When a movie plot calls for a cold, dark prison, shooting on a custom set feels like a cop-out. Some filmmakers choose to ditch the process of scouting, getting permits, and retrofitting old spaces for large crews and equipment in lieu of locking down a more authentic location. The creepiness of former and active prisons would be almost impossible (and very expensive) to replicate, which is why some directors would rather use the real deal. Check out these detention centers that have earned their place in the credits.


Location: Lisburn and Belfast, Northern Ireland
Film: Starred Up (2014)

The British crime drama used two locations in Northern Ireland for its exterior and interior shots: Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (also known as Maze Long Kesh) and the Victorian-era Her Majesty’s Prison Belfast (also known as Crumlin Road Gaol). The film uses the small spaces and complex network of gates and locks to its advantage, painting a very accurate picture of what it would be like to move through the environment, instead of relying on fake cell sets and wide shots of long hallways. In 2013, the government in Northern Ireland announced that Her Majesty's Prison Maze will be redeveloped into a peace center.


Location: Joliet, Ill.
Film: The Blues Brothers (1980)


Bart Heird, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Actor John Belushi’s character in the 1980 film is nicknamed "Joliet" Jake because of the time he served in this lockup for armed robbery. The real location closed in 2002 after operating for 144 years, but visitors can drive to the site and pose in front of what is affectionately known as the “Joliet Jake Gate”—the spot where the character was shown leaving the institution and walking to the Blues Mobile. 


Location: Philadelphia
Films: 12 Monkeys (1995), Animal Factory (2000), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009),


John St. John, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Though it serves as a mental institution in 12 Monkeys, Eastern State Penitentiary is the “first true penitentiary” in the world. It was also the largest and most expensive public structure when it opened in 1829. Since then, hundreds of institutions around the world have borrowed from its radial floor plan. Several movies (including the Steve Buscemi-directed drama Animal Factory), television shows, and music videos have been filmed in the spooky cell blocks that Al Capone and other criminals with a lengthy jacket once called home. Even the building's outdoor space has a claim to fame: the overgrown hideout in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is actually Eastern State's Industrial yard. The National Historic Landmark now operates as a museum with daily tours, exhibitions, and an annual haunted house. 


Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Films: Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), The Green Mile (1999), The Last Castle (2001)


Brent Moore, Flickr //CC BY-NC 2.0

The high/medium-security detention center near downtown Nashville closed its doors in 1992 after the opening of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute at Nashville in 1989. A settlement in a 1982 class action suit made it so that the prison could never legally hold prisoners again due to "unconstitutional conditions," but actors portraying prisoners don’t really count. Shots of the castle-like main entrance were used in the bone-chilling fantasy flick The Green Mile against a menacing backdrop of lightning and rain on the night of an execution. The Tennessee Film, Entertainment & Music Commission offers the site as a fee-free location for filmmakers, which was great for the makers of films like Ernest Goes to Jail and The Last Castle, the majority of which was shot outside in the huge yard.


Location: Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic
Film: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

Before filming the “Russian Prison” action scene for the first act of the film, lead Tom Cruise had the crew build a wooden structure to replicate the cells and hallways of the Czech prison. They used the set to choreograph and practice the movement of the extras and the cameras because they could only film in the actual building for a few days.


Location: Rahway, N.J.
Films: Scared Straight! (1978), Malcolm X (1992), Ocean’s Eleven (2001)


CBGB_Hoser, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Rahway State Prison became East Jersey State Prison (EJSP) in the late 1980s when New Jersey communities realized that not sharing a town name with the name of a correctional institution would “remove a tremendous burden from the shoulders of municipalities." Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is released from the facility at the beginning and end of Ocean's Eleven, and Spike Lee used EJSP to represent the Charlestown State Prison where Malcolm X converted to Islam. The documentary Scared Straight! captured the results of a program in which juvenile offenders were forced to come face-to-face with real inmates at Rahway.


Location: London, England
Film: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

diamond geezer, Flickr //CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The largest prison in the UK, Wandsworth, opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction. More than 130 prisoners who called the male-only establishment their home were executed by hanging. The gallows were dismantled in the early 1990s, and officers now use the remodeled space as a tea room. "The big house" also served as the exterior of Parkmoor Prison in A Clockwork Orange, while the interiors were shot over at Woolwich Barracks Prison.


Location: San Francisco
Films: Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Rock (1996), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Point Blank (1967)

Todd Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Alcatraz is without question one of the most famous locations in the world because of its notorious inmates and reputation for being harsh and escape-proof. The slammer was only operational for 29 years, but there were a total of 36 escape attempts. Most were caught, some were shot, and the others drowned or were declared “missing and presumed dead.” Alcatraz is mentioned by name as the prison in X-Men: The Last Stand, The Rock, and Point Blank so it had to appear on screen at some point, but most of the films only included second unit shots of the exterior. On the other hand, Escape from Alcatraz was able to make use of the interiors of the island fortress for numerous scenes.


Location: Whittier, Calif.
Films: Hancock (2008), Red State (2011), Bad Teacher (2011)

Studio SoCal History, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After the girls were transferred to another location in 1916, the Whittier-based facility served as a reform school exclusively for young boys until it closed in 2004. The school was operational for 113 years and in 1982, it was registered as a historical landmark. The majority of indie thriller Red State was filmed at the school, the comedy Bad Teacher made the place of learning its own, and superhero dramedy Hancock used the location for exterior shots of inmates entering a building.


Location: Santa Fe, N.M.
Film: The Longest Yard (2005)


killbot, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Adam Sandler’s 2005 remake of the behind-bars football flick from the 1970s was shot at this men's maximum-security center because Director Peter Segal liked the setting and said that “it becomes a character in the story.” The prison is best known as the site of a 1980 riot that ended with 33 inmate deaths.