Things TV And Movies Get Completely Wrong About Prison

Hollywood sometimes depicts real-life experiences and events perfectly. At other times, though, they tend to get things very wrong. Prison life, for example, has always tended to be popular movie fodder but Hollywood has only managed to perfectly showcase the unique inmate experience a few times. In an effort to amp up the drama and tension, show business interpretations of prison often fall far short of realism. The everyday pastimes of those in prison tend to be overlooked.

From The Great Escape, Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Shawshank Redemption to Oz, Prison Break, and Orange Is the New Black, there is no shortage of televised jailhouse scenarios. There's the familiar-but-entertaining plot of a prison newcomer who enters an entirely new world of trade and commerce. There's the self-contained prison universe plot that describes a unique set of rules, language, and norms. There's also the good-versus-evil prison narrative set in surroundings where moral lines are easily blurred. Whatever the plot, we're inherently entranced by life behind bars. 

This list will help temper your desire to watch prison-centric shows and movies with the knowledge of what's actually going on in a world many of us will never experience firsthand. 


  • Prisoners Aren't All Hardened Criminals

    Prisoners Aren't All Hardened Criminals
    Photo: Oz/HBO

    We're all familiar with this Hollywood trope: a meek new arrival enters prison only to be surrounded by tough and violent criminals who are all out for blood. This depiction isn't accurate, though. Sure, there are hardened convicts behind prison walls. Of course there are people who've committed violent offenses just brimming with anger and indignation.

    But there are also people who simply made bad choices or got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Relatively minor drug abusers, for instance, make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated individuals. Many of those offenders are nonviolent in nature. The idea that prisons are stacked to the rafters with monsters is inaccurate, not to mention damaging.

  • Riots Are Not At All Common

    A prison riot makes for a very thrilling cinematic experience. The tension in an already-tense environment reaches a breaking point, and the whole place seemingly erupts into violence. In reality, however, riots are not commonplace in most penal institutions. They are by no means a regular or routine part of prison life. In fact, the number of prison riots has been decreasing over the years. Prison guards are constantly being trained to better quell and prevent riots.

  • The Focus Is On Punishment Not Rehabilitation

    There are plenty of feel-good movies and television shows that depict a prisoner pulling himself or herself up by the bootstraps for a monumental life change. The character might go back to school, take part in support groups or therapy, or learn a trade. However, in real life, there is little focus on rehabilitation. Most prison stays are meant to be punishing, not reintegrating.

    This is not an effective way of curbing dangerous or undesirable behavior, but this is how most prisons choose to operate.

  • Most Inmates Are Eventually Released

    Most Inmates Are Eventually Released
    Photo: Empire/Fox

    Long-running series like Orange Is the New Black can be very misleading. Even though the show compresses time a bit, we see the same characters from season to season. No one, it appears, ever gets out of Litchfield. Again, this is not reality as most inmates will eventually be released.

    Those convicted of major felonies are exceptions, but 95% of state prisoners will be released at some point.