matt lynch’s review published on Letterboxd :
"It's a free prison, isn't it?"
An unmistakable literalized metaphor. Not just a story about the damage done to African-American men (and by extension their communities) by way of systematic institutionalization but a microcosm of Black male disenfranchisement. We watch them be conditioned (and unwittingly condition themselves) to pit themselves against each other for the amusement of those in power and a society that sees them as property, otherwise valueless. It's important to point out that there's no arrest or trial depicted; after a fight with a couple of rednecks he was provoked into, cut to the protagonist in his cell. The lack of any appearance of due process is as powerful and suggestive as the near-constant violence, sometimes accompanied by a rusty, scraping horn on the soundtrack, like some awful Gabriel's Trumpet (not coincidentally the same sound bleats through the darkest parts of WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES). The last scene of this thing is totally wrenching. This is a hard movie.
A quick warning: Fanaka's project obviously prioritized Black masculinity but you may be unprepared for this film's attitudes (and some of his others') concerning non-heteronormative sex. Certainly there's no reason to depict rape, in prison or otherwise, as anything but a terrible violation. But PENITENTIARY also posits prison homosexuality as a self-inflicted tool of oppression and division, emasculating, a disgrace to Black men forced to take from each other. I won't excuse or defend its depiction here, but it's not atypical of contemporaneous blaxploitation, and this is a particularly tough, deliberately unpleasant one.