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The Best TV Shows and Miniseries Set in Prison, Ranked

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The cast of Prison Break including Wentworth Miller

Some of television’s most edgy and riveting programs take place in prison, depicting the harsh realities the inmates face while behind bars. For decades, the small screen has brilliantly told compelling stories set within the walls of such facilities, both shocking and upsetting audiences with their gritty and heartrending tales. It is often not easy to stomach the atrocities that occur everyday in prisons and the shows that bring such horrors to life deserve immense praise and appreciation. Some wonderful actors have headlined prison-themed programs, captivating viewers across the world with their raw performances.

The Netflix juggernaut Orange is the New Black went on to become the streaming giant’s biggest draw when it made its premiere in 2013, introducing fans to the unique personalities of Litchfield Penitentiary in the dynamite series. Revered stars Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano were exceptional in their roles as real-life criminals Richard Matt and David Sweat in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, which featured their harrowing escape from a New York correctional facility. These are some of the best TV shows and miniseries set in prison.

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The 2003 eight-part series Buried chronicles the lives of the guards and prisoners of Her Majesty’s Prison Mandrake Hill in England, centering on first time offender Lee Kingley as he attempts to navigate his new reality behind bars after being given a 10-year sentence. Featuring The Walking Dead’s Lennie James as Kingley, the riveting program highlights the daily struggles for survival at the HMP Mandrake while also depicting the prison’s psychologists and officers as they interact with one another and the inmates. The producers of Buried set out to present an authentic look at prison life in the UK, in hopes of accurately portraying “the strict hierarchy that exists among prisoners, and the unspoken co-operation that allows six officers to govern hundreds of inmates.”

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham portray two men on opposing sides of prison bars in the 2021 BBC drama Time, following the newly incarcerated Mark Cobden (Bean) as he not only struggles with profound guilt over the crime he committed but also the dangerous and volatile new world he finds himself stuck in. Cobden meets the honorable prison guard Eric McNally, who does his best to look after the new inmate while attempting to protect those in his charge; the kind-hearted officer finds himself in a profound moral dilemma when a ruthless and deadly prisoner threatens both his personal and professional life. Time garnered immense praise from both critics and audiences alike, with Bean and Graham’s performances being raved about as the British TV series’ exceptional, realistic depiction of the heavy subject matter.

Set in Australia’s Wentworth Correctional Centre, the drama series Wentworth serves as a 21st century re-imagining of the ‘80s soap opera Prisoner, focusing on new transplant Bea Smith as she awaits her impending trial for the attempted murder of her husband; Bea is quickly forced to fight for survival and maneuver the intimating hierarchy of Wentworth. The show’s producer Jo Porter wanted to revamp the Australian classic and explore “the politics of women in a world with few men, and how the experience both challenges and changes them, sometimes for the better” while also providing a backstory of Bea’s early days in the prison. Wentworth was a massive success, running for 8 seasons and earning widespread acclaim during its tenure; the series has won seven Logie Awards and four ASTRA Awards.

Touting a dynamite cast of performers including Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette, and Paul Dano, the 2018 Showtime limited TV series Escape at Dannemora is based on the true story of the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape in which two convicted murderers broke out of a New York prison with the assistance of a female prison employee. Ben Stiller directed the riveting program, chronicling the efforts and actions of criminals Richard Matt (del Toro) and David Sweat (Dano) as they become romantically entangled with Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Arquette) and devise a dangerous plan to flee the facility.

Related: These Are the Best Benicio del Toro Performances, Ranked

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