Screengrab from LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison

Often, people don’t want to read an article, seek out a book, or even browse photographs about American prisons. Myself included, at times. Often, you just want to crawl up on the sofa and watch real life difficult issues on screen.

Often, I am asked if I have seen a famous prison film. Often one of the ones on this list. Often, I have and more often I am at pains to say that dramatisations — no matter how they refer to real life events — are not real life events. I like to refer people to documentaries about American prisons that have been made in the past forty years. Most on this list have been made in the past decade. Together they paint a picture very different to that in the (Hollywood) movies. There’s no WWII Germans, no mid-20th-century tyrant wardens, no Sly Stallone or Pelé.

In this list you’ll find petty grievances, coercive tactics, routine frustration, difficult truths, repeated lose-lose scenarios, intractable prison violence in overcrowded facilities and the constant games of submission, power and suspicion.

I’ve included them with annotated links because hopefully these videos — just as I hope with photographs — may offer you entry into these daily and virtually-invisible abuses.



Nick Broomfield’s Tattooed Tears (1979: 85 minutes) remains an uncomfortable classic. It was filmed in the early days of youth lock up in California. The California Youth Authority (CYA) made the mistake of treating its juvenile detention facilities as adult prisons and its wards as incorrigible criminals. Since the film was made the youth prison population bloated to over 11,000 and 10 facilities before the courts ruled the system needed to be completely restructured. The system has been renamed the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and now runs only three facilities for about 1,200 boys. The shrinkage was the largest single system process of decarceration in U.S. history. Criticism of the long hours of lockdown, suicide and violence continue.

The “soundtrack” to Tattooed Tears is the constant hooping and hollering and banging of heavy doors and furniture. There’s a dispute between staff (in remarkably casual dress) and a young man about food. One prisoner refuses to be subjected to a search and so is taken to an x-ray machine for a rectum-scan in another building. The exchange is cagey and about not losing face. The x-ray shows the prisoner had no concealed weapons and the question is why would he go through all that dark theater? Well, what else was he going to do that night? The protracted exchange was about refusal to cede the power over ones own body – the little power one retains as a prisoner.

There are so many pointed observations about the perversity of institutionalized life; the military boot-camp style training in the yard seems facile, the parole board hearing will have you crying; the bro-down restraint technique training among the staff is strangely light-hearted, the exchange between a female counsellor and a boy about his hallucinations is tense and sad. The closing scene of a yelling preacher is madness embodied.

Broomfield filmed for 14 weeks. He and his small staff slept in the adjoining hospital. The juvenile prison “got to him” and the constant racket left him feeling it was a space in which “nothing  sensitive can happen.”


LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison (2011: 15 minutes) is a examination of violence among youth in the notorious Rikers Island. Two thirds of the near 5,000 Rikers prisoners are juveniles. Violence at Rikers has been widely reported including, in 2012, staff of the NYDOC leaking photographs of gruesome injuries, in an attempt to tell the outside world of the escalating violence.

UPDATE: Video no longer available online.

While LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison makes very questionable use of footage of violence in adult facilities that confuses — and perhaps manipulates — the viewer, it presents one of the most recent and serious cases of institutional failure. The film covers the physical lay-out of the dormitories, interviews with young men who’ve been locked up and focuses on the horrendous 2008 death of Christopher Robinson. Robinson was a beaten to death because he reportedly did not fall in line with “The Program” an alleged gang structure that the Rikers’ authorities failed to address.

Tragically, Robinson was only inside Rikers because he had stayed at work too late, broke curfew and was in violation of his probation.  It’s a stand out case of a needless death. The film ends with 4 minutes of statistics outlining the disproportionate number of minorities in the NY juvenile detention system.


Here’s a “two-fer.” Spaced six years apart, Louis Theroux has made a couple of documentaries about two highly-populated and highly-pressurised institutions. In Behind Bars, a documentary about San Quentin Prison, Theroux speaks to guards, trouble makers, white racists, and a transgendered prisoner called Deborah Lee Worledge (who Robert Gumpert photographed in the San Francisco Jails shortly before her death in 2008).

Despite the clickbait title, MegaJail (2011, 120 minutes) is a lesson in how a facility should not be run. Miami’s main jail has many pretrial detainees and a high turn over of prisoner. With overcrowding comes violence and coercion.

In both documentaries, Theroux interviews perpetrators and potential victims of violence and prison staff. He does so with his usual slightly-bumbling and disarming demeanour. At times, the attitudes he encounters are almost unbelievable.


Within the five fold increase of the U.S. prison population over the past 35 years, the number of women in prison has increased eightfold. This is due to longer sentencing and many women being sentenced for conspiracy or possession under extended War On Drugs legislation.

Mothers Of Bedford looks at the support offered through the Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Prison, which is New York State’s maximum security women’s facility.

In the U.S. there are 1.5 million children with an incarcerated parent (PDF).


The House I Live In, the much publicised and toured film about the economic and moral failure of the War on Drugs by director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Reagan, Freakonomics) is a punch in the gut for those that think racial inequality is a small problem in America’s criminal justice systems. The War on Drugs has been a war on poor people and mostly a war on minority communities.

The House I Live In is a documentary fusion of the ideas forwarded by Michelle Alexander scholarship and David Simon’s dramatizations. Simon appears in the film and describes the assault on poor communities of colour as a “holocaust in slow motion.”


Brought to you by Al Jazeera’s excellent documentary series ‘Fault Lines’, Women Behind Bars ventures into the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) which is the largest women’s prison in the world. The population at the prison fluctuates northward of 4,000, nearly twice the prison design capacity. The problems are innumerable at CCWF but include overcrowding, inadequate health care, scant personal care essentials such as sanitary towels (rationed to 5 pads per month), and most appallingly, 148 non-consented sterilizations.

Of all activist groups, I recommend plugging yourselves into those of Californians United for a Responsible Budget and California Coalition for Women Prisoners — two groups that offer solidarity, direct services and advocacy to California female prisoners and visits CCWF.

Finally, hats of to Al Jazeera for putting together this excellent primer on the California womens prison crisis.


Herman Wallace died on October 4th, 2013. Against the state’s wishes, a judge ordered his release on compassionate grounds 3 days prior to his death from cancer. One of the Angola 3 and one of America’s most well-known political prisoners, Wallace lived in solitary confinement for 41 years.

Despite the brutalization of body and mind, Wallace somehow stayed sane and fought for a retrial with allies inside and out. From his 6×9 cell, he was asked by artist Jackie Summell to imagine his dream house. Herman’s House (and here) documents Wallace’s and Summell’s longterm collaboration and through this one story shines a light on the issue of widespread and abusive use of solitary confinement in the U.S.


In The Land Of The Free, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, tells the story of the Angola 3.

A family member of a prison guard  — whose murder was controversially pegged on Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King — states in the film that she doesn’t think they are guilty. It’s an opinion that has long been held by the activists and legal scholars who’ve looked at the inadequate process that sent the three men into  longterm solitary confinement.


Another film invested in describing forgiveness in difficult circumstances, Unlikely Friends goes inside San Quentin Prison to explore how families of crime victims and prisoners can build a positive future out of very unfortunate circumstances.

Often the idea of forgiveness is the reserve of religion, but its embrace must be central to social justice if we are to progress from medieval retribution within our criminal justice systems. This is a film designed to challenge all your preconceptions.

Filmmaker Leslie Neale shared some of her still photographs from within San Quentin with Prison Photography recently.


Wrongful conviction brings persistent shame upon any criminal justice system which makes claim to effective and neutral application of the law. Mistakes and injustices occur and they are most grave in cases of death sentences. The film-series One For Ten derives its name from the statistic that 1 in 10 death penalty sentences are passed down on innocent persons.

Over five weeks in April and May of 2013, a team of four traveled the width of the US and interviewed ten individuals who had been freed from death row. Each film profiles a major issue in wrongful convictions highlighted through an individual case.

You can check out all the first hand testimonies of exonerees here. Above, I’ve embedded John Thompson’s film. Thompson was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct in which the prosecutor illegally withheld evidence from the court that would’ve proved Thompson’s innocence. Since his release after serving 14 years, Thompson has gone on to found Resurrection After Exoneration, been a Open Society Fellow and campaigned for accountability among state prosecutors.


Director Matthew Pil­lis­cher began Broken On All Sides as a way to explore, edu­cate about, and advocate change around the over­crowd­ing of the Philadelphia county jail sys­tem. The documentary fast became an analysis of mass incarceration across the nation and the intersection of race and poverty within criminal justice.

Broken On All Sides centers around the theory that mass incarceration has become “The New Jim Crow.” That is, since the rise of the drug war and the explosion of the prison population, and because discretion within the sys­tem allows for arrest and prosecution of people of color at alarmingly higher rates than whites, pris­ons and criminal penalties have become a new ver­sion of Jim Crow. People of color have been tar­geted at significantly higher rates for stops, searches, arrests, prosecution, and harsher sentences. So, where does this leave criminal justice?

The feature-length documentary is available for activists and edu­ca­tors to use in order to raise consciousness and organize for change. If your school, workplace or organization wants to host a screening, you can contact the director.


Originally aired in , the UK Channel 4’s Torture: America’s Brutal Prisons is a convincing argument to say that Abu Ghraib was not just an outlying aberration on foreign soil. Rather the Abu Ghraib abuses were the logically outcome of carceral philosophies grown here in the U.S. Two of the senior guards at Abu Ghraib, Ivan L. (Chip) Frederick II and Charles Graner, had careers in Utah as correctional officers.

We were “fortunate” to witness and condemn the Abu Ghraib abuses, but perhaps our analysis didn’t go far enough. Imperialism exists here at home.

While we’re on the topic of U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib we should note two other films: HBO’s Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure.


Conceived by photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford (on Prison Photography here) of Humane Exposures and directed by award-winning director Alan Swyer, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing features interviews with more than 25 experts in the fields of law enforcement, law, politics, life training, addiction treatment, and childhood development. Nonviolent offenders who have turned their lives around after successfully completing remediation and literacy programs are featured as well.


The film ushers the audience through facilities with proven track records for changing the lives of both juvenile and adult offenders. The film asks why funding for multiagency complex solutions to feasible reentry programs are so difficult to put in place by California’s legislature. The question is even more pressing given the state’s overcrowded prisons and the proven reduction in recidivism well-designed reentry programs deliver.

More video excerpts by Lankford here.


The emergence of prison yoga and prison transcendental meditation programs may point to a trend for eastern philosophy in U.S. prisons. Dhamma Brothers documents the first extended Vipassana retreat in a North American maximum-security prison.

The Vipassana retreat is an emotionally and physically demanding program of silent meditation lasting ten days and requiring 100 hours of meditation.


Produced by Oprah Winfrey and narrated by Forest Whitaker, Serving Life documents Angola Prison’s hospice in which prisoners care for dying fellow prisoners. Louisiana has ridiculously harsh, long sentences and far too many Life Without Parole sentences. As a result, 85-90% of the men imprisoned at Angola will die there. Imprisoning the elderly is an expensive and foolish proposition — in all states, the average age of the prisoner is increasing.

In photography, this is an institution that Lori Waselchuk expertly documented in her project Grace Before Dying, which incorporated an education program, traveling exhibition and excellent book.


Edgar Barens (who also made a documentary about the Angola prison hospice) is currently shortlisted for an Oscar for Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Shot over a six-month period in Iowa State Penitentiary, Prison Terminal tells the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall and the hospice volunteers, they themselves prisoners, who care for him. It provides a poignant account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the forgotten and often maligned lives of prisoners.

Read an interview with Barens.


Certainly one of the most unexpected narratives in the list, Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo tells of female prisoners preparations and competing in an Oklahoma prison rodeo, in 2007.

Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has held an annual ‘Prison Rodeo.’ In 2006, female prisoners were allowed to participate for the first time. Oklahaoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the country. The women share common experiences such as broken homes, drug abuse and alienation from their children.

Prison Rodeo’s used to be common. One still exists at Angola Prison in Louisiana. They are exploitative gladiatorial spectacles. Some prisoners and prison officials will say it brings variety, money-earning potential, momentary hero-worship to prisoners lives, but I’d argue esteem and productivity can be earned in ways other than placing men and women at serious physical risk.

I admire this statement from the filmmakers:

There remains a strange irony in the romantic intrigue we have with a population of people that we’ve systematically closed off from society and largely ignored. Before making this documentary, we were mostly informed by the cultural lore of prison through film and music such as Cool Hand Luke, Stir Crazy, and  Folsom Prison Blues. […] A gained sense of humanity for the offenders became a guiding theme in telling their stories. […] We’d like to use this documentary to help recognize the lives of prisoners and those re-integrating into society.  Through prison and public screenings, community forums and an outreach plan, we’d like to create grassroots dialogue to improve awareness of issues and create opportunities. In addition, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is establishing a Scholarship for inmates attending college while incarcerated.


The Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia has been working tirelessly for three decades to unite the city’s many constituencies. One of the taller orders is to unite the prison population with the outside world, but in Concrete, Steel & Paint we see just how that is possible — specifically the bringing together of prisoners (people who’ve been convicted of crime) with victims of crime.

The Mural Arts Program is about restorative justice. In other words, by expanding the scope of activities beyond mere punishment and by opening up unlikely conversations and shared activities, every individual effected by a (violent) crime can find a voice, be heard and hopefully find some closure, or at least new means to move on with life. The stakes are high but the rewards potentially huge. But, it takes courage. See what happens when you bring victims and perpetrators of crime together to explore healing, social justice and even forgiveness.


What I Want My Words To Do To You follows the four years that Eve Ensler worked with women from Bedford Hills Prison, NY, on creative writing.

Ensler staged performances of their writing in the free world, but crucially took the performance into Bedford Hills. Ensler enlisted superstars Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Rosie Perez and others, but the real stars of the program are the women who give so much of themselves to each other, to their writing and to us the audience. Very emotional.


The 1980 rebellion at New Mexico State Penitentiary was not defined by politics as prison uprisings before or since. It has been defined as unadulterated violence as New Mexico Penitentiary describes.

The institution was a powder keg and its overcrowded conditions deplorable. On the night the 36-hour riot began, only 12 guards watched over more than 1,100+ prisoners. It was relatively straight forward for the prisoners to take the prison. During the day-and-a-half they had control, retribution torture and killings were carried out on prisoners identified as informants. The last 20 minutes of this documentary explain graphically what went on. Interviews with former guards, captured guards and prisoners involved in the riot make this an authoritative account.


Of course a Herzog-treatment of Texas, the death penalty and questions of existence and humanity would make the list: Into The Abyss.

The thousands of men and women who have been executed by the U.S. have likely grappled with the strange confluence of justice, self, healing, vengeance, correction and murder that factor into their execution. None, until now, had Werner Herzog to connect the dots for them.


There are many tragic abuses dispatched in the US prison industrial complex. The inability to care for old people behind bars is one of the more awful ones. Al Jazeera’s Dying Inside: Elderly In Prison reveals how patients suffer and die and the system limps along. Our moral standing as a society disintegrates with it.

It is morally repugnant that we neglect infirm people, especially when it is frequently the obscenely long sentences we’ve handed down that mean pensioners


How were five children convicted of gang rape when there were no witnesses, alibis in place, and zero DNA evidence?  Racism that’s how.

Ken Burns’ Central Park Five delves into the public hysteria, the baiting for so-called-justice, widespread prosecutorial misconduct and the inability of the courts, the press and the public to see they were collectively framing these young teens. Even more relevant today sadly, with Trump as the bully-in-chief. If he had had his way, these five (now free) men would all have been killed years ago.


I’m a lover of primary source material so C-SPAN’s unedited reel from filming at Sing Sing Prison, NY, in 1997 is a rare treat. Multiple people who live and work at Sing Sing are interviewed including the prison chaplain says, “prison religion is one piece of the survival kit.” What an interesting turn of phrase? Religion as a tactic rather than a spiritual choice. Or at best, religion as a coping mechanism. Religion — which is treated with much skepticism in liberal America — as a naive bandaid.


Seek out Un Prophete (about French prison) and Carandiru (about the infamous, now-demolished Brazilian prison of the same name).


Any other documentaries about U.S. prisons you recommend? Leave them in the comments section below.