Martel Gordone had been wandering aimlessly through the desert when he is finally picked up by an African-American woman driving a van dubbed the "Shaggin’ Wagon". The woman, Linda, who picks him up is actually a prostitute on her way to some clients. On the way to the diner where the two parties are to meet Linda and Gordone (nicknamed "Too Sweet" because of his uncontrollable addiction to Mr. Goodbar) spark an interest in each other, but Linda decides to wait until after she has finished with her clients, “You know, honey, it’s got to be business before pleasure, and I’m sure you’re a real pleasure.” They reach the diner and Linda meets with her clients, but when Gordone doesn’t like how she is being treated, he decides to confront the two for their unruly behavior. The confrontation does not bode well for Gordone, for after a little tussling he is knocked out and falls to the ground. He wakes up to find that he has been charged for the murder of one of the bikers whom he had confronted earlier.
Gordone is sent to jail and becomes cellmates with a man who goes by the name of "Half Dead." While in his cell, Gordone has to defend himself from constant advances from his cellmate and after a couple of more advances Gordone decides to defend himself from the brute. The two battle it out in the cell until the walls are covered with sweat and blood and Gordone rises triumphantly. The wailing and begging of the prisoner who Gordone beats up attracts a lot of attention; and as it just so happens, there is an illegal boxing tournament that goes on within the prison, led by Lieutenant Arnsworth. The winner of the tournament is allowed to leave the prison on early parole because Lieutenant Arnsworth can pull a few strings on the parole board, and Gordone feels as though he would be able to win it. The only thing that stands in his way is a man by the name of Jesse "The Bull" Amos, who is in charge of everything within the prison and is the leader of the prison's strongest gang.Leon Isaac Kennedy – Martel "Too Sweet" GordoneWilbur White – Sweet PeaThommy Pollard – Eugene T. LawsonHazel Spears – LindaDonovan Womack – Jesse AmosFloyd Chatman – Hezzikia "Seldom Seen" JacksonGloria Delaney – PeachesBadja Djola – "Half Dead" JohnsonChuck Mitchell – Lieutenant ArnsworthCepheus Jaxon – PoindexterDwaine Fobbs – Lying Latney WinbornErnest Wilson – CheeseWill Richardson – Magilla GorillaJamaa Fanaka – Producer/Writer/DirectorAlicia Dhanifu – Co-ProducerRobert Edelen – Executive ProducerIrving Parham – Co-ProducerWilliam Anderson – MusicAndre Douglas – MusicFrankie Gaye – MusicMarty Ollstein – CinematographerBetsy Blankett Millicevic – Film EditorAdel A. Mazen – Art DirectorGregory Lewis – Makeup
Throughout the film there are several references to people as “property”, as in the dialogue between Eugene and Too Sweet:
The dialogue brings to mind the ideology of previous decades which held that African Americans were simply property, and therefore had no rights. That idea was a precursor to the later segregation period of American History and the director was wise enough to introduce this aspect of American History into the dialogue of a movie based in prison. More important than the reflection of the trend on the widescreen are the things that go on behind the scenes, which Fanaka clearly demonstrated in the film (though certain attributes are strictly fictional, like early parole by winning the fights).
Fanaka produced two sequels to the film over the ensuing decade.
The first sequel, Penitentiary II, was released in 1982. It was a direct sequel that followed the exploits of "Too Sweet" Gordone shortly after his release from prison. It was notable for the early casting of Mr. T as Gordone's trainer, Glynn Turman as his brother-in-law, and Ernie Hudson recast in the villainous role of "Half Dead." The film was released theatrically in the United States by MGM in April 1982 and grossed $3,178,542 at the box office.
The second sequel, Penitentiary III, was released in 1987. The plot centers on "Too Sweet" Gordone's time in prison, where he is sent after beating another boxer to death in a performance enhancing drug-fueled fugue state. The film was released theatrically in the United States by The Cannon Group in September 1987 and grossed $1,392,616 at the box office.
Both the original film and its first sequel were released on DVD by Xenon Entertainment in 2000. Both films contain an audio commentary by writer/director Jamaa Fanaka and are currently out-of-print. They were subsequently re-released by Xenon on DVD in 2006.
ArrowDrome DVD re-released the film in February 2012 in the United Kingdom. The releases carry over the aforementioned commentary by Fanaka and include a collector's booklet.
“Kissy Face” – written, produced and performed by Mark Gaillard and The Slim and Trim Band.