Homicide: Life on the Street

Season 5 Episode 3

Prison Riot

Aired Friday 10:00 PM Oct 18, 1996 on NBC
out of 10
User Rating
30 votes

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Episode Summary

Prison Riot
A riot breaks out at the prison, where two inmates are killed. The squad goes to the scene, but Frank must still stay behind. Bayliss, Lewis, Kellerman and Howard interview the inmates; many of them have familiar faces. Frank works on his target practice. Bayliss thinks that one inmate really wanted to tell him something, so he puts together a deal to get the information. The inmate confesses to the murder and Bayliss doesn't believe him. Another riot breaks out and the truth is finally discovered.moreless

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  • Not one of the best ever, but still its pretty damn good

    As I have mentioned in other writings I am reluctant to ever refer to anything as ‘the best episode’ or ‘the worst episode’. Other publications are less reluctant. So in July of 1997 when TV Guide published a list of ‘the 100 best episodes of television ever’ I was very skeptical of some of the choice they made. I had doubts about their choices for shows like The X-Files or Law & Order. But the episode that really caused my eyebrows to raise was their selection of ‘Prison Riot’ as the choice for Homicide.

    Now I’m not saying this isn’t a very good episode but the best ever? I’m not even sure if it was the best episode of season 5. One would think episodes like’ Three Men and Adena’ or ‘Every Mother’s Son’ would have a much greater claim to the title. (In fact if the editors had waited six months I’m almost positive they would have picked ‘The Subway’ instead, which really does have a legitimate claim to being one of the all time greats) For a show that produced many, many remarkable moments it is odd that the editors would have focused on this one.

    That’s not to say that ‘Prison Riot’ isn’t a great episode because it does show some brilliant ideas and some very startling character portrayals. For one thing it has a daring idea--- to revisit the fates and lives of several criminals that the detectives have put into jail over the past year. As we see in the opening sequence, James Douglas (one of the murderers in ‘Autofocus) kills wife-killer Claude Vetter ( from ‘Requiem for Adena) because he banged into him at the cafeteria. This sets up a fight which leads to a riot, and when its over James lies dead too.

    When the squad (sans Pembleton) goes to investigate the riot, nobody (especially Munch) is particularly eager to solve this killing. Gee tells the detectives to fill in the paperwork and then come back home. He, like everyone else, doesn’t give a damn who killed James Douglas. However Bayliss (the primary on the case) wants to solve it. Part of this is because during the investigation, he becomes convinced that Elijah Sanborn, a lifer for the murder of the drug-dealer who killed his wife, saw the murder and wants to tell him. He learns that Sanborn’s son, Kingston (barely a baby when his father went to prison) is under arrest for robbery. So, in one of his more ruthless acts, he manipulates both the state attorney and the mans family to get Sanborn to tell what he’s seen in exchange for reduced time for Kingston.

    But when Sanborn sees his son and daughter (neither of who has visited him in prison) and realizes that neither of them even care about him anymore, he confesses to the murder even though Bayliss is convinced he is lying.

    Bayliss is convinced that Sanborn is looking for redemption but ultimately (in true Homicide fashion) Sanborn never gives up the murderer. The killer is revealed when Trevor Douglas (James’s cousin) is beaten into a coma by fellow inmate Tom Marans (the murderer of Erica Chilton way back in ‘Hate Crimes). Marans explains that Trevor killed his cousin over a pack of cigarettes and he tried to kill Trevor because he was James’s ‘wife’. The killing is down, and even though Marans will doubtless become a target by Trevor’s friends, the days work is done.

    The show is one of Fontana’s best scripts, partly because it deals with several old plotlines from seasons past but also because it deals with prison life, a subject the show has never really explored. We get an idea of the claustrophobia, the brutality and how peoples lives are contorted and bent on ‘the inside. The subject would fascinate Fontana so much that a year later he would develop Oz , a series for HBO centered entirely around life in a maximum security prison. Many of the ideas in ‘Prison Riot’ would appear in the show--- the oppressiveness of the prison, the separation of felons into cliques based on race and creed, the homosexuality that occurs when straight men are locked in a building with straight men for the rest of their lives, the long circle of endless death to avenge one crime after the other. The most startling character in the episode is Tom Marans, played by Dean Winters (who would go on to star in Oz) Marans was as an average person, a normal guy on the outside but since he went to jail a year ago, he has changed immeasurably. His hair is dyed, his body tattooed, he has begun smoking and twisted sex, and has become a stone cold killer. When Fontana created Oz, one of the major characters was Tobias Beecher, a middle-class man receiving a harsh punishment for involuntary manslaughter in a DUI. One can see many of Beecher’s characteristics in Marans.

    But as fascinating as this is, the most brilliant character is Sanborn, played by Charles Dutton, one of the great actors of our time. Known for his work in August Wilson’s plays, and in movies such as Menace II Society and Mississippi Masala, Dutton would do some brilliant work on television, winning four Emmys for work both in front and behind the camera. (He directed the HBO miniseries, The Corner, based on another book by David Simon). Dutton lends enormous range with his anger and energy behind Sanborn. Elijah has been beaten and damaged by the system but remains a strong man and despite his absence from his family, a loving father. If it seems that Dutton is channeling something personal in this role, it’s because he is--- Dutton spent seven and a half years in a Baltimore prison for stabbing a man in a street fight. This is brilliant work and the fact that Dutton didn’t even get nominated for an Emmy is just another reason why the judges were so narrow-minded against the show.

    It takes a great actor to match scenes with Dutton, but in case we’ve missed it before, Kyle Secor is one such actor. No one else would care about a case like this or a man such as Sanborn but Tim Bayliss does. We also get a very good insight into Bayliss personally as he talks about his troubled relationship with his late father. It is clear that they had a lot of issues (though we are still a few episodes away from learning the biggest one) but we also know that he still cares for him despite everything.

    Though Bayliss is at the center of this episode, we also get some good work from Reed Diamond as Kellerman. He seems more open, friendly and congenial to his fellow detectives--- which is moving because of what is about to hit him. There is also a fascinating scene between Brodie and Pembleton about Frank’s halting in taking his meds, in which he (like the rest of us) realize we’ve underestimated the young man. And, though it’s very serious, we do have a few laughs, particularly when Kellerman, trying to substitute for Frank’s wisdom, offers to give Tim a hug.

    ‘Prison Riot’ is one of the most brilliantly shot episodes of the season and features three superb musical set pieces, which come together at the episodes end where Bayliss looks over the bay at sunset as ‘Down to Zero’ by Joan Armatrading plays in the background. It’s still one of the best moment in the show’s history. So even though ‘Prison Riot’ isn’t one of the greatest episodes ever or even the best episode of Homicide, it’s still one of the most emotionally and dramatically wrenching episodes of the series and one that will not quickly fade from the memory.

    My score:10

Charles S. Dutton

Charles S. Dutton

Elijah Sanborn

Guest Star

David Eigenberg

David Eigenberg

Alex Robey

Guest Star

Dean Winters

Dean Winters

Tom Marans

Guest Star

Helen Carey

Helen Carey

Maggie Conroy

Recurring Role

Sharon Ziman

Sharon Ziman


Recurring Role

Featured Episode Clip

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (0)

  • QUOTES (6)

    • Elijah Sanborn: (Standing up yelling) Well I wanna going back to my cell!! And I want everybody in here know here, that I didn't see nothin, I didn't hear nothin, and I aein't speakin nothing!! I'm going back to my cell!!
      Meldrick Lewis: (interrupts) No you ain't. You ain't goin nowhere until a person with a badge TAKES you there. You've given up your rights, Elijah, when you shot and killed Gold-Eye Marquis.
      Tim Baylis: (again interferring) Sit down.... Sir.... Please.

    • Kellerman: I'm done with this douche.

      Trevor Douglas: Douche?? You should've been in that cafeteria hours ago because I would of kicked your white pansey ass...

      Kellerman: Well, my white pansey ass is going home tonight in an air conditioned apartment, a woman and an six pack of beerwhile you go back to your 98 degree hot cell and humid as hell week lockdown. And if you add it all up, you are the douche. Detective, how do you think?
      Bayliss: Hmm... you're Maxi douche.

    • Kellerman: You okay?
      Bayliss: You get along with your father right?
      Kellerman: Yeah, my dad's great, in his way.
      Bayliss: My father and I we never talked. When we did we argued. When he passed on I didn't even cry. That kind of bothers me I guess. You know he wanted me to have his ashes just spread out at sea. So, I stood in the boat, dumped what was left of him into the bay. Goodbye pop. And I'm left with this empty jar and these unresolved feelings and I don't even have a gravestone to yell at.
      Kellerman: What brought this on?
      Bayliss: I don't know. Frank, his baby. Samborn, Elijah Samborn behind bars is a better father than mine ever was.
      Kellerman: You know I'm sure this is the point when Pembleton would probably say something incredibly wise and profound to you.
      Bayliss: Ha ha.
      Kellerman: Well I'm not profound so I'm not gonna try, but I just want you to know that I'm here for you. And if you want a hug I'd be happy to give you one.
      Bayliss: A hug?
      Kellerman: Yeah.
      Bayliss: Do you and Lewis hug?
      Kellerman: Yeah.
      Bayliss: A lot?
      Kellerman: No, not a lot.
      Bayliss: But enough?
      Kellerman: What do you mean?
      Bayliss: Well do you want Lewis to hug you more?
      Kellerman: Forget I brought…
      Bayliss: No, no you brought up the hugging thing.
      Kellerman: Forget it, forget it.

    • Bayliss: You ever been in jail Meldrick?
      Lewis: Nah, not as a prisoner, nah.
      Bayliss: I have.
      Lewis: Bayliss, why is it that the more I learn about you the less I want to know, huh? So fess up, what were you in the pokie for. Drunk driving, date rape, pedophilia?
      Bayliss: No.
      Lewis: So what?
      Bayliss: I er, protesting human rights abuses in El Salvador.
      Lewis: Of course.
      Bayliss: I was like 18.
      Lewis: So how much time'd you get for protesting human rights violations in El Salvador?
      Bayliss: Well I was in the holding cell for two nights.
      Lewis: Two night! That don't exactly count as hard time.
      Bayliss: They were very, very long nights.
      Lewis: So why didn't you post bail?
      Bayliss: My dad refused to come and get me.
      Lewis: Ok, that's harsh.
      Bayliss: Yeah. Well I mean my dad just had very set ideas about life, you know.
      Lewis: Well I hope you stiffed him on father's day.
      Bayliss: Every chance I got.

    • Bayliss: You know you, you had a wife, Jasmine. You had kids, you had a life now you sacrificed all that for a righteous reason but James Douglas is just a cold and calculated murder. Why would you protect his killer?
      Elijah: What do you think goes on in here detective? You don't lock up 900 violent men in overcrowded conditions and give 'em a TV or some weights and tell 'em this is what it's all about the rest of your life. Come one detective, Douglas sticks Vetter someone sticks Douglas. That stuff goes on here all the time. I mean you know you can sit in your living room thinking we're being rehabilitated but rehabilitation for what? I'm here forever detective. Forever. So you can, you know, go back to your city with your Camden Yards and your water taxis and I want you and you to leave me the hell alone.

    • Lewis: Which animal produces the largest sperm?
      Munch: That is what I'm asking, would you care to venture any guess?.
      Kellerman: Man.
      Munch: No.
      Bayliss: It's the elephant.
      Munch: No, sir.
      Kellerman: The sperm whale.
      Munch: Not even close.
      Lewis: Ok, we give up Munch, which animal's got the biggest sperm?
      Munch: The fruit fly.
      Kellerman: The fruit fly?
      Munch: The fruit fly produces the largest sperm.
      Bayliss: And did you read that in National Geographic or National Enquirer?
      Munch: The itsy bitsy fruit fly produces sperm more than 20 times the size of it's body.
      Kellerman: How is that possible?
      Munch: Natures a mother.
      Lewis: Ok, so I'm gonna do the math here, get over here. You got a guy, you got a guy Bayliss' height produces a proportionate amount of sperm he'd be like a hundred and 20 feet long.
      Bayliss: Just an ordinary night for a guy like me.
      Kellerman: Prove it stud boy.
      Howard: What's going on?
      Lewis: Nothing.
      Howard: What, you guys talking about sperm again?
      Kellerman: Bayliss says he's got nads the size of a fruit flies.

  • NOTES (3)

    • This was one of the "100 Greatest Television Episodes of All-Time" by TV Guide.

    • This episode was probably part of the inspiration for the Tom Fontana created series that aired on HBO in the summer of 1997 called Oz.

    • Music in this episode: Collective Soul "Bleed" alb: Collective Soul; Joan Armatrading "Down to Zero" alb: Joan Armatrading; Joan Armatrading "Sometimes I Don't Wanna Go Home" alb: Square the Circle.