Prison rebellions

Shawshank guard captain (Byron Hadley) and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins)

Ideas for a film and music based ESL-EFL class on jails and prison rebellions

One of my favourite music artists to work with in the ELT classroom is Johnny Cash. His lyrics are unfussy and well enunciated but tell vivid stories and address controversial issues. The Man in Black sang often about social justice and campaigned a great deal for a then-unfashionable cause, prison reform.

It is a subject that is also quite close to my heart. My father was a probation officer and I am a strong believer in rehabilitative justice. Conservative and coalition cuts to the prison service in the UK in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis have engendered a major rise in violence and substance abuse within the prison system, the effects of which have been reverberating throughout wider society.

Many of Cash’s songs took dire US prison conditions as their theme and a couple of his most famous, Folsom Prison Blues and Saint Quentin, went on to inspire legendary live albums recorded at genuine jailhouse gigs – namely Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). Indeed, the best-known version of the latter song comes from the eponymous concert, and is enhanced by the lively reactions of inmates as it is performed.

With its rhyming couplets and unequivocal repudiation of the prison system and its failure to rehabilitate inmates, the song works well for B1-B2 students and upwards. I recommend using the song without the video first, and then with it, to exploit the fact – if the students haven’t already guessed – that the concert takes place in an actual jail.

When I worked with students in class on the Johnny Cash song I first used a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s infamous Clockwork Orange (1971) as a way of brainstorming and eliciting vocabulary around the theme of prisons and detention. I was not wholly satisfied with the choice of clip but it certainly got the students talking and some great vocab on the board. Despite the clipped accent of the shouty prison warder, the students can make sense of the overall sense of the dialogue and what it tells us about the prisoner, his possessions and the institutional culture of the jail itself.

Since then I have come across two film clips that I feel might work better. This time, the interest is in comparing and contrasting rather different representions of prison rebellion. In both extracts there is minimal dialogue and greater emphasis on the overall mise-en-scène. As I mostly use clips as a platform on which to build vocab and launch creative activities, rather than listening comprehension per se, the scenes should prove ideal.

In the first clip from the fine but possibly somewhat overrated prison escape drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994), lifer Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) takes control of the warden’s louspeaker system in order to broadcast Duettino-Sull’aria from the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro. The other inmates are apparently paralysed by the beauty of the music, of which they are presumably starved – rendered still as statues in their varying activities and tasks.

Set at the fictional New England jail Shawshank State Penitentiary in the 1940s, run according to the whims of the sadistic warden Samuel Norton, Andy is rewarded for his transgression with a spell in solitary confinement. In this clip, Andy’s friend Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, provides an extradiegetic commentary looking back on the event years later. To extend the vocabulary and discussion on issues surrounding liberty and imprisonment, the voiceover would also be worth studying in class:

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free. It pissed the warden off something awful.

Another film I have revisited in researching ideas for a prison-themed class is 1979’s gritty British borstal drama Scum, starring Ray Winstone. While ostensibly dealing with similar issues to that of The Shawshank Redemption – notably prison violence, abuse of power and rape – it is in many ways a grittier affair, lacking in the Hollywood optimism and, well, redemption of the later film. A damning critique of the youth detention system of the period in which it was released, the film was based on a BBC Play for Today in 1977 that was considered too shocking for broadcast.

The scene I have chosen works as an interesting companion piece to that of The Shawshank Redemption because it portrays a rather more prosaic, but likely more realistic form of prison rebellion. The excerpt gives a flavour of how Scum’s portrayal of prison life contrasts with that of the Hollywood movie. Filmed in comparatively drab colours, there is none of the hope or sentimentality that infuses the 1994 movie. Whereas the hardened jailbirds in Shawhank are immobilized by the beauty of Mozart’s music, in Scum we see inmates under the sway of a more malign influence: that of prison “Daddy” Carlin (Winstone), the inmate who has won a violent struggle for control over the wing.

In the borstal canteen, the prisoners’ refusal to eat in protest at the suicide of a fellow inmate erupts quite spectacularly into a full-blown riot. While Andy’s act of rebellion in Shawshank is spontaneous and merely impertinent, Scum‘s is calculated and ferocious, a contrast that can be exploited in discussion with students.

Level: B1 +

Given the theme, this lesson would not be appropriate for younger learners but it should be suitable for later highschool pupils and older.


You could begin with some brainstorming about prisons and incarceration. Alternatively, if you don’t want to guide their responses to the material too much, you could begin with the first clip, from The Shawshank Redemption, straight away.

Clip analysis 1

Step one

Play students the first 1’15” approx. from the first clip, until it becomes obvious the scene takes place in a prison. Give students some general “gist” question prompts to discuss in pairs/small groups:

  • Describe what you see: who? what? where? when?
  • What do you think happened before the scene and why?
  • What do you think is going to happen next and why?
  • What is the mood/atmosphere of the scene?

Once the students have had time to discuss their ideas among themselves, solicit suggestions from the whole group, noting down useful vocab for all to see.

Step two

Play students the rest of the clip and repeat the exercise with new prompts:

  • What else do you learn about the movie (who? where? when? why? etc.)
  • What do you think will happen next and why?
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • What do you understand from the voiceover?

Encourage the students to focus on the general meaning of Morgan Freeman’s narration rather than obsess over the exact wording, although you could add a textual exercise to complement this step if you like (a jigsaw or gap-fill exercise, for example).

Clip analysis 2

Step one

Tell the students they are going to watch a second clip and, once again, describe what they see in small groups/pairs. Show them the clip until 1’00” exactly. Here are some prompts for them to focus on:

  • Describe what you see: who? where? when?
  • What do you think is happening and why?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • What is the mood/atmosphere of the scene?

Repeat the exercise, getting students to share their ideas in a plenary discussion.

Step two

Show them the rest of the clip, asking them to discuss the following prompts in their groups before holding a wider class discussion:

  • What else do you learn about the movie (who? where? when? why? etc.)
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • Compare and contrast the two clips (similarities and differences)
  • Which clip do you prefer and why?
  • Which clip do you think is more realistic and why?

Song analysis

To extend the theme and build on the vocabulary elicited, you could now work on the Johnny Cash song. There are a lot of different approaches to working with songs (notably jigsaw texts, gap-fills with or without the missing words provided). Whichever you choose, be sure to allow the students to listen at least once without a specific task to complete and allow them to form their own impressions about the song’s mood and subject matter (and note down vocab they understand).

Don’t forget either to exploit the video too. They may not guess that the concert takes place at an actual prison. This could open up into a discussion about why they think Johnny Cash performed in a jail in the first place.

Creative-productive activities

You could do one or more of the following activities:

  • Have students write a text from the perspective of one of the inmates in Scum, imagining the events that led up to the riot. This could take the Johnny Cash song and the Morgan Freeman narration as inspiration.
  • Have a discussion or debate about what constitutes acceptable prison conditions: what possessions and activities should they be allowed? What punishments?
  • As a corollary to the debate above, the students could choose five possessions that they could not live without and would need if they were incarcerated. Could they live without music? Books? Television? What would be the hardest deprivation of all?
  • Have students research and present a short talk about Johnny Cash’s prison reform campaigns.
  • Have students write a new verse for Johnny Cash’s Saint Quentin, changing the titular institution if they like.

Language focus

  • Vocab related to prison, incarceration and freedom
  • Prepositions and prepositions of movement
  • Sequencing words for narrating events (before, after, then, next etc.)
  • Modals for deduction (it could be a protest, he might be a member of the prison staff etc.)

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