From slapstick sitcoms to edgy thrillers to dense dramas, the prison premise offers tons of potential despite limited space.
Writers are confined to a single location and must focus on a cast of criminal characters who are stuck there, and yet it's a location rife with conflict, corruption, and morality plays.
There are so many prison TV shows, but many of them flew under the radar and remain unrecognized to this day. Then again, there are a handful you've surely heard of—that's how good they are.
Here are my picks for the best TV shows about jail and prison, which are all worth watching for different reasons.
10. Buried (2003)
British viewers love a dramatic miniseries, especially when there's compelling crime involved! Channel 4 aired several prison shows that gave us a peek into lives behind bars in the UK—both fictional and nonfictional—but Buried is arguably their best.
Lennie James (who we saw as a corrupt law enforcer in BBC's Line of Duty) stars as Buried's focal jailbird Lee Kingley. His first time in prison takes him all the way to the top of the pecking order, which soon gets to his head with a price tag of paranoia.
Buried wasn't renewed for another season due to low ratings, but critics were fans of the show and it even won a BAFTA TV Award in 2004.
9. For Life (2020–2021)
One of the most common tropes in prison television is when an innocent character is sentenced to prison for crimes they didn't commit.
In the case of For Life, it's club owner Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) who's wrongly accused of drug trafficking.
As it turns out, inmates have lots of spare time—and if they want to keep their sanity, they need to find ways to be productive: working out, reading books, playing games, etc.
Well, for Aaron Wallace, productivity means earning a law license and representing other prisoners in court. Perhaps he'll even represent himself one day.
For Life channels Aaron's steady rage and determination into an empowering legal drama that avoids the yawns of other procedural shows. (It was also produced by rapper 50 Cent!)
8. Porridge (1974–1977)
Porridge is up there with Only Fools and Horses (1981–2003) and Blackadder (1982–1983) as one of the most beloved British sitcoms of all time. We only got three seasons between 1974 and 1977, but you'd think it was more for how often it still plays on TV!
Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale star as cellmates in HM Prison Slade, Cumberland. Despite living in one cell, their days are never dull and always brimming with all sorts of schemes and mishaps.
Porridge remains a solid BBC favorite even if the humor is a little outdated now. Various specials, sequels, and even stage shows have been produced over the decades, including a movie in 1979.
7. The Night Of (2016)
A criminal defense lawyer's biggest nightmare is a client who talks to the police without their presence. "No comment" is music to their ears—a concept that Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) can't seem to grasp.
Jack Stone (John Turturro) is Naz's impatient defense attorney who begs Naz to stop spilling details to the cops, regardless of whether he's innocent or guilty. However, his anxious blabbermouth quickly lands him in Riker's Island and awaiting prosecution.
The Night Of is a taut, polished, and insightful HBO miniseries, loosely based on the original British program Criminal Justice (2008–2009). The Night Of won numerous accolades, particularly for its cinematography and clean direction and nail-biting drama.
6. Wentworth (2013–2021)
Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979–1986) was an Australian soap opera popular in the 80s. In 2013, SoHo rebooted the concept into a critically acclaimed modern drama that lasted 100 episodes!
Again set in Australia, Wentworth follows newbie prisoner Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) on remand while awaiting sentencing for the attempted murder of her husband.
Wentworth replaces the cheesiness of soap operas and replaces it with cinematic grit and razor-sharp atmosphere. The well-written and perfectly casted characters depict female prison in a fairly realistic way—at least as far as television can be.
5. Oz (1997–2003)
Oz is (sadly and unjustly) forgotten by TV history. The HBO prison drama lasted for six seasons and pretty much laid foundations for shows that would come after it—not just for HBO, but all prison shows.
In juxtaposition to the children's fantasy world referenced by its title, Oz is far from a yellow brick road at the end of a rainbow. Oz is the nickname for Oswald State Correctional Facility, a most violent hell.
The "Emerald City" wing is a heavily controlled experimental unit for rehabilitation—one that doesn't always succeed.
Aged technology aside, Oz was so far ahead of its time that it would comfortably fit into our current Second Golden Age of Television. Despite its witty one-liners, Oz was pretty gruesome and disturbing at times. Viewer discretion is advised.
4. Time (2021)
Time is the most recent TV program on our list. Sure, it may only consist of three episodes, but you know what they say: quality over quantity.
In this BBC miniseries starring Sean Bean and Stephen Graham, the characters are dripping with thick and intense drama—and that's enough to reel in UK viewers (who didn't leave disappointed).
Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) is an inmate we'd do anything to set free. His innocence and nerves melts our hearts. Meanwhile, his guard Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) isn't having much of a better time.
As dark as Time is, the story is more somber, reflective, and threatening than it is pumped with senseless violence. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its fair share of pulse-pounding moments!
3. Escape at Dannemora (2018)
Escape at Dannemora is one of two "based on a true story" entries on this list, and it's a strong example of how real life can often be wilder than fiction. You won't believe this actually happened.
It centers on the 2015 breakout at Clinton Correctional Facility by Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano). These two murderers are helped by married staff member Joyce (Patricia Arquette), who still denies most of the story.
Ben Stiller directs this historical drama at a slow and steady pace that demands patient engagement for its rewarding payoff.
Escape at Dannemora is the opposite of most explosive prison shows that can sometimes come across as empty-headed and predictable, making it one of the more unique TV shows about prison.
2. Prison Break (2005–2009)
Prison Break ignited the world of primetime American television when it debuted in 2005, thanks to its memorable characters and insane plot.
Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) breaks into Fox River State Penitentiary in order to rescue his brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), who's on death row for the alleged murder of the brother to the Vice President.
Of course, Michael has a plan. He's a brilliant structural engineer who has access to the prison's blueprints, allowing him to hatch a complex plan—the details of which are tattooed all over his body as cryptic images.
Prison Break was hugely popular in its first two seasons, which are widely considered its best before the show plunged into repetitive mediocrity. If you've never seen it, the first season is top-notch television.
1. Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019)
Ask anyone to name a TV show about prison and the first one to come to mind will most likely be Orange Is the New Black.
Orange Is the New Black turned heads when it first dropped in 2013, not only for being one of the few prison shows to take place in a female-only institution, but for blending comedy into its drama.
Based on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoirs, Orange Is the New Black explores the everyday life of being a woman in prison. In doing so, it sheds light on how women's correctional facilities differ from the usual prison stereotypes, while also exposing flaws in the system.
Orange Is the New Black remains both the longest-running and most-watched Netflix Original series, which was nominated for 12 Emmys. Taylor Schilling stars as protagonist Piper Chapman, a semi-fictionalized version of the author of the original memoirs.