Created By: WWRU on October 24, 2012 Last Edited By: Morgenthaler on June 8, 2016

Death By Freedom

A prison that is impossible to escape because it is surrounded by a deadly environment.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
YKTTW now sponsored by Morgenthaler per Up for Grabs rules.

There's a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth... Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy... So simple... And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying.

This prison doesn't need walls, or guards, or security cameras. No one's stopping prisoners from escaping. The jailor might even point them in the direction of the convenient escape route. The door's right there! It's not even locked! Why doesn't everyone just leave?

Well, because escape would be suicide. The secure facility remains secure because it is located in an extremely inhospitable environment. It might be in the middle of a vast desert or tundra, such that anyone foolish enough to leave would die of exposure. Alternatively, the surroundings could be populated by Super-Persistent Predators or other deadly creatures. In extreme cases, the prison may be smack in the middle of the ocean, or at the top of a mountain with a hundred-foot drop on all sides. Needless to say, it's safer just to stay inside.

Often serves as an example of Morton's Fork. May be how a villain carries out Released to Elsewhere. If there's any chance at all of success, the escape route is likely to be a Death Course; sufficiently Badass prisoners may theoretically win their freedom. Being imprisoned in such a facility, however, may lead to the realization that Hope Is Scary. Some prisoners may choose to commit suicide using the escape route, preferring death to imprisonment.

See also Underestimating Badassery, which is the common mistake made by people who design such prisons. Compare and contrast The Alcatraz, which has all the conventional defenses (armed guards, electric fences, etc.) on top of its inescapable location. Contrast Cruel Mercy and Hunting the Most Dangerous Game.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • In Serenity: Leaves on the Wind, Zoe is sent to an Alliance Penal Colony on a planet where the terraforming didn't take, leaving it a barren desert. The prison camp doesn't have walls—if you leave any way but by ship, you die of thirst—and the guards don't bother breaking up fights between the inmates or bother to chase you if you run. Zoe excepted: the guards quickly pursue her once they realize she's running to meet Mal and the others, who came in on Serenity.

    Film 
  • The underground Klingon labor camp Rura Penthe where Kirk and Mc Coy are imprisoned in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has nothing preventing prisoners from escaping—except the extreme cold and storms of the surface, where death by exposure would be a certainty. In fact, prisoners are threatened with expulsion to the surface if they don't work.
  • The Dark Knight Rises has two examples: Bane's prison has a gaping hole for a roof that only one child's ever managed to climb out of. Scarecrow's Kangaroo Court also offers the choice between exile (you walk on a frozen lake out of Gotham, fall through and freeze to death) or death (exile.)
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai is set at a PoW Camp deep into the Burmese jungle. The camp has no fence to prevent escape because, as the Japanese commander puts it: "If the wardens don't kill you, the jungle will." Of course, he is proven wrong.

    Literature 
  • In A Game of Thrones, the Arryns' cells have only three walls...with a 600-foot drop off the side of a mountain on the fourth side. The Lord of the Eyrie also tries to force the imprisoned Tyrion to leave their castle via the Moon Door (again, with a 600-foot drop on the other side.) When Tyrion manages to get pardoned, Lady Lysa Arryn manages to do Death By Freedom again (he can now leave the castle via the road full of shadowcats and hostile tribes.)
  • Discworld
    • In Going Postal, when Vetinari is meeting his new Boxed Crook Moist von Lipwig, he tells Moist that if he doesn't like the offer he can simply walk out that door. When Moist goes to check, the door leads to a deep pit full of spikes.
    • In the sequel Making Money, when placed in the same scene and offered the same choice, Moist theatrically goes to test the depth of the "alternative"...only to find that now it's an ordinary exit door, because this time Vetinari really is giving him the option to refuse.
  • Holes. The juvenile detention camp "Camp Green Lake" has no guard towers or fences, and most of the counselors aren't even armed...but the camp is in the middle of the desert, and has the only water for 100 miles. Anyone who wants to leave can leave, only to die of thirst or be forced to come back.
  • In The Stars My Destination, everyone can teleport, so criminals are kept in a location they don't know. You are welcome to Tele-Frag yourself whenever you want.
  • Tribesmen of Gor. The salt mines of Klima are staffed entirely by male slaves. There are no guards, and you're free to leave at any time. But it's surrounded by hundreds of square miles of desert, and canteens are limited to small sizes; you'd die of thirst & exposure if you try to leave.

     Live Action TV 
  • In The Walking Dead, Rick chooses to allow one of the prisoners to escape into the walker-infested woods rather than wasting a bullet on him.

     Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000. The old Dark Eldar codex mentioned that slaves pens in Comorragh don't have walls to keep the slaves in. They can leave any time they want...and wander out into the Dark City where they're likely to suffer an even worse fate.

     Video Games 
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • The prisons in the Shivering Isles in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. They do confiscate your stuff, but your cell is not locked and you are free to try and brave the dungeon creatures with your bare hands and spells.
    • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The Chill, a prison in the Winter Hold runs on this. They do not confiscate your swag, they do not guard your cage, but it is located in an icy cave on a small island in the middle of the local Arctic. If you beat the ice elementals on the island and swim through the frigid ocean to freedom, no one is going to object.
  • The prison camp in Final Fantasy VII is in the middle of a desert. You get there by being dumped down a chute from the Golden Saucer, and nobody bothers to guard the place because the desert is impassable. The other prisoners will all tell you that people who go into the desert don't come back. (However, to prevent the game from becoming unwinnable, if you wander out into the desert, first you get lost but after a while someone shows up with a chocobo stagecoach and takes you back to prison.)
  • In Jedi Academy, Jaden is put into one of these prisons when he is captured by the Empire. The doors of his cell are open, but the prison complex is swarming with stormtroopers and their commander is fond of Hunting the Most Dangerous Game. Oh, and they took Jaden's lightsaber.
  • There are multiple indications throughout the Portal series that the world outside the Aperture Science complex poses more danger to Chell than the tests endlessly invented by the murderous AI GLaDOS inside.


Community Feedback Replies: 77
  • October 24, 2012
    DracMonster
  • October 24, 2012
    elwoz
    May be how the villain carries out Released To Elsewhere (as in the Game Of Thrones examples). Win Your Freedom is also related. If there's any chance at all of success, the escape route is likely to be a Death Course.

    Non-villanous (sorta) example in Discworld: Vetinari offers some prisoners a choice between a new identity and a job, or "walking out that door" (which has an oubliette on the other side).
  • October 24, 2012
    Bisected8
    • Also fromn Discworld:
      • In Thud Vimes realises that some dwarves tried to invoke this after arresting Detritus and Brick by putting them in chains they could easily break out of so they'd have an excuse to kill them. He isn't amused.
  • October 24, 2012
    LOAD
    In the Holes Movie (maybe the book too) this was why there were no guard towers or fences. The camp has all the water and everything else for miles is a desert.
  • October 24, 2012
    elwoz
    ^^ Hm, do we already have a "shot while trying to escape" trope?
  • October 24, 2012
    DracMonster
    ^Thwarted Escape, sort of, although I think it would be workable on its own.
  • October 24, 2012
    elwoz
    ^In my head, "shot while trying to escape" is more of an ass-covering euphemism for "executed without bothering with the trial." I am not the person to spearhead a YKTTW for that, though, I don't read enough of the right sort of fiction.
  • October 24, 2012
    DracMonster
  • October 24, 2012
    Damr1990
    compare/contrast Cruel Mercy
  • October 24, 2012
    Astaroth
    In Goblins, the Viper clan release their freed slaves by leading them out of the south exit of their territory. Incidently, the southern route out of Viper territory takes the slaves perilously close to the lair of the Switchbeast, a savage predator...
  • October 25, 2012
    Koveras
    • There are multiple indications throughout the Portal series that the world outside the Aperture Science complex poses more danger to Chell than the tests endlessly invented by the murderous AI G La DOS inside.
  • October 25, 2012
    TrollBrutal
    null edit
  • October 25, 2012
    Omeganian
    In The Stars My Destination, everyone can teleport, so criminals are kept in a location they don't know. You are welcome to Telefrag yourself whenever you want.
  • October 25, 2012
    elwoz
    ^^^ If Portal is indeed set in the Half Life universe (note: I have not played Portal 2 yet) it would be hard for the outside world not to be more dangerous than the lab.
  • October 27, 2012
    WeAreAllKosh
    Film

    The underground Klingon labor camp Rura Penthe where Kirk and Mc Coy are imprisoned in Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country has nothing preventing prisoners from escaping--except the extreme cold and storms of the surface, where death by exposure would be a certainty. In fact, prisoners are threatened with expulsion to the surface if they don't work.
  • October 27, 2012
    saintdane05
  • October 27, 2012
    Nomic
    • The old Dark Eldar codex mentioned that slaves pens in Comorragh don't have walls to keep the slaves in. They can leave any time they want...And wander out into the Dark City where they'll likely to suffer an even worse fate.
  • October 28, 2012
    aurora369
    Real Life: Siberian exile, katorgas and gulags, used as a form of punishment in Russia since time immemorial. Not exactly hard to escape from, but if you manage, you end up in the middle of Siberian taiga (bonus points if it's in the dead of winter), with no food, horrible climate and no roads or settlements for miles. The only path to a civilized place is heavily patrolled by internal troops soldiers, so you have to face the taiga and survive there for weeks and months. Some escapees have found a workaround: they took some poor klutz along and when food ran out, murdered and ate him, or possibly ate the guy who underestimated the klutz.
  • October 28, 2012
    aurora369
    In Jedi Academy, Jaden is put into one of these prisons when he is captured by the Empire. The doors of his cell are open, but the prison complex is swarming with stormtroopers and their commander is fond of Hunting The Most Dangerous Game. Oh, and they took Jaden's lightsaber. That was another major case of Underestimating Badassery.
  • October 28, 2012
    aurora369
    Compare Win Your Freedom, which is what's expected of a Badass prisoner.

    Contrast Hunting The Most Dangerous Game, where chasing the escapee is the main point.

    See also Underestimating Badassery, which is the common mistake made by people who desing such prisons.
  • October 29, 2012
    mythbuster
    Invoked in Holes. The prison camp has no walls or patrol, because it's surrounded by desert and a hundred miles from the nearest water, so anyone attempting to escape would succumb to dehydration before reaching safety.
  • December 30, 2012
    randomsurfer
    Tribesmen of Gor: The salt mines of Klima are staffed entirely by male slaves. There are no guards, and you're free to leave at any time. But it's surrounded by hundreds of square miles of desert, and canteens are limited to small sizes; you'd die of thirst & exposure if you try to leave.
  • December 30, 2012
    Sheora
    Not just a villainous trope. I would just note it being used against any prisoner that someone doesn't want to kill by their own hand, or would prefer a crueler death than simple execution.

    • In The Walking Dead, Rick chooses to allow one of the prisoners to escape into the walker infested woods rather than wasting a bullet on him.
  • December 31, 2012
    Chernoskill
    Film

    • Space Hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone features a deadly gauntlet full of traps designed by cybernetic villain Overdog. Prisoners that are strong enough to reach the end are not set free as promised but instead have their lifeforce sucked out of them so Overdog can live longer.
  • December 31, 2012
    randomsurfer
    Referenced in the first Gor novel, Tarnsman of Gor. Tarl has successfully kidnapped the Ubar of Ar's daughter, but she managed to bring his war-bird down in a swamp. She demands he free her; he does so, but then says "good luck in the swamp." If she's free he won't protect her from the wild animals out there.
  • January 18, 2013
    MokonaZero
    As a Death Trope you should mention the page will include spoilers. In Inuyasha Naraku lets Kagura escape only after infecting her with a poison that's guaranteed to kill her.
  • January 20, 2013
    aurora369
    The Chill, a prison in the Winter Hold (The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim) runs on this. They do not confiscate your swag, they do not guard your cage, but it is located in an icy cave on a small island in the middle of the local Arctic. If you beat the ice elementals on the island and swim through the frigid ocean to freedom, no one is going to object.

    The prisons in the Shivering Isles (TES IV: Oblivion) run on the same principle. They do confiscate your stuff, but your cell is not locked and you are free to try and brave the dungeon creatures with your bare hands and spells.
  • January 20, 2013
    elwoz
    I should've thought of this ages ago: The prison camp in Final Fantasy VII is in the middle of a desert. You get there by being dumped down a chute from the Golden Saucer, and nobody bothers to guard the place because the desert is impassable. The other prisoners will all tell you that people who go into the desert don't come back. (However, to prevent the game from becoming unwinnable, if you wander out into the desert, first you get lost but after a while someone shows up with a chocobo stagecoach and takes you back to prison.)
  • January 20, 2013
    jatay3
    A couple times on please shows I have seen cops intimadating witnesses by reminding them that they faced a You Have Failed Me from the Mob and therefore arresting them would be kinder.
  • December 24, 2013
    Chabal2
    Supposedly Australian penal colonies didn't bother posting guards, since if a prisoner decided to escape into the outback it just meant one less problem to deal with.
  • December 24, 2013
    DAN004
    What about Escape And Die? "Freedom" sounds too broad.
  • December 24, 2013
    Paradisesnake
  • December 24, 2013
    Lakija
    In Final Fantasy X the characters are dumped in the Via Purifico in the hopes that they'll die. But blitzball players and some Al Bhed can hold their breaths for hours.
  • December 24, 2013
    DAN004
    ^ What is Via Purifico exactly and how would they die there?
  • December 24, 2013
    Lakija
    Oh sorry. I actually re-read the trope and I'm not sure if it is a good example, but here goes:

    The Via Purifico is a large sort of aqueduct beneath the city of Bevelle, completely submerged in water, and absolutely infested with sinspawn monsters. To top it off, there is a wyrm living there as well at the end. No ordinary person could survive breathing underwater for hours in monster-infested wyrm guarded chamber unless they were highly skilled and could breath for a long time.
  • December 25, 2013
    DAN004
    ^ Simply potholing Via Purifico with The Alcatraz would give it enough context, but thanks nonetheless.
  • December 25, 2013
    Ryusui
  • December 25, 2013
    Ominae
    Real Life:

    • Alcatraz in San Francisco. Even though a convict can be prepared enough, they still need to cross over the Pacific Ocean before hitting the mainland. And the sea can sometimes be treacherous.
    • The North Koreans implemented the gulag system from Russia by establishing prison camps in area where the winter is very harsh for ordinary persons to survive without essential food and clothes.
  • December 31, 2013
    Lakija
    ^^^I was explaining it for your sake. :) I wouldn't have known to pothole it to that in particular, so I'm glad you knew to do so.
  • December 31, 2013
    Sligh_Br
    Game Of Thrones is not a film, it's a series (and I think you should probably link to the source material first). A Song OF Ice And Fire.
  • December 31, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    Namespaced an example + sorted the examples by media.
  • December 31, 2013
    DAN004
    I'd up Deadly Escape Route. Though I'd also up my own Escape And Die. :P
  • April 11, 2014
    MonaNaito
    Compare and contrast The Alcatraz.

    In this trope, there's nothing stopping you from escaping, except that if you escape your surroundings will kill you. The Alcatraz, however, is heavily guarded, has twenty-foot walls, and is surrounded by an environment that will kill you.
  • April 11, 2014
    Tuckerscreator
    • Holes: The juvenile detention camp "Camp Green Lake" is unlike any prison in that there are no guard towers, no fences, and most of the counselors aren't even armed. But the camp is in the middle of the desert and has the only water for 100 miles. Anyone who wants to leave can leave, only to die of thirst or be forced to come back.
  • April 11, 2014
    Paradisesnake
    Redirected the A Game Of Thrones example to the book's actual work page instead of the page for the series as a whole.
  • April 11, 2014
    MonaNaito
    Revised and expanded the trope description. Currently going through and adding in the examples.
  • April 11, 2014
    dalek955
    • In Going Postal, when Vetinari is meeting his new Boxed Crook Moist von Lipwig, he tells Moist that if he doesn't like the offer he can simply walk out that door. When Moist goes to check, the door leads to a deep pit full of spikes.
      • In the sequel, when placed in the same scene and offered the same choice, Moist theatrically goes to test the depth of the "alternative"...only to find that now it's an ordinary exit door, because this time Vetinari really is giving him the option to refuse.
  • April 11, 2014
    robinjohnson
    The Game Of Thrones example shouldn't link to No Fourth Wall - as you point out, they literally have no fourth wall, meaning it's got nothing to do with the trope.
  • April 11, 2014
    MonaNaito
    I suggest a name change; Death By Freedom sounds too similar to I Die Free. Escape And Die or Deadly Escape Route would be better.
  • April 12, 2014
    Arivne
  • April 12, 2014
    Ominae
    No need for actual example from reality?
  • April 12, 2014
    henke37
    I think there was some trope about someone deciding not to kill someone, but just leave them to some great danger instead. I think there is a risk for confusion here.
  • April 12, 2014
    MonaNaito
    ^^ Ominae, both of your examples would go under The Alcatraz instead.
  • April 12, 2014
    Chabal2
    Thorgal has a shallow, crystal-filled cave in a cliff that faces west. As the sun sets, it keeps beating down on the people inside, who either go mad from the heat (made worse by being refracted by the crystals) or jump from the cliff to escape it.

  • April 12, 2014
    dvorak
    Literature
  • April 13, 2014
    MonaNaito
    ^ I'm not sure that counts? Like the Tarnsman of Gor example several comments up, which I also hesitate to add to the examples list, this is a "do what I say or I abandon you in the deadly wilderness" situation. I personally think that's distinct from this trope. Does anyone feel strongly that the trope description should be expanded to cover both types of examples?
  • April 19, 2014
    MercenX
    Simpsons: It is assumed that freedom is a death-sentence to the ants previously "imprisoned" in an ant farm when after Homer's dome breaks it open, their dialogue is shown to include screams of "Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!" as they float out into zero-g.
  • April 19, 2014
    jatay3
    Can be done by good guys too. In one or two police proceedurals I've seen the police interrogators point out that they had nothing to hold a given person of interest but that The Mafia would assume he talked whatever happened.
  • April 19, 2014
    DAN004
  • April 27, 2014
    dalek955
    The Goblins example is Released To Elsewhere, not this trope.
  • April 27, 2014
    DAN004
    • Avatar The Last Airbender: when the Blue Spirit manages to rescue Aang from Zhao's prison and fights the guards to the escape way, Zhao just tells his guards to let them go. Seconds later, an arrow from one of Zhao's archers hits the Blue Spirit, knocking off his mask.
  • April 27, 2014
    MonaNaito
    ^ I think that's just plain lying.
  • April 27, 2014
    DAN004
    Does this count?
    • Impel Down in One Piece is situated in the bottom of an ocean - which, for Devil Fruit users, is no good news. Not just any ocean either; it's in the Calm Belt, a zone on the Grand Line's border where there are no winds blowing and Sea Monsters are abundant; only Seastone-coated ships (usually that of the Marines) can pass through it easily.
      • In particular, in the Level 2 of Impel Down, "Beast Hell", has the cages wide open. But the outside is filled with monstrous beasts such as the Basilisk, Manticores, and a Sphinx, making escaping pointless and hard.
  • May 13, 2015
    Vios
    I'm wondering if the Discworld example and the first half of the Game of Thrones example quite fit the description here. My impression is that this trope is "There's no immediate barrier preventing you from leaving, but outside is worse than inside", whereas those examples do have an immediate barrier preventing you from leaving - it just happens to be a sudden drop rather than a cell wall. It's not really "Death by Freedom" / "Escape And Die" (whichever title we use), since there's no freedom/escape to be had. The drop isn't lethal freedom; it's just lethal. An electric fence would have similar effect, but presumably wouldn't count as this trope. Maybe there is (or should be) a trope for unusual imprisonment methods which might be a better fit?

    Just a thought, anyway. This hasn't been active recently, so I'm not sure if it's going to be launched at all, though it's just about fully hatted.
  • May 13, 2015
    Lythande
    When I clicked on this I was very very confused, since the title has little and the laconic almost nothing to do with the description... When I phrased the laconic to myself as "There's no barrier to escape, but you still wouldn't want to", it makes a lot more sense. I might call it something like Wall-lessPrison, because I lack creativity.

    ^ Weirdly, the Discworld and GoT examples seem to fit it to me more than several others (because you are free, at least - you have the chance to leave the prison, it's just that that chance kills you). The Bane prison, on the other hand, not even close, because it's just a trick because it's not actually an escape route; Scarecrow's example is just a sadistic choice of punishments, not leaving you in a prison you can walk out of and die at any time. The Walking Dead example doesn't fit anything except the misleading Laconic. I don't know if the Portal example counts as I haven't played it, but I wouldn't count it unless Chell is literally free to leave at any time. (After reading through, though, the rest fit the description and have a common theme.)
  • May 31, 2015
    Vios
    I guess it depends on whether you'd consider things like the GoT example to be a form of escape or not. To me, they're not - someone who jumps off the cliff is never free, just dead. It seems to me that there might actually be two different tropes here:

    1) There aren't any walls but it's still not possible to leave the prison alive.

    2) There aren't any walls and you can leave the prison alive... but after you've escaped, there isn't anywhere you can go that won't make you regret escaping.

    Just my take.
  • May 31, 2015
    StarSword
    Comic Books:
    • In Serenity Leaves On The Wind, Zoe is sent to an Alliance Penal Colony on a planet where the terraforming didn't take, leaving it a barren desert. The prison camp doesn't have walls—if you leave any way but by ship, you die of thirst—and the guards don't bother breaking up fights between the inmates or bother to chase you if you run. Zoe excepted: the guards quickly pursue her once they realize she's running to meet Mal and the others, who came in on Serenity.
  • June 7, 2015
    eroock
    Film:
    • The Bridge On The River Kwai is set at a POW Camp deep into the Burmese jungle. The camp has no fence to prevent escape because, as the Japanese commander puts it: "If the wardens don't kill you, the jungle will." Of course, he is proven wrong.
  • May 6, 2016
    Morgenthaler
    Since it seems the OP has forgotten about this one, I'll take up sponsorship.

    I agree that the title is not very indicative, and would support changing it to Escape And Die.
  • May 6, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ can you please add One Piece example too?
  • June 6, 2016
    PaulA
    • Parodied in the very first Judge Dredd story, which ends with the perp being sentenced to a prison called Devil's Island — which is a road island surrounded on all sides by a multiple-lane freeway with traffic streaming along it at high speeds at all hours.
  • June 7, 2016
    Arivne
    The TLP proposal "Sky Cell" is a more specific version of this.
  • June 7, 2016
    Tallens
    • Avatar The Last Airbender:
      • The Boiling Rock is a Fire Nation prison for some of their most high-value captives located in a volcanic crater filled with a boiling lake, which gives it its name. Anyone attempting to escape is boiled to death.
      • The Fire Nation's prison rig is located hundreds of miles out to sea. While that may not sounds that dangerous, it's still pretty much a death sentence for anyone trying to escape.
  • June 7, 2016
    Sharlee
    So what, specifically, distinguishes this trope from The Alcatraz?
  • June 7, 2016
    PaulA
    ^ The Alcatraz is "prison that is considered impossible to escape from"; this is "prison that is surrounded by an inhospitable environment".
  • June 7, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ so this is a subtrope, yeah?
  • June 8, 2016
    DAN004
    Name should be "Harsh Environment Prison" or something like that.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=2b73r2980wj1eoakhyioj72m