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Documentaries about prisons everyone should see

The Big Issue TV introduces a playlist of documentaries showcasing the best and worst of the prison system globally
Luis Diaz: with the puppy he sees as his second chance

In a new, special edition of The Big Issue, we hear stories from inside prisons across the UK. The special edition shows the importance of rehabilitation and education, of connection and community. So to coincide with our Prison Special, The Big Issue TV has produced a playlist of documentaries about prisons everyone should see.

These include a fly-on-the-wall glimpse inside one of the toughest State Penitentiaries in the US, a film following people on President Obama’s Returning Citizens programme – offered early release coupled with work and community programmes, and the uplifting tale of a puppy-training programme for prisoners, building connection with their new four-legged friends but also the veterans who will be helped by these service dogs.

Here are five TBI TV prison documentaries not to miss.

Returning Citizens

President Obama was the first president in 50 years to leave office with a smaller prison population than when he was sworn in. So what did it take to reverse decades of spiralling levels of incarceration? This film follows a group of individuals on their release from prison in search of another chance.

The early release of 6,000 prisoners by President Obama in 2015 was controversial – but this eye-opening film shows that rehabilitation works. It also suggests that investing in people being released from prison in the form of opportunity is both smart and humane.

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Prison Dogs

Gloria Gilbert Stoga is the charismatic force behind the Puppies Behind Bars initiative at the heart of this surprising, inspiring tail of love and redemption. The film was first shown at New York’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

A group of inmates including Luis Diaz, above, who is serving 25 years to life for murder, are chosen to train puppies to become service dogs for disabled veterans suffering with physical injuries or PTSD.

They have two years to teach more than 100 commands and help the veterans live their lives – and during this time, the programme at Fishkill State Correctional Facility in New York creates profound bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime, offering a lifeline to prisoners and veterans alike. A terrific, profoundly moving film directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir.

The Corridor

Education, education, education. That could be the motto at San Francisco’s Five Keys school. This film shows the inner workings of the first high school designed to offer incarcerated adults the chance to earn their high school diploma. This, in turn, vastly increases their life chances on release and aids their successful reintegration into wider society. How many more lives could be changed if education was placed above punishment in the priority list of treating offenders?

Free Men

Kenneth Reams was sentenced to death in 1993, aged just 18. Another black man convicted by a majority white jury for a crime he did not commit. But he did not give up on life, despite a quarter of a century of solitary confinement. Instead he found love, art, poetry and a voice – which he uses to narrate this astonishing documentary from inside his prison cell. Against all odds, Free Men is inspirational film of hope and resilience and celebrates spiritual freedom, even when the physical body is locked up.

USA: Life in a High-Security Prison

A frightening look behind the walls of one of the 1700 state penitentiaries in the United States – which house 90% of more than two million prisoners. The high security Anamosa State Penitentiary in Iowa offers rare access to cameras. It’s a place where the average sentence is 27 years, phone calls are monitored and a four-star cell for a model prisoner is just three square metres. How is it managed? Is there any attempt at rehabilitation? This film offers some answers.

This new playlist joins a raft of documentaries to mark Women’s History Month. There are also films on the environment, politics, social activism, finance, culture, health and technology. The new SVOD service mirrors The Big Issue’s focus on the stories that shape our world.

The Big Issue TV showcases documentary films that are challenging, provocative and vital viewing. All films are hand-picked by The Big Issue team, with new content added each month.

For just £3.99 per month, subscribers will have access to a raft of brilliant, thought-provoking films from around the world. To subscribe for the introductory rate of £3.99 per month go to