What movies do prisoners watch?

By EW Staff
Updated January 21, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

For turnkeys, In the Name of the Father‘s scariest scene is probably when the convicts are watching The Godfather and one of them sets fire to a guard. One doubts that the film's biggest ancillary market will be America's prisons. But cons are big movie consumers, and authorities cooperate, typically offering at least three movies a week, each screened several times.

The hoosegow, however, is a sleaze-free zone. At San Quentin, says information officer Don Lindsey, "We don't show movies that are X-rated, movies that glorify violence, or movies that are inflammatory to the climate." Perhaps as a result, in his eight years at San Quentin, Lindsey has never seen a single violent incident incited by a screen scene.

At New York City's Rikers Island, says corrections officer Robert Montes, "They can get away with showing 48 HRS., but nothing about jailbreaks, or T&A, or major violence. Menace II Society, Bad Lieutenant, that would stir up too much frenzy. The last movie we showed was The Crying Game."

Though the national trend toward seeing movies on the small screen rather than theatrically is echoed behind bars, big screenings do happen. The most popular movie at Rikers recently, says Montes, was a sneak preview of Malcolm X: "It was in what was called the House of Detention for Men, this '20s-style auditorium where James Cagney filmed Angels With Dirty Faces."

But flicks in the clink mostly lean to mainstream fare. "I believe the most popular actors (among prisoners) are Denzel Washington and Steven Seagal," , says Montes. Recent hits on the stir circuit include Boomerang, Loose Cannon, Groundhog Day, Sleepless in Seattle, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Meanwhile, some convict-watchers suspect that violent movies don't incite violence after all. "When I did three months in the Idaho state pen," recalls comic-book author Dennis Eichhorn, "I was invited to watch the movie of the week in the Lifers' Lounge by Dickie, Idaho's most infamous serial killer. The movie was In Cold Blood. These killers really identified with the bad guys. In the execution scene, the lifers all got real quiet. Violence actually makes 'em more thoughtful—introspective for a change."