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Women in prison film

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Title: Women in prison film  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Nazi exploitation, Exploitation film, Outlaw biker film, Sexploitation film, Martial arts film
Collection: Exploitation Films, Film Genres, Prison Sexuality, Women in Prison Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Women in prison film

Women in prison film (or WiP) is a subgenre of exploitation film that began in the late 1960s and continues to the present day.

Their stories feature imprisoned women who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse, typically by sadistic male or female prison wardens, guards and other inmates. The genre also features many films in which imprisoned women engage in lesbian sex.

WiP films are works of fiction intended as pornography. The flexible format, and the loosening of film censorship laws in the 1960s, allowed filmmakers to depict more extreme fetishes, such as voyeurism (strip searches, group shower scenes, catfights), sexual fantasies (lesbianism, rape, sexual slavery), fetishism (bondage, whipping, degradation), and sadism (beatings, torture, cruelty).

Prior to these films, the only expression of pornographic women in prison was found in "true adventure" men's magazines such as Argosy in the 1950s and 1960s, although it is possible that Denis Diderot's novel The Nun anticipated the genre. Nazis tormenting damsels in distress were particularly common in these magazines.


  • Recurring plot elements 1
  • History of the genre 2
    • American films 2.1
    • Italian films 2.2
    • Asian films 2.3
    • Jungle prison films 2.4
  • Related genres 3
    • Nunsploitation 3.1
    • Mixed-genre prison films 3.2
  • Prison film producers 4
  • In popular culture 5
  • References 6
    • Bibliography 6.1
    • Notes 6.2
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Recurring plot elements

Most women-in-prison films employ the same stock characters and formulaic situations which have since become cinematic cliches. Such scenes usually include:

  • an innocent girl (or group) being sent to a penitentiary or reform school run by a male or lesbian warden (who may also run an inmate prostitution ring)
  • group strip searches
  • lesbian sex scenes between prisoners and the guards, or the female prisoners being raped (or forced into prostitution) by male guards
  • female prisoners being sentenced to hard labor (such as scrubbing floors or digging dirt holes while nude)
  • fights between the prisoners (sometimes in the shower)
  • beatings and punishment by guards
  • female prisoners being sprayed by a firehose

The story usually concludes with an uprising or escape sequence in which the villains are killed. Occasionally a new inmate is an undercover reporter investigating corruption as in Bare Behind Bars or a government agent sent to rescue a political prisoner (Caged Heat 2, Love Camp 7).

History of the genre

Hollywood made movies set in women's prisons as early as the 1930s, such as Ladies They Talk About and Hold Your Man, but generally, only a small part of the action took place inside the prison. Women-in-prison films developed in the 1930s as melodramas in which young heroines were shown the way to a righteous life by way of the prison. Under the influence of pulp magazines and paperbacks, they became popular B movies in the 1950s. It was not until the 1950s, beginning with the release of Caged (1950), starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead, So Young, So Bad (also 1950), and Women's Prison (1955) with Ida Lupino and Cleo Moore, that an entire film was set inside a women's correctional facility.

Several films were made about women prisoners interned by the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War such as Two Thousand Women and Three Came Home.

The film that kicked off the genre in a new direction was Jesús Franco's 99 Women, which was a big box office success in the U.S. in 1969. That year Love Camp 7 was also among the first pure exploitation films that influenced the women in prison and Nazi exploitation genres. Since the 1970s, women-in-prison films have become a specialty product that has more to do with sexual fantasies than with real prison life.

A number of the WiP films remain banned by the BBFC in the United Kingdom. Among them are Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), on the grounds that they contain substantial scenes of sexual violence and in the case of the latter an actress who at 16 was under age at the time of production rendering it child pornography under U.K. law.[3]

American films

Typical examples of traditional prison films set in the U.S. include: The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Chained Heat (1983) with Linda Blair and Sybil Danning, Cell Block Sisters (1995), Caged Hearts (1995), Bad Girls Dormitory (1985), Under Lock & Key, and Caged Fear (1991).

American tourists are incarcerated overseas in Chained Heat 2 with Brigitte Nielsen and Red Heat with Linda Blair. Mainstream, non-exploitation prison films dealing with this theme include Bangkok Hilton (1989) starring Nicole Kidman and Brokedown Palace (1999) with Claire Danes, both set in Thailand, and Return to Paradise, (1998), set in Malaysia. Also Prison Heat (1993 film), set in Turkey, starring Lori Jo Hendrix and Uri Gavriel.

Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974) is one of the better known WiP films and has a cult following due to its tongue-in-cheek approach and casting of horror icon Barbara Steele as the warden. Demme also co-wrote The Hot Box in 1972.

In recent years, films that parody or pay homage to the classic WiP films of the '70s have emerged such as Cody Jarrett's Sugar Boxx (2009) and Steve Balderson's Stuck! (2010) starring Karen Black, Mink Stole, Jane Wiedlin, and Pleasant Gehman.

Italian films

Italian exploitation directors have produced scores of WiP films with far more graphic sex and violence than those produced in the U.S.

Bruno Mattei directed Women's Prison Massacre (1985), Caged Women (1984), and Jail — A Women's Hell (2006). Sergio Garrone directed Hell Behind Bars and Hell Penitentiary (both 1983). Other films include Women in Fury (1985) and Caged Women in Purgatory (1991).

The Nazi Love Camp 27.

Asian films

The abuse of Chinese women in Japanese detention or prisoner-of-war camps during World War II is depicted in a series of Hong Kong films. Prime examples include Bamboo House of Dolls (1973) with Birte Tove, Great Escape from a Women's Prison, and Men Behind the Sun (1988).

Comfort Women (1992) is based on real events. Chinese prostitutes are abducted by Japanese soldiers and used for brutal scientific experiments at the notorious Unit 731 medical camp.

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994) and its sequel are based on historical records of China's Qing Dynasty.

In Japan, prison films are often made into a series based on popular characters from manga comics such as Prisoner Maria and the Sasori (Scorpion) series which includes Female Convict 701: Scorpion starring Meiko Kaji. Many Japanese films include themes of vengeance and retribution with a heroine who take revenge against the drug or prostitution syndicates responsible for her incarceration.

Jungle prison films

The 'Jungle Prison' subgenre has films set in fictional Banana republic nations run by corrupt dictators in either South America or Southeast Asia. The majority of these were filmed in the Philippines where production costs are low. Here, a group of nubile prisoners are herded together in a stockade prison camp and used as slave labor, doing tasks such as cutting sugar cane or digging in a quarry. These films usually involve a revolution subplot with political prisoners freed by other inmates in a climactic raid where the villains are killed.

Actress Pam Grier starred in several Fillipino jungle films such as Roger Corman's The Big Doll House and its sequel The Big Bird Cage, plus Women in Cages, and Black Mama White Mama (story co-written by Jonathan Demme).

Sweet Sugar, aka She Devils in Chains (1972) starred Phyllis Davis, Caged Heat 2: Stripped of Freedom (1994) featured Jewel Shepard as an undercover agent.

The especially brutal Escape from Hell, aka Escape (1979) and its sequel Hotel Paradise came from Italy. Jess Franco's Sadomania features scenes such as gladiator fights to the death and prisoners hunted like animals in an alligator-infested swamp.

Related genres


The Nunsploitation (nun exploitation) subgenre emerged at the same time as the WiP film and is composed of the same basic elements. The stories are set in isolated convents that resemble prisons where sexually-repressed nuns are driven to rampant lesbianism and perversity.

The Mother Superior is usually a cruel and corrupt warden-like martinet. The nuns are treated like convicts, with rule-breakers subjected to whippings or Inquisition-style tortures. The added element of religious guilt entails scenes of masochism and self-flagellation.

Mixed-genre prison films

The WiP film has also expanded into other areas and film genres such as horror and science fiction.

A notable European horror-hybrid is the 1969 Spanish film, The House That Screamed. A psycho-killer lurks in a house for wayward girls run by a harsh disciplinarian (Lilli Palmer). This groundbreaking film has influenced many others, particularly the Dario Argento thriller Suspiria.

Human Experiments (1979), and Hellhole (1985) are two examples of a spate of horror films where prisoners are experimented on by mad scientists.

Werewolf in a Women's Prison (2006) draws from the monster-movie genre.

Caged Heat 3000 (1995) stars Lisa Boyle (aka Cassandra Leigh) as an inmate on an asteroid prison. Includes futuristic touches such as electric bra torment and cattle prod-like sticks.

Star Slammer, aka Prison Ship (1986) is one of several low-budget space sagas set in the future.[1]

Chained Heat 3: Hell Mountain (1998) and Chained Rage: Slave to Love (2002) are both set in a barbaric post-nuclear world where slaves are forced to toil in the mines.

Terminal Island (1973) with Phyllis Davis, Tom Selleck, and Marta Kristen and Caged in Paradise (1989) starring Irene Cara are both set on isolated island penal colonies with no prisons or guards. Inmates are simply stranded there and must fend for themselves. The 1985 Japanese film Banished Behind Bars has a similar theme.

Prison film producers

In recent years, North American Pictures, the Canadian makers of Chained Heat 2 set up a separate production company in the Czech Republic called Bound Heat Films for creating R-rated, erotic WiP, Nazisploitation, and female slavery films. Many of these star Rena Riffel (from Showgirls). Titles include: School of Surrender, Dark Confessions, Stories from Slave Life, No Escape, Caligula's Spawn, Slave Huntress, and Bound Cargo.[2] While not technically considered pornography the nudity in many of the scenes in these films draws on fetishes as a dramatic element.

Bars and Stripes is a video producer that maintains a website entirely devoted to its line of prison-based BDSM fetish films. A stable of recurring "inmates" are listed with mug shots and information. Most of the films are part of a continuing story. Other companies that exclusively produce prison fetish films include: Chain Gang Girls,, and

In popular culture

  • Charlie's Angels "Angels in Chains" episode (1976) is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre; the angels (Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith) go undercover as convicts. (Future angel Tanya Roberts also made the 1989 prison film Purgatory.)
  • The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) features a mock trailer for the film Catholic High School Girls in Trouble.
  • In 1980 Saturday Night Live performed "Debs Behind Bars", a satire of Prisoner, an Australian prison soap opera series. Guest host Teri Garr and other cast members played spoiled debutantes behind bars.
  • The 1984 video (directed by Bob Giraldi [4]) for Jermaine Jackson's song "Dynamite" reverses the gender of the prisoners and staff, with Jackson attempting to lead an escape from a prison dominated by ruthless female guards.
  • Jailbird Rock (1985) is a campy musical set in a prison.
  • Slammer Girls (1986) spoofs prison film cliches and stereotypes.
  • Reform School Girls (1986) with Sybil Danning and Wendy O. Williams, former singer for the punk band Plasmatics, is partly a homage, partly a parody of the genre.
  • In a 1994 appearance by Judith Light on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote her TV movie Against Their Will: Women in Prison, Leno poked fun that it must be sweeps and noted that most women in prison are, in fact, there against their will.
  • In a 1996 episode of Night Stand with Dick Dietrick Dick's guest is a woman who was falsely imprisoned in an abusive jail. Dick takes up her cause by making an exploitive WiP film (starring himself as the sadistic warden.)
  • The short-lived American television series Women in Prison was a sitcom variation on the genre.
  • Prison-A-Go-Go! (2003) with Mary Woronov and Rhonda Shear is a broad spoof of prison films. There is even a countdown clock indicating when the next shower scene occurs.
  • The Halfway House (2004) with Mary Woronov is a combined satire of women in prison films, nunsploitation, and z-grade occult horror flicks.
  • Janet Perlman's satirical graphic novel Penguins Behind Bars is a parody of the women in prison genre. It was later adapted by Perlman as an animated short which aired in the U.S. on Cartoon Network.[3][4]
  • Lady Gaga pays homage to the genre in her 2010 music video for "Telephone".



  • Bouclin, Suzanne "Women in Prison Movies as Feminist Jurisprudence" Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 2009 21:1
  • Bouclin, Suzanne Caging Women: Punishment, Judgment, Reform and Resistance in ‘Women in Prison’ Films. University of Manitoba. Thesis. 2007.
  • Clowers, Marsha: Dykes, Gangs, and Danger. Debunking Popular Myths about Maximum-Security Life. as pdf
  • Mayne, Judith: "Caged and framed. The women-in-prison film", Framed: lesbians, feminists, and media culture, ed. by Judith Mayne. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pages 115-147. ISBN 0-8166-3456-4
  • Morey, Anne. "'The Judge Called Me an Accessory': Women's Prison Films, 1950-1962", Journal of Popular Film & Television. 23(2):80-87. 1995 Summer.
  • Rapaport, Lynn: "Holocaust Pornography. Profaning the Sacred in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS", Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 53–79.
  • Waller, Gregory A.: "Auto-Erotica. Some Notes on Comic Softcore Films for the Drive-in Circuit", Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 17, Issue 2, p. 135, Fall 1983
  • Walters, Suzanna Danuta: "Caged heat. The (R)evolution of women-in-prison films", Real knockouts. Violent women in the movies, edited by Martha McCaughey and Neal King. 1st Ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
  • Williams, Melanie. "Women in Prison and Women in Dressing Gowns: Rediscovering the 1950s Films of J. Lee Thompson", Journal of Gender Studies, 11(1):5-15, 2002 Mar


  1. ^ Erickson, Hal. "Prison Ship (1987)". Thew New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (1 June 2006). Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film and Television's Award-Winning and Legendary Animators.  
  4. ^ Deneroff, Harvey (17 May 2004). "Cartoons on the Bay 2004 Report".  

Further reading

  • Hughes, Sarah. "Women's TV prison dramas: 10 vital ingredients." The Guardian. Wednesday July 10, 2013.

External links

  • WIP Cinema Guide
  • Women in Prison section of Prison Flicks
  • Stuck! official website
  • Overview of developments in the U.S. and the U.K. 1922 - 2003
  • Lesbians in Women-in-Prison Movies
  • Stock characters in women in prison films
  • Blog about WIP films
  • Prison Film Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
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