Prison of Secrets

This movie about conditions for female convicts toes the Lifetime line by rigidly depicting men as the enemy, at the expense of plausibility and complexity. It's a price worth paying, perhaps. The plight of incarcerated women is a serious matter, as an accompanying documentary "Final Take: Breaking the Chain" shows. Yet what's going on behind these bars won't shock anyone in the habit of watching telepics. The standardized treatment puts more than the usual strain on the claim "inspired by true events." Dan Lauria, the grumpy dad from "The Wonder Years," turns in a menacing performance as a piggish prison guard. He and other male guards sexually exploit inmates and run a prostitution ring using a prison laundry van.

Stephanie Zimbalist (“Rem-ington Steele”) does her best Sally Field imitation as a middle-class mom arrested for murky, white-collar crimes involving real estate. She rejects a plea bargain and is sentenced to 10 years. Within 12 minutes of the opening credits she’s being strip searched at the Delory Beach Women’s Correctional Facility in a fictional Southern California town.

She refuses to become the next victim, and after winning her fellow inmates’ respect and enlisting the support of her reluctant radio host husband (Gary Frank), exposes the sordid happenings. At a crucial moment and with the help of the sole female guard she provides affidavits to a senator touring the prison.

While not exactly a country club, this slammer has terrific natural light and a relatively congenial environment. Drama is not without its gritty moments, including a miscarriage, but due to the scrubbed setting and a story that scrupulously follows a formula, it doesn’t always serve the harsh truth. Photography and production design would benefit from darker hues. Helmer Fred Gerber doesn’t dilly-dally, keeping the action moving at a good clip with competent direction.

Script by Layce Gardner blames everything on men. All the convicts are technically innocent, having been mere accessories to the men in their lives. The skewed picture of gender relations stretches down to the male classmates of the heroine’s daughter, who tease her cruelly.

The most piercing emotions involve separating women from their families. Indeed the half-hour documentary that follows “Prison of Secrets” looks at efforts in New York state to rehabilitate women and lessen the damaging effects on their children. The toll of a prison sentence on a family is worrisome, though of course less telegenic than sex crimes.

While this straightforward and sanitized movie does so without much finesse, it highlights the need for justice concerning every aspect of the rapidly growing female prison population.

Tech work and supporting perfs are all pro.

Prison of Secrets

Sun. (16), 8-10 p.m., Lifetime

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Carroll Newman Prods. in association with Hearst Entertainment. Executive producer, Carroll Newman; co-executive producer, Yvonne Chotzen; co-producer, Melissa Gleason; director, Fred Gerber; writer, Layce Gardner;
  • Crew: camera, John Fleckenstein; editor, Lisa Citron; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; art director, Tim Eckel; sound, Peter Geoco; music, Nan Schwartz Mishkin; casting, Abra Edelman, Elisa Goodman, Wendy Kurtzman.
  • Cast: Cast: Stephanie Zimbalist, Dan Lauria, Finola Hughes, Gary Frank, Rusty Schwimmer, Kimberly Russell, Tasia Valenza, Joel Polis, Dale Dickey, Paige Moss, Stephanie Sawyer, Brian Smiar, Janni Brenn, Joel MckInnon Miller, Stephen Quadros, Anita Finlay, Steven Banks, Bertila Damas, Robert David Hall, Dustin MacDonald, Adrienne Smith, Betsy Burke, Joseph J. Tomaska, Shane Edelman, Bob Kopyc, Joe Pichler, Lucky Luciano, Jimmy Shannon, Jennifer Sommerfield, Kelly Wilson, Billy Mayo, Billy Concha, Stephanie Nash, Cynthia Harrison, Daniel Zelman, Cerita Monet Bickemann, Monica Mikala.
  • Music By: