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The Prison in Cinema
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6    by Dr. Paul Mason -- page 4 of 6

New inmate Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) is
strip searched and covered with delousing
powder in
In the Name of the Father.

On Entering Prison

Prison films frequently stress the systematic nature of the prison experience -- in particular the dehumanising process that turns men into prisoners, numbers, and statistics. This process begins with the routine that new inmates must go through when they first enter the prison. When Gerry Conlon arrives at the prison in In the Name of the Father (1995), he hands over his clothes to a stern-looking prison officer who places them in a box. Stripped naked, Conlon is then hosed down with cold water and covered with delousing powder. His clothes are replaced by a prison issue uniform, and he is pushed into his cell. The dehumanising process has begun.

A similar process occurs in both Numbered Men (1940) and The Shawshank Redemption (1996), but versions of this routine are present in nearly all prison films. Their significance centers on the prison's control of the body. As new inmates are stripped, examined, and washed, these movies accentuate the prisoner's transformation from outsider to insider. Perhaps most symbolic is the cutting of the hair (as seen in Papillon (1973) and Midnight Express(1978)), historically an attack on liberty and personal autonomy and, of course, visually the most noticeable difference between an inmate and a free man. The speed and mechanical implementation of these rules regarding the entry of a new inmate quickly establishes the regulated, institutional nature of prison. The machine begins to roll.

As movie-goers, we have limited knowledge of prison, and hence when a character enters prison, we too share their ignorance and fear of prison life. As an audience, we are subjected to the harsh regime of prison life, stern officers, and claustrophobic cells. Cinema is aware of our ignorance and often uses it to elicit sympathy for the new inmate, as when "Red" Kennedy (Humphrey Bogart) falls for an inmate prank in San Quentin (1937) and when James Rainbow trusts a well-known tobacco baron in The Pot Carriers (1962).

As part of the introduction process, inmates often meet with a violent introduction from guards. Chain gang films such as Road Gang (1936) and I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) depict guards whipping new inmates who are unaccustomed to the regime of hard labour, as when head guard Captain Kennauer beats Paul Crew (Burt Reynolds) in The Longest Yard (British title: The Mean Machine) (1974) and when Warden Glenn (Gary Oldman) slices the foot of Henry Young (Kevin Bacon) in Murder in the First (1996).

page 4 of 6


Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Prison Movie as Genre

Page 3: The Prison Machine

Page 4: On Entering Prison

Page 5: Other Themes

Page 6: Captured On Film


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