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The 10 best prison shows on Netflix

Netflix's best prison shows explore what happens after the heist—or prison's inter-workings beyond a form of entertainment.

Jul 7, 2020, 11:37 am*

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John-Michael Bond 

John-Michael Bond

From dramatizing and documenting the real-life stories of women in prison, to exploring the systemic failures of the criminal justice system, Netflix’s prison library has something for everyone. Crime has paid for the streaming service, and Netflix now boasts a slew of great prison shows, from original documentaries like Making a Murderer to reruns of Breaking Bad. But if you’re more interested in what happens after the heist—or prison’s inter-workings beyond a form of entertainment—Netflix has plenty of prison content for you. Here are the best prison shows on Netflix.

Best prison shows on Netflix

1) Orange Is the New Black

One of the most groundbreaking prison shows on Netflix ended in July 2019, but if you’re new, there are seven seasons waiting for you. Starting off as the story of a PR exec who is sent to jail for a drug offense in her past, Orange Is the New Black quickly became its own beast. While Piper Chapman remains at its core, the show’s ensemble quickly earned a place in viewers’ hearts. Telling women-focused stories, including one of the TV’s most nuanced portrayals of a trans woman, OITNB sets itself apart from standard prison shows. Just get some tissues. You’ll need them.

2) Jailbirds

Docuseries about prisons can be incredibly thought-provoking and challenging in the right hands. Or, sometimes it’s just soapy reality TV, such as in the case of Netflix’s Jailbirds. Following a group of female inmates in the Sacramento County Jail, Jailbirds avoids introspection to focus on gossip and personal drama. Daily Dot’s reviewer called it Real World: Sacramento County Jail, and it fits. This is easily the most morally questionable entry on our list, but for some viewers it will be riveting. 

3) Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons

While the American justice system as a lot of work to do, Paul Connelly’s Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons shows us how it could be worse—and, in a few rare cases, how it could be better. From the strict brutality of Costa Rica to Colombia’s oppressive home for drug dealers, Inside… shows the raw side of rehabilitation. But viewers might be most surprised by Norway, where arts programs and a lack of bars go to serve proper rehabilitation above punishment. Take a trip around the world to see the best, and worst, of international prisons.

4) Locked Up

In this Spanish crime drama a young woman finds herself stuck in jail after being tricked into an embezzlement scam by her boyfriend. Gritty, violent, and surprisingly intense, Locked Up is much darker than Orange is the New Black. However, it’s just as acclaimed, with the entire cast winning a Ondas Award for Best Actress in 2015. 

5) First and Last

Netflix original First and Last shows inmates on the best and worst days of prison. Through interviews with inmates entering and exiting Georgia’s Gwinnett County Jail, viewers see polar opposite experiences of jail. How have these prison stays impacted the inmates leaving, and what do the new arrivals expect? You’ll be surprised by the answers First and Last provides.

6) Wentworth

The critically acclaimed Wentworth might be written off as an Australian Orange is the New Black, but don’t be fooled. Wentworth offers a much darker take on prison life. It’s also won tons of awards in Australia, including Best TV Drama and Best Lead Actress in a TV Drama. The series focuses on Bea Smith, a woman awaiting trial for the attempted murder of her husband. Soon prison life catches up with her, forcing Bea to choose between behaving and surviving. The series is easy to pick up and compelling enough to inspire your next binge. 

7) The 100

After all this time behind bars, it’s time to explore a different kind of prison. Set in a distant future where the human population is under 4,000 survivors, The 100 centers on a group of teenage criminals sent to an uninhabitable planet as punishment. But the world they land on has surprises in store that no one could have anticipated. Blending Prison Break, LOST, and The Hunger Games, this CW show is heavy on the soap opera drama, but it also boasts powerful performances and great action. What do you do when your prison has no walls? Only The 100 know.

8) Girls Incarcerated

This docuseries follows the lives of a group of teenage girls incarcerated at the Madison Correctional Facility in Indiana as they struggle with the consequences of drug use and violence—and strive to become better young women. At its best, Girls Incarcerated is an emotional, impactful, and at times overwhelming look into what compels a teenager to act out and walk down the wrong path—and how these young women are working with all kinds of odds against them to forge a new path toward a brighter future. —Tess Cagle

9) Happy Jail

Remember 2007’s viral Thriller flash mob made by 1,500 inmates in a Philippine prison? In this 2019 docuseries, Happy Jail follows the people of Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Cebu, Philippines, nearly a decade later (the five-part limited series was filmed in 2016). Controversy strikes as the facility comes under the management of an ex-convict, previously handed a life sentence but now out on an appeal and calling the shots. Sure, the series follows issues within the CPDRC—overcrowding and gang violence. But it also shows the ways in which CPDRC’s renewed commitment to choreographed performance art is helping inmates cope as they await the outcomes of their trials, and humanizes detainees as they become a part of something larger than themselves. —Samantha Grasso

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10) Time: The Kalief Browder Story

American history is full of horrific tales of injustice, but Kalief Browder’s is one of the worst in modern time. Accused of stealing a backpack in 2010, the then-16-year-old spent the next three years jailed on Rikers Island awaiting trial. He spent nearly two of those three years in solitary confinement. Time explains the legal nightmare that robbed Browder of his youth and the compounded tragedy that followed him out of jail. For true crime fans, it’s an obvious indictment the criminal justice system’s failures—or, depending on your perspective, how the system works exactly as architected.


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*First Published: Mar 6, 2019, 7:00 am