The 15 Best Documentaries About Jails

Jul 9, 2023 | Best Of, Crime

For many people, the idea of prison is a foreign one. But for more than two million individuals in the United States alone, incarceration has become an all-too-familiar reality. To better understand this issue and its effects on society, it’s important to explore documentaries about prison life. This list of 12 films offers unique perspectives on jail and examines topics such as history, current events, rehabilitation and punishment. By watching these thought-provoking documentaries, you’ll gain insight into the lives of those who are incarcerated and be able to form your own opinion on how we should address this issue moving forward.


Prison Families (2023)

Witness the raw, emotional journey of ten families whose lives have been forever altered by their loved one’s incarceration. From ordinary suburban homes to infamy in the world of crime, each episode delves into the deeply personal experiences of these individuals as they navigate through the complexities of crime and justice. Through gripping reenactments, we see firsthand the pivotal moments that cemented their fates, leaving an indelible mark on their families for years to come.



Life After Life (2018)

After spending decades behind bars, three individuals embark on a journey towards redemption. Through their own unique experiences and struggles, they strive to rebuild their lives and find meaning in the world outside of prison walls.






How to Prepare for Prison (2018)

In an eye-opening documentary, viewers are taken on a journey through the harrowing and often overlooked experience of preparing for prison. Through powerful narratives infused with emotions ranging from fear to redemption, we gain a rare glimpse into the lives of individuals caught in the criminal justice system and facing incarceration for the first time.






On Death Row (2012)

Come take a glimpse into the walls of one of Texas’ most notorious maximum security prisons. Our cameras have been granted rare access to speak with inmates, many of whom reside on death row. Through their firsthand accounts, we will give you an inside look at life behind bars in one of the toughest institutions in the country.




Jailhouse Redemption (2022)

In this gripping documentary series, viewers are given an intimate look into the lives of a group of heroin addicts as they navigate their journey towards recovery. With exclusive access, we witness the struggles and triumphs of these individuals, while also following the determined sheriff who works tirelessly to guide them on their path to freedom.




Gays in Prison (2018)

Behind bars, LGBTQ individuals face a unique set of hardships and injustices. In Gays in Prison, Latrice Royale, beloved drag queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race, opens up about her own time incarcerated and delves into the struggles faced by others like her. This powerful documentary, produced by Rogue Culture and Logo TV, sheds light on the realities of being LGBTQ in the criminal justice system and amplifies the voices of those often silenced.





The Other Side of the Cell (2006)

Through the lens of “The Other Side of the Cell”, viewers are taken on a journey through the daily challenges faced by women working as corrections officers. As we hear directly from these officers, it becomes clear that their job requires not only physical strength, but also mental fortitude to maintain safety within prison walls.






They Call Us Monsters (2016)

In this riveting documentary, we delve into the lives of three young men – Juan, Jarad and Antonio. Despite their youth, they have been charged with serious crimes that carry a hefty prison sentence. But as we explore their stories, one question lingers: should these teenagers be condemned for life or given another shot at redemption?






1275 Days (2019)

Follow the story of a young boy who, at the tender age of 15, is convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison.







The Best Free Documentaries About Jails


1. The World’s Most Luxurious Prison

What does it take to create one of the most humane incarceration systems in the world? This documentary takes us inside Norway’s luxurious prisons and provides a glimpse into their progressive approach to criminal justice. From understanding how prisoners are treated, to learning about the rehabilitation programs offered, this is an eye-opening look at what makes Norwegian jails some of the best in the world.


2. Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars

Every day in US prisons, a culture of violence and sexual assault leaves many men traumatized. Filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz and investigative journalist explore what lies beneath the surface of Limestone penitentiary to uncover the long-term consequences of prison rape. In this harrowing documentary, five inmates reveal how sex is used as currency, makeshift families are formed out of fear and love, and power dynamics determine who sits at the top or bottom of any totem pole.


3. Sir Trevor McDonald: Inside Indiana State Maximum Security Prison

Sir Trevor McDonald, a veteran presenter, takes us on an unforgettable journey into the dark and forbidding world of America’s oldest and most infamous prisons. He is granted access to Indiana State Maximum Security Prison for two weeks where he meets with inmates who are living under the shadow of death penalty. Along his journey, we get an insight into what it means to live in such conditions as well as getting up close and personal with prisoners who have no idea when their date will come up or who will die next. Join Sir Trevor McDonald as he uncovers the truth behind life inside these notorious institutions.


4. Behind Bars 2: The World’s Toughest Prisons, El Hongo, Tecate, Mexico

Welcome to El Hongo, the fortress of ultimate innovation. Located in Mexico’s desert, this prison is surrounded by fifteen guard towers and deemed perfectly incorruptible. Here, inmates are subjected to immense violence and aggression from organized crime bosses and corrupt government members who can be sentenced up to seventy years for their crimes. But despite all of that darkness, there is still hope inside these walls – some prisoners find a way back to life after all they have been through. This documentary explores the lives of those brave souls as they fight against injustice within El Hongo’s walls.


5. Behind Bars: The World’s Toughest Prisons, San Pedro Prison La Paz, Bolivia

Have you ever wondered what life is like inside a prison? This series takes you on an eye-opening journey to explore the harsh reality of living in a lawless place. From the guards who struggle to maintain order, to those who abuse their power mercilessly, and inmates living without freedom away from family – discover how these prisoners and families cope with incarceration. Witness first hand stories of mothers raising children under the fear of imprisonment, as well as interviews with inmates about life behind bars. Get ready for an emotional roller coaster ride through one of society’s most misunderstood places!


6.Behind Bars: The World’s Toughest Prisons, Antananarivo Prison, Madagascar

The World’s Toughest Prisons takes viewers on an eye-opening journey into the dark world of prison life. This documentary will show us how inmates and guards alike navigate the unique rules, regulations, and punishments that exist in these facilities. We’ll get to see what it truly means to be a part of this special world, learning about both the struggles of prisoners as well as the challenges that guards face on a daily basis. Get ready for an unbelievable experience that will provide you with insight into why prisons are designed in certain ways and how those who break the law are punished accordingly.


7. Tough Jail in Texas

Are you interested in learning more about the prison system and what it’s like to be incarcerated? Reggie Yates spends a week inside Bexar County Jail, Texas, and shares his experiences with us. He quickly learns that life in jail is not easy – stripped of all belongings and locked up by his ankles with an orange jumpsuit on, he must come face-to-face with the harsh reality of America’s criminal justice system. We get to see how our minds start playing games as soon as hope disappears. Join us for this eye-opening journey into one of the largest prison systems in the world!


8. Life In Super Maximum Security Prison (Lock Down) And Solitary Confinement

This documentary delves into the history and psychological effects of solitary confinement in America’s super-maximum security prisons. Get an inside look at life in Lock Down as inmates, guards, investigators, and experts share their experiences. Uncover how solitary confinement impacts recidivism rates and gain a deeper understanding of this controversial practice.


9. Prison State

Discover the stories of four individuals, their struggles and triumphs as they make their way through custody to freedom in this insightful documentary about incarceration in America. Follow Mark Bolton’s journey as he attempts to reduce prison populations and aid inmates’ transition back into society. Get an intimate look at Kentucky’s efforts to reduce jail time over two years of filming with “Prison State”, one of the best documentaries on prisons and jails.


10. Inside Las Vegas Jail: Life In A US Detention Cente

Las Vegas is known for its party-filled atmosphere, but behind the scenes, there’s a lot of lawlessness. This documentary takes you inside the Clark County Detention Center to show how officers are tasked with controlling offenders ranging from hardened criminals to those who have gotten too drunk. From the “Cops” production team comes an eye-opening look at what goes on in jails and prisons every day.


11.Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Inside Barlinnie

As he journeys through one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, veteran TV personality Ross Kemp immerses himself within a life of incarceration to gain exclusive insight into the reality prisoners at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow face. With the goal of uncovering what inmates really think about the jail and its environment, Kemp is determined to learn all he can about the extreme measures they take in order to get weapons.

12. Inside Maximum Security – Toughest Prison in Singapore: Hard Life in Prison

Forget what you know about prison life. In this captivating documentary, we follow four inmates in a world behind bars to get an inside look at their lives. Graceson is a gangster who gets caned for getting a new tattoo, Khai is a professional skateboarder coming to terms with the loss of his career, Rusdi counts down the days to freedom using snacks and Boon Keng faces trouble for keeping origami in his cell during a search. This unique documentary offers an intimate window into the experiences of these prisoners as they navigate life on the inside.


13. Prison Camp for Children VS Senior Citizens Prison and more

Have you ever wondered if prisons look the same for everyone? It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around, but documentaries can help us understand that not all prisons are created equal. Take World Behind Bars: Prison Camp for Children, for instance. This riveting documentary chronicles the experiences of ousted juvenile offenders in Slovakia as they navigate a Soviet-style prison camp system. At the other end of the spectrum is Senior Citizens Prison, which shines a light on an oft-overlooked reality — elderly inmates who have outlived their sentences and now face a life behind bars. With these two documentaries and more, we explore some of the best films about prison and jail inmates from around the world.


14. Life after Lockup

It is an eye-opening look at the struggles that inmates and their families must tackle when they’re released. But before you tune in, here are fifteen of the best documentaries about prison and jail that you should watch first. From the Oscar-winning documentary The Thin Blue Line which looks at a man wrongfully convicted of murder, to filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, exploring the depths of human behavior through interviews with men on death row, there are many powerful films that explore incarceration in all its forms.


15. Toughest Stories from Behind Bars

The 15 Best Documentaries About Prison And Jail give us a glimpse into the often-hidden world of incarceration. From prison reformers and inmates to wardens and guards, these documentaries explore the many facets of this complex institution. They show how people cope in such an environment, how they make their own rules, and how they strive for redemption on the inside. For anyone interested in learning more about our criminal justice system – or what goes on behind bars – these documentaries are essential viewing.


Read On – Our Latest Top Documentaries Lists

David B