Prison was made by Charles and Albert Bands Empire Productions. The Bands and Empire had been responsible for a great many B-budget sf and horror films in the 1980s, including Ghoulies (1985), Re-Animator (1985) and Trancers (1985). Prison was directed by Finnish émigré Renny Harlin. Renny Harlin next went onto A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Master (1988) and then graduated to big-budget action films like Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), before briefly marrying Geena Davis and directing her in a string of disasters including Cutthroat Island (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). Harlin later returned to genre material to make one entertainingly awful monster movie Deep Blue Sea (1999), the much hated reshot version of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), the serial killer thriller Mindhunters (2004), The Covenant (2006) and The Legend of Hercules (2014). For the sheer mindless overinflatedness of his films, Renny Harlin ranks up there alongside Joel Schumacher, Michael Bay and Jan de Bont as one of the worst directors currently at work in Hollywood.
Frankly, Renny Harlin does a better job in Prison than he has done in any of his action films. With only a small budget, he does a marvellous job evincing a great deal of atmosphere with the use of Spielbergian light effects and by prowling his camera through the dank, subterranean depths of the jail. He creates some effective set-pieces, particularly one scene where a victims guts are splattered over prisoners dining in the cafeteria. He also does a good job of characterising the usually faceless victims with Lincoln Kilpatrick and Tiny Lister (then better known as the insane Hercules on Superstars of Wrestling surprisingly showing his sensitive side here) all playing well. Viggo Mortensen plays with an appealing heroic individuality and an incredible handsomeness that leaves one surprised that it took more than another decade before Mortensen went onto greater stardom with The Lord of the Rings. Lane Smith gives a good, tough performance as the pitiless warden.
Unfortunately, everything falls down with a poor script from C. Courtney Joyner. C. Courtney Joyner is a regular contributor for the Band family, who has written various of their Puppetmaster and Trancers sequels, as well as directed the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Lurking Fear (1994). A number of subplots are raised but never explored and one has no idea what is supposed to be happening in the end. What is the supernatural force in the prison meant to be? How is it tied to Warden Sharpe? The film hints at hidden secrets in Sharpes past that are being revenged but clarifies none of them. If the force is supposed to be taking revenge for Sharpes crimes, then why does it randomly kill otherwise innocent prisoners? How is Viggo Mortensens character tied to it all? (At one point, the film seems to suggest that Viggo Mortensen is a reincarnation of the person that Sharpe killed but this issue is then forgotten about). Seemingly aware that it has no answers to these loose untied ends, the film ends with a surprising abruptness.
Film online in several parts beginning here:-