a fictional series where everything is turned up to 11, prison TV shows offer a glimpse about life behind bars.
If you’re new to the genre and wondering where to start, here are the 11 best prison TV shows that will ensure you never break the law in your life.
1. Oz (1997-2003)
Oz was HBO’s first product and how they began their cable TV dominance. This is a bleak and depressing prison show. It takes place at a correctional facility called the Oswald State Correctional Facility, or Oz for short. Much of the show is set in the prison’s experimental area. This area is known as the ‘Emerald City’. There is an equal number of prisoners from all races here to prevent gang violence. While good in theory, these criminals are the worst of the worst and don’t follow the rules. The people of the Emerald City must take responsibility for their crimes, with an emphasis on rehabilitation. Despite this, the prisoners in Emerald City are constantly at war, and despite being in a controlled environment, they still attempt murder, rape, and get high.
Along with focusing on prisoners, Oz also details the lives of prison administrators in charge of prisoners and how this job affects their lives. Oz extremely dark and deals with themes of violence, homosexuality, death, guilt, incarceration, etc. The show also has an incredible cast including names like Ernie Hudson, Harold Perrineau, JK Simmons, Dean Winters, Edie Falco, BD Wong and Christopher Meloni. This is a must-see movie for anyone who loves a good show about prison.
2. Orange is the new black (2013-2019)
This Netflix exclusive has been running for seven seasons and highlights life at a minimum-security women’s prison. 10 years after a criminal case she thought she had left behind comes back to bite her, thirty-something Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) finds herself in prison and facing her past in the form of Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), her ex-girlfriend. The reason she’s in prison. The show examines their relationship as Chapman must overcome prison and all the obstacles it causes. The show uses flashbacks to tell the stories of the prisoners and guards to give some background on how they got to where they are.
Orange is the new black was critically acclaimed and won numerous awards, including four Emmy Awards. It is considered one of the best prison television shows of modern times with a top-notch cast and incredible writing.
3. 60 Days (2016-present)
This is actually an interesting premise for a reality show set in a prison. 60 days later is about volunteers who are detained for 60 days to see if they can obtain evidence of illegal activities of other prisoners. None of the other inmates nor the correctional guards knew about the inmates. The show has gradually evolved over subsequent seasons and become a way for people to understand prison and how people are incarcerated. Many volunteers were unable to last the full 60 days, struggling with life behind bars. It really puts your life into perspective and allows you to understand what life in prison is like and the difficulties of being incarcerated.
There are currently six seasons of the long-running series, although there is no word on whether a seventh season will be produced.
4. Prison Break (2005-2017)
Unlike most of the programs on this list, Escape is a wild ride to escape prison. When Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) is sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, his brother Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) is intentionally locked up. You see Scofield has a plan. He designed the prison and tattooed the entire layout of the building on his body. He will use this knowledge to break through with his brother. What follows is a season full of tension and action as Scofield must recruit other prisoners to help him free his brother and escape.
The success of Escape resulted in four more seasons being put into operation. The second found a group of ragged prisoners on the run. A third finds survivors behind bars, but this time in a prison in Panama. The fourth season finds two brothers working for a government agency trying to track down some technology before it all ends in an overwhelming fifth season where the characters return from the dead and the show The process is really off track. Despite the crazy way it ended, Escape very enjoyable (especially the first season).
5. Wentworth (2013-2021)
Another play about female prisoners, Wentworth much more violent and serious than OThe range is the new black. The Australian television series is a re-imagining of another classic Australian show, Prisoner. This update follows Bea Smith’s (Danielle Cormack) transformation from a shy prisoner to the ruler of the prison yard. This has it all; Graphic violence, lesbian relationships, cruel prison guards, and multiple storylines always work.
While Smith’s rise to the top was the main focus in the early seasons, Wentworth adopts a more synchronized offer for later seasons, illuminating other characters trying to survive life in prison. The series has brought many opportunities to interact with Australian actors and continuously won ratings during 9 years of broadcasting.
6. Inside the world’s harshest prison (2016-present)
If you prefer the real world then prepare to be shocked by this show. Taking cameras into some of the world’s scariest prisons, this documentary series gives you an intimate look at life behind bars. The first season was hosted by Paul Connolly, the next four seasons were hosted by Raphael Rowe. Each episode features a different prison. Some of the standout (or scariest) episodes include a visit to a fortress-like prison in Bogotá, Colombia, where drugs are rampant, a look inside Poland’s Piotrków prison, where prisoners held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and the Brandvlei Correctional Center in South Africa, a prison where most of the prisoners are gang members serving time for knife crimes. Watching this show will scare you.
7. Escape in Dannemora (2008)
This thrilling mini-series is based on the true story of Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), two criminals who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility. Both, both in prison for murder, planned to escape with help from prison officer Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), with whom they had both slept. The seven-episode series is highly entertaining. Watching Matt and Sweat gain Mitchell’s trust only to abandon her when they escape is fascinating. What’s interesting is that the film was directed by Ben Stiller, who is more known for his comedic roles than his dramatic directing.
8. Porridge (1974-1977)
Most shows that deal with prison life are serious and filled with violence and unpleasant characters. Porridge it’s completely the opposite. This classic British comedy will give you a headache. The series revolves around professional criminal Norman Fletcher (Ronnie Barker), jailed for his latest crime, and young Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale), an innocent man serving his first prison sentence. Fletcher takes Godber under his wing and shows him tricks to survive in prison. There are plenty of laughs throughout the three seasons as well as some serious moments that also make you realize that prison is no laughing matter.
In addition to being a big hit with those on the outside, the prisoners are also popular Porridge and depicts life behind its bars. Although it is a comedy, many of the situations that Fletcher and Godber encounter are related to prisoners who have served long sentences. In addition to the three seasons, there are two Christmas specials, a movie, and a spin-off series, Go straightwhich features Fletcher trying to infiltrate the outside without returning to a life of crime.
9. First and Last (2018-present)
This unique drama recounts the first and last days of inmates at the Gwinnett County Jail. You can see the full range of emotions people experience as they face the realities of prison life and freedom. The six-episode series also examines the criminal justice system and its impact on people. You can really see the human side of crime. For those new to the prison system, it is a difficult and scary time. On the other hand, those who left now have to face the harsh realities of the outside world. They face different treatment because they have been in prison. First and last really inculcates the emotions each inmate goes through and gives you insight into the prison psyche.
10. For Life (2020-2021)
The series focuses on Nicholas Pinnock’s Aaron Wallace, a nightclub owner arrested for drug trafficking. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his crimes. Wallace decides to study to become an in-house lawyer so he can help other criminals solve their cases while also trying to overturn his own convictions. The show follows Wallace as he protects his fellow inmates while trying to manage life in prison. Although the series only lasted two seasons, it was critically acclaimed for Pinnock’s performance.
What makes For life Even more worth checking out is the fact that it’s based on a true story. Aaron Wallace’s character is based on Isaac Wright Jr., a man wrongly convicted of drug trafficking in 1991. He faced a life sentence but overturned the case in 1997.
11. Time (2021)
This three-part series is a masterclass in acting from two great British artists. Sean Bean and Stephen Graham excel in this terrifying prison drama that exposes the dangers of life inside and outside prison walls. Bean plays Mark Cobden, a new prisoner who truly regrets the crimes he committed. Unprepared for life behind bars, he quickly realized he was in trouble. He was criticized by a prisoner who considered him weak. When violent attacks against him begin to escalate, he must decide how to solve the problem. Graham shines as Eric McNally, a prison guard whose son has just been sent to prison. When one of the prisoners discovered this, he used this against McNally. Pushed to the brink, he must find a way to keep his son safe while dealing with the prisoner who threatens him.
Time Truly a mesmerizing watch that draws you in from the start. Even though there are only three episodes, you’ll be satisfied with the ending while still wanting more. A critical and commercial success, this British series is another terrifying look at the dangers of being locked up.