Why are there so many prison movies and virtually no probation officer movies? This was the question wryly posed by a presenter at an International Community Corrections Association conference I attended in Ottawa in September 2000. The answer, it seems to me, goes beyond the obvious – the more overt opportunities for drama in the jailhouse setting – to offer a glimpse into social dynamics of punishment.
The prison movie is a time-tested genre. Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption are only the leading examples. These movies are so common that on PrisonFlicks.com you can select among tabs for your subgenre of choice: not only prison dramas, but prison comedies, prison musicals (yes, musicals), women in prison, prisoner of war movies, and more. Do you prefer your Alcatraz movie with Burt Lancaster or with Clint Eastwood? You have a choice. On the smaller screen, the series Prison Break has been a playing since 2005. Kiss of the Spider Woman was a hit stage play before it became a movie, and so was Chicago. All world's a stage, and many of the players seem to be prisoners.
What is the appeal of the prison genre? To be sure, there is an elemental “good guys vs. bad guys” aspect in play. The punishment that prisoners are supposed to receive is something that, in our bureaucratic modern world, usually takes place off screen. No more public executions or lashings. Instead, try to sanitize the attempted vengeance by consigning it to the courts and the correctional system. A prison movie offers a peak behind the curtain, a window into a world where the vengeance is operative. Quite often, this occurs in ways that reverse the expected social script. Instead of good guys vs. bad guys, we may find shades of grey, or even an outright reversal, as in Shawshank, where the prisoners seek redemption and the guards fall from grace. If this rhetoric of reversal seems eerily familiar, it may be because the narrative of the wrongful arrest, detention, and punishment of Jesus is so embedded in our culture. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not on Prisonflicks.com, but maybe it should be.