Boxed Crook

"If you accept, your sentence will be reduced after we drive off the hobgoblin horde. Or, you can refuse and pray their catapults don't hit the prison tower while you're still locked inside."

A prisoner or group of prisoners facing either execution or an extended stay at the Greybar Hilton (being guilty of the crime is optional) is approached by a mysterious figure and offered their freedom, provided they do a little favor first. The prisoner is very often a highly trained special operator with above average skills who went wrong somewhere. If a group, prone to being a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who cannot rely on each other; their crimes will vary (and quite possibly their guilt as well).

The mission that the prisoner is required to undertake will likely have a very low probability of survival and even if survived there's no guarantee of freedom. It's always "next time" which means this character is stuck doing off-the-books dirty work until they are killed or escape.

The mission will require a high degree of plausible deniability on the part of the offer giver should things go sideways. There will likewise be "insurance" to make sure the prisoner abidges by the agreement, such as an Explosive Leash.

Sub-Trope of Leonine Contract.

May stem from You All Meet in a Cell. Sub-Trope of Recruiting the Criminal. A related trope is Trading Bars for Stripes (your prison sentence is commuted to military service) and another is Recruited From The Gutter (working for someone who saved you from a crappy life). Compare Condemned Contestant and Win Your Freedom. The inverse of this is Trapped in Villainy.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Witch Hunter Robin: A hacker who broke into the Solomon mainframe is held captive in their HQ as their tech-guy. (It should be noted that this has happened in the real world).
    • Worse yet, there are some witches who refuse to use their powers, only to have their lives systematically destroyed by Solomon and forced to use their powers (illegally) to survive. Then they're arrested and either drafted into witch hunting or used as a blood farm for producing anti-magic.
  • The Time-Space Administration Bureau of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha has a track record of giving defeated opponents job offers as an alternative to prison time. The jobs are often active-duty combat positions where crooks may wind up facing universe-destroying Lost Logia or armies of cyborg super soldiers and the like, but many are also basically community service roles working for civilian organizations like the Saint Church. In contrast to many similar arrangements, the ex-convicts enjoy, take pride in and do well in their jobs, and their superiors, for the most part, trust them completely. (It helps that much of the time, the crimes in question involved duress or deception, and that Nanoha is skilled at befriending them.)
    • The Bureau's probation/work-release is more like Trading Bars for Stripes: it is a regular job offer, not a one-off redemption mission. But yes, if you end up facing Lost Logia or cyborgs, you'll be side by side with regular forces, or out front because you're really powerful, not because you're a convict.
  • The manga Sukeban Deka and its anime and live action incarnations revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • The Mugai-Ryu in Blade of the Immortal are all death row criminals who are buying back their lives by collecting Itto-Ryu heads.
  • Lind L. Tailor in Death Note is set to impersonate L on a broadcast to try to see how Kira will kill him on the day of his execution. Later on, L proposes having a criminal write names in the Death Note and see if he dies 13 days later to determine whether the 13-day rule is fake, and pardoning the criminal if he or she survived, but gets killed before he can enact the plan.
    • Aiber also counts, at least in the manga, where he mentions in passing that L has enough evidence on him to get him life in prison, and he likes the chance to use his con artist skills.
  • The main plot of Cyber City Oedo 808 involves taking three criminals with life sentences, putting explosive collars on them and sending them out to stop other criminals. If they succeed in their missions, they get time removed from their sentences (though all three have sentences of over 200 years, and one of them was once penalized with extra time for disobeying orders during a mission). Their goal is to eventually work off their entire prison sentence, though they hadn't come close yet by the end of the series.
  • In King of Thorn manga, the government recruits a hacker this way. The fact that he wants to take revenge on the infiltrated facility's system administrator certainly helps.
  • Argo Gulski in G Gundam, a former Space Pirate, was caught and imprisoned by Neo Russia, who game him the ultimatum of fighting as the country's Gundam Fighter for the freedom of his crew, or live-imprisonment for the lot of them. As an added bonus, he has an explosive charge permanently attached to his chest, making escape for him totally impossible.
  • In One Piece, we have the Seven Warlords of the Sea: seven infamous pirates given pardons by the World Government in return for their service, which is spent crushing revolutions or related regime change or dealing with other pirates. While they're often derided as "Government Dogs", many of them actually have no compassion for the World Government; at least two members outright hate it, and all of them are insanely powerful, so calling them that within earshot is not a good idea. There's only one member who seems truly loyal to World Government, that being Bartholomew Kuma, but that's another story...
    • The Hellhole Prison of Impel Down is home to Shiryuu of the Rain, a former Head Jailer whose habit of killing his charges landed him on death row in the deepest levels of the hellish prison. During a unprecedentedly massive prison riot, he's released to help control it, his sentence postponed for the duration of this second chance. Unfortunately for the staff of Impel Down, his cooperation lasts only until he regains his sword, after which he proceeds to make things much worse by cutting through the guards and communication system before escaping with Blackbeard.
    • A humorous example is Curly Dadan, head of a bandit gang. Vice-Admiral Garp is willing to overlook her crimes, but only on the condition that she looks after Portgas D. Ace, and later Monkey D. Luffy. While Dadan does grow attached to the D. brothers, she considers the hardships from raising them to be worse than any prison sentence.
    • Interesting example with Oimo and Kashi, giants who were part of a very powerful and dangerous pirate crew. A century before the story began, the group was forced to disband when their co-captains got into an argument and began a fight to the death on a certain island to show who was right. Fifty years later, neither of the captains had come back to their home island of Elbaf, so Oimo and Kashi set sail back to the island where they were fighting, but were captured by Marines along the way. They were told that their captains had been captured and imprisoned, but a bargain was made with them: if they would work for the World Government for a hundred years (since giants live to be 300), all four of them could go free. They agreed…but the World Government lied to them. And not about setting them free when their time was up: for the fifty years that the two of them had waited on Elbaf, and another fifty after that while they worked for the government, their captains were still fighting on that island, over 73,000 duels that all ended in draws. And the Straw Hat Pirates happened to visit that island on their journey, and then they came to where the giants were guarding the gate. When Usopp persuades them to tell their story (after the others had beaten them), he tells them the truth. Cue a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
    Oimo: You bastards…
    Kashi: How dare you…
    Both: LIE TO US?!
  • In the Final Fantasy V OVA, Rouge the pirate is offered a pardon in exchange for helping the heroes on their quest.
  • In Haruhi Suzumiya, Ryoko returns to protect Kyon from Kuyoh, and appears in a Big Damn Heroes moment to fight Kuyoh in a Knife Battle, making the scene where she tries to kill Kyon a Foreshadowing scene.
  • In Soul Eater, witches Eruka, Risa and Arisa are all captured and forced to connect Spartio to the Book of Eibon.
  • In the Mai-HiME manga, Nao joins Haruka's Ori-Hime unit so that her rule-breaking will be ignored. Mai questions whether Haruka will keep that promise.
  • Triela's handler Hillshire in Gunslinger Girl is sentenced to death when he finds out what the social welfare agency's done to the girl he brought them for treatment, and lashes out at them. One of the other handlers, Jean, approaches him in his cell with an offer of becoming Triela's fratello, the only way for him to safe guard Triela.
  • Hiei and Kurama from YuYu Hakusho help Yusuke with his missions as part of their probation. Kurama was at worst an Anti-Villain who is happy to help, whereas Hiei is simply biding his time until he can escape to the Demon World...or so he says.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, there's Dr. Collector, a genius who was convicted of several murders (probably based on Hannibal Lecter) who aids the government in solving other murders. As a result, he is allowed to compete occassionally in the Pro League (with armed supervision, of course), and actually does a very decent job against the reigning champion The D. That is, until The D unveils his previously unknown Ultimate D Card...

    Comic Books 
  • Many of the soldiers in Marvel/Epic's Alien Legion were this.
  • In the Spin-Off of Gargoyles called Bad Guys, Hunter, Fang, Dingo, Matrix, and Yama are formed into the Redemption Squad. This was originally supposed to be an animated spinoff, but the show got cancelled.
  • Marvel Comics blatantly stole the idea of The Dirty Dozen for its war book Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen. It's in the name — can't get much more blatant than that.
  • In Marvel's Ultimate Universe, the team called the Avengers is basically this (not to be confused with the actual Avengers analogue, the Ultimates). Their numbers include Hawkeye and Black Widow, neither of whom are squeaky clean, as well as former super villain Red Wasp, and, at one point, the Punisher.
  • The '80s version of DC Comics' Suicide Squad featured an assortment of supervillains sent on black-ops missions by the government in exchange for pardons. 'Suicide Squad' became a very appropriate name due to the nature of their missions and the penalty for refusing to go on them in the first place. This version was featured on Justice League Unlimited as "Task Force X" in the episode of the same name.
  • An incarnation of Marvel Comics' Thunderbolts is as a team of former — and not-so-former — supervillains sent to apprehend superheroes who don't obey the Super Registration Act introduced in the Civil War Crisis Crossover.
    • A later reinvention has the new recruits coming directly from The Raft a.k.a. Alcatraz for supervillains. This team was created in the hopes of eventually reforming the supervillains.
  • Another team of Marvel villains like this was the Freedom Force; technically, this was what Mystique's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants became after they offered their services to Valerie Cooper in exchange for pardons from the government. They were able to do a few good deeds (most notably apprehending Magneto) but after a few unpopular incidents like trying to enforce the original Mutant Registration Act, which brought them into conflict with the X-Men and X-Factor, the team fell apart. (Cooper decided to hire X-Factor to replace them.)
  • Magik was given this status following the events of the Schism, selected by Cyclops to be a member of the "Extinction Team." There wasn't an offer for release or parole with it — she was only let out of the X-Brig for missions, and her suit had a lethal fail-safe to prevent her from teleporting away. This relaxation of her sentence seemed to have both positive and negative impacts; after gaining new powers from the Phoenix Force, she escaped, purged the Juggernaut's powers from her brother permanently and she remains a supporter of Cyclops and his revolutionary X-Men. (Unfortunately, this didn't help her and Colossus reconcile; it actually made their relationship worse than ever, as he figured out she could have done that at any time and made him keep the Juggernaut powers to teach him a lesson. He has since said that he actually wants to see her dead.)
  • The DC Comics series Hunter's Hellcats had a very similar premise to Garrison's Gorillas (see below).
  • The Punisher was given one of these offers by a Mafia don who wanted him to keep the old neighborhood safe.
  • Hmmm... approached by mysterious figure... Check. Government offering amnesty for past wrongs... check. Deniability... check. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?
  • Kurt Busiek's short-lived The Liberty Project is an earlier example of super-powered criminals in this trope. Unlike most other examples, it's completely above-board, and done at least partly in the hope of rehabilitating the criminals.
  • In Nodwick the party got one quest this way.
    Nodwick: Let me get this straight: you damaged public property and that leads to employment?
    Artax: Odd how that works with governmental entities, isn't it?
  • Word of God says that this is Rouge's role in Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog and that she works for G.U.N. to "pay off her debt to society".
  • Grimm Fairy Tales: This is how Robyn Locksley (a.k.a. 'Robyn Hood') is recruited into the Realm Knights organisation. So long as she stays off the radar and operates within the parameters given in her missions, she is allowed to stay out of jail.
  • The Nick Spencer run of Ant-Man uses a humorous but semi-realistic version of this to explain why gay android supervillain Machinesmith is working a dead end job in Miami. Machinesmith was offered parole in exchange for using his skills to help SHIELD hack into Latverian computers. After doing so, he was released and sent to Florida and has to report regularly to a parole officer. Scott Lang (Ant Man) offers him a job at his new security company, which Machinesmith accepts since it was an improvement over his previous one (being beaten up by kids at Avengers-themed birthday parties).

    Fan Fiction 
  • In Christian Humber Reloaded, the main character, after turning himself in to the police for murdering Soku and her family, is given the job of hunting down or killing convicts, which he enjoys considerably. The webcomic has a brief scene in which the warden acknowledges that this is a very bad idea.
  • Doctor Who. Used in many a Doctor/Master fic.
  • In the Red Jewel Diaries of MGLN Crisis, some of the Numbers who are still imprisoned — Tre, Quattro and Sette, without Uno, who's dead — get a mission from Auris while in captivity. The others are essentially free, but still reporting in for probation hearings, at the start of the main stories.
  • In White Devil of the Moon, Sailors Mars and Jupiter, as well as Luna and Mamoru, attack Fate a few times while assuming that she is denying them access to Nanoha for sinister ends. Hayate tells them that assaulting an officer is a severe crime, but they can help the Bureau in lieu of official punishment.
  • Sometimes used in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers fanfics as Doc's backstory. His Mysterious Past was never covered in-series, aside from Word of God saying he signed on "reluctantly." Seeing as Doc is one of the best hackers (if not the best hacker) in the League...
  • This is literally how SG-13: The Suicide Squad (a Stargate SG-1JAGThe West Wing crossover) begins and its major premise.
  • Hitman Miami: Chapter 6 has 47 caught by the police for drug dealing, and once the detective realizes he is a hitman, he is offered freedom for assassinating a target. "If you can drop him, we'll drop the charges."
  • XSGCOM: Nirrti becomes this to the SCG/X-COM, her scientific knowledge and expertise in exchange for her life (and a few creature comforts).
  • In The Universiad, the AEON branch of P.O.E.T. contains and weaponises Eldritch Abominations of its own for the Godzilla Threshold-crossing moments when such is the only appropriate response to the situation at hand.
  • In AA Pessimal's exploration of mature entry into the Discworld 's Guild of Assassins, The Graduation Class, those who have shown style and inventiveness in murder - unlicenced Assassins operating outside the Guild - are offered Angels. They can, of their own free will, join the Guild and take a training course that graduates them as Assassins and thus regularises the situation. Or else they can be dealt with in the usual way. The story follows the first four women to officially graduate as full Guild members after living interesting lives full of lethal incident to others.
  • In the Worm fanfic, Intrepid, Sophia and Brian both works as Wards rather than go to prison for being a Vigilante with a manslaughter count and Villain respectively.

  • The Rock uses this trope with John Mason, who isn't a crook per se, but a British spy who was captured three decades earlier.
  • In The Dirty Dozen, the eponymous twelve were all on death row or imprisoned for life for crimes committed while in the Army. Major Reisman offers them a full pardon — if they survive an almost-certain-death mission. Only one of them, Wladislaw, lives to see his freedom.
  • Chicken Run: Ginger gets Rocky to teach the chickens to fly in exchange for hiding him from the circus he escaped from.
  • xXx: Xander (Vin Diesel) works for the NSA or goes to prison for grand theft auto.
    • His replacement in the second movie, Stone (Ice Cube), was broken out of prison and put to work saving the President.
  • In the French classic Nikita, a woman is recruited from death row to become an assassin by means of a fake lethal injection.
    • Remade for America as Point of No Return, Bridget Fonda plays a drug addict named Maggie who is convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death; however, her death is faked at her execution, and a government agent (presumably American) named Bob offers her a reprieve if she accepts a job as an assassin. Maggie is successful at first, but grows to hate it, and Bob eventually sympathizes, promising to get her out of the deal if she can complete one last important hit. Unfortunately, this last hit proves difficult, and Bob's superior sends a "cleaner" to kill both Maggie and the original mark, the situation ending with the cleaner dead, and Maggie making a run for it, Bob calling the superior and, after a moment of hesitation, telling him that Maggie is also dead.
  • Played with in Kim Basinger vehicle The Real McCoy, with the protagonist on parole and trying to go straight. A criminal organization threatens to void her parole unless she aids in a heist.
  • In Escape from New York, Air Force One crashes inside the Manhattan penal colony. Prisoner and former war hero Snake Plissken is offered his freedom if he can get the President and a special tape out in under 24 hours.
    • Snake has to go through this again to rescue the current president's daughter in Escape from L.A.. (That turns out to be a bad idea.)
    • Both times, it's not specifically the people but the objects they're carrying. The President in the first film has a tape with the secret of cold fusion on it. The President's daughter in the second film has a controller for a network of EMP satellites.
  • This is applied to the American military in The Sand Pebbles and the British military in Atonement, with characters given the choice of jail time or military service.
  • The Proposition: "I wish to present you with a proposition..."
  • It's not official, but in The Shawshank Redemption, Andy is able to get serious brownie points from the chief of the guards (along with protection from the other inmates) by volunteering to do his tax forms for free; this gains the attention of the warden, who puts Andy in charge of the prison's financial duties. Eventually, other correction officers seek his advice on money matters, even from other prisons, and he starts corresponding with the government for funds to improve the decrepit library. Unfortunately for him, this leads to the events being put into motion that may clear his name, and the crooked warden who doesn't want his useful crook leaving willing to go to extremes to stop what is in play.
  • In Between Heaven And Hell, Sam Gifford (Robert Wagner) beats a lieutenant to death after he accidentally machineguns three of his own men. Because he is a Silver Star recipient, at his court martial Gifford is offered the choice of being sent to Leavenworth or being transferred to to George Company, a de facto punishment company in a dangerous area of the line. Gifford chooses George Company.
  • In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo is offered a commuted sentence in exchange for looking for POWs in Vietnam.
  • This describes one of the protagonists of the French action movie Banlieue 13.
  • The title character in Kurosawa's Kagemusha is a thief saved from execution in order to act as a top-secret double for an identical-looking feudal warlord. How could THAT possibly go wrong?
  • The original The Inglorious Bastards has a bunch of escaped U.S. Army prisoners stumbling across an Allied undercover mission, which they inadvertently foil. To make up for their mistake and secure their release, they take the original crew's place.
  • In a movie of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, at one point he is having a lot of trouble getting a crew for his ship because the place he's planning to go to is so dangerous. Finally, he cuts a deal with the government that any convict who agrees to work on his ship will, if he survives the voyage, be pardoned. However, this results in a mutiny since most of his crew are not the loyal type...
  • Virtuosity: Denzel Washington's character is given this deal to try and catch Sid 6.7, but is implanted with an explosive device so the police can just kill him if he goes rogue. Except that his police force ally destroys the software to do it just as they're about to execute him.
  • The main character in Play Dirty is chagrined to discover that the "military unit" he's been given to command on what is essentially a Suicide Mission are nothing but a bunch of convicts given their freedom in exchange for serving as an unofficial special forces division.
  • The Sukeban Deka films, their anime incarnation, and the anime series revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • Animal Kingdom has Detective Roache, a boxed Corrupt Cop, who's... encouraged to assassinate Joshua, who's under witness protection. The person ordering the hit? Joshua's grandmother.
  • This is the option given to a captured IRA sniper in The Jackal.
  • In The Core, Rat is a young hacker who gets caught violating his parole and is facing some serious jail time. He is offered full pardon (and some other incentives) to help the government cover up the mission. Slight subversion in that his home is raided specifically because they need him. He just happens to be back to his own tricks.
  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life. Lara needs help in her government mission to find Pandora's Box. She goes to the Republic of Kazakhstan and recruits Terry Sheridan, an old lover of hers who's in prison there.
  • Catch Me If You Can, based on the Real Life story of master con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. ends with him getting such a deal from the FBI once the agency realizes his familiarity with forged checks can be put toward more productive use.
  • In RoboCop 3 the Big Bad had did this in a way that really went against protocol. Basically, he had done so much bad stuff (including murdering a cop and framing the hero for it, among other things) that while he was still technically in control of the police department, the media turned against him, and every other cop on the force quit. So he decided to simply recruit every crook in jail at the time as replacements. As you might expect, that didn't exactly work out as well as he'd hoped...
  • A very unusual example of Executive Meddling in A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" has no clear no motive to go to the town and get involved in the feud. This made TV network executives nervous, so when the film aired on TV, a prologue was filmed: the MWNN is released from prison to restore order to the town. This scene was shot without the permission of Sergio Leone, and without Eastwood's participation. Harry Dean Stanton plays the Prison Governor.
  • All four protagonists in Mercenaries are imprisoned criminals offered a pardon if they can save the President's daughter.
  • Ant-Man: Scott Lang, former burglar, is offered a means of making child support to see his daughter again; become Ant-Man and use his thieving talents to steal technology that poses a threat to world peace. In this case, the offer comes not from the government, but from the original Ant-Man himself.

  • In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Going Postal, con artist Moist von Lipwig, after his apparent execution ("apparent" thanks to Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork), is tasked with getting the Ankh-Morpork Post Office up and running again. In the next book, as Moist is getting bored with the post office (practicing breaking into it, even though he has all the keys, for example), Vetinari plucks him up again and sets him to fixing the banks. It's hinted at the end that the next task Moist will be set is to fix the taxation system...
    • This happens twice to a master forgery artist, once by Moist and once by Vetinari, in Making Money.
    • It should be noted that Moist's Evil Counterpart from Going Postal was offered one at the end of the book. He chose to take the door ensuring he would "never be bothered again." Literally, as he discovered, as the door hid a bottomless pit.
  • In H.I.V.E. Series book five, Nero reveals to Pike that he's had Cypher locked in the basement of the school for several books. They use him to attempt to decrypt files, build what is essentially a pulse rifle, and try to solve the problem of the school's temporary blackouts. True to form, he doesn't survive to see book six.
  • Both the first two Hannibal Lecter novels (Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs). Instead of a pardon, which is out of the question, he wants information about the private lives of his interrogators. Since he is Hannibal Lecter, the end result is the same as if they had just left the door to his cell unlocked.
  • In The Stainless Steel Rat, a society that has all but obliterated crime (by catching the potential criminals early and "reforming" them) finds itself ill-equipped to deal with the few criminals who slip through the cracks. So an organization captures the more "moral" criminals (those who value human life) and sends them off to tackle the less moral criminals who pose a more significant threat. Minus A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born, this is the backbone of almost all the books, starting with our hero's capture by the agency in the start of the first book. Oh, and he meets his wife, an insane Serial Killer, via his new job, and after she has a minor lobotomy, she joins up too.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues, which chronologically takes place before the first novel in the series, where Jim is captured trying to steel newly-minted coins and is sentenced (without trial) to execution by leaving him in a room that's being flooded. An agency (not the Special Corps) replaces him in the room with an android in return for being sent to a prison world to recover an alien artifact. Naturally, he's given a slow-acting poison to make sure he hurries up.
  • Frank Abagnale, author/protagonist of the book and movie Catch Me If You Can, ultimately went to work for the Feds to help them spot check forgeries.
  • An unnamed Boxed Crook is used in Personal Demon by Kelley Armstrong to pose as another character. She doesn't survive.
  • The basic plot of Raymond E. Feist's Shadow of a Dark Queen: a mercenary company is formed of condemned men, complete with slightly sadistic sergeant.
  • Sean Dillon, Jack Higgins' most frequent hero, is an ex-IRA member who goes to work for British intelligence after he's caught smuggling missiles in the Balkans.
  • In the Stephen King short story The Jaunt, a prisoner on death row is offered the chance to walk if he agrees to make a dangerous trip through a new teleportation system. It turns out he should have chosen to go to the chair.
  • This is the entire plot of Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder — the heroine becomes the Commander's food taster.
  • The novels by Sven Hassel about the (fictional) 27th Penal Panzer Regiment.
  • In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the archon poisons Locke and Jean and bribes them to work for him with the antidote. This does not work out well for anyone.
  • In The Destroyer this was the set up for Remo Williams joining C.U.R.E. after they framed him for murder.
    • The Film of the Book instead has them fake his death and "reshuffle" his face, warning him that refusal means death.
  • The X-Wing Series has the Rebellion actually go to an Imperial prison planet, raid it, take the Rebels, and tell the surviving members of the Black Sun criminal organization that if they want out, they have to help the Rebel Alliance take Coruscant from the Empire. If they do help, the slates will be wiped clean; past offenses will be ignored. Later on, once they're actually on Coruscant, a Space Cop turned Rebel pilot tells the man he put away (Zekka Thyne) that if he doesn't behave he'll be hunted down again.
    • To nobody's great surprise, they (or at least Thyne) end up turning on the New Republic before the end of the book. This is about as conducive to their well-being as you'd expect pissed off Rogue Squadron to be. The leader of the group (Fliry Vorru) manages to talk his way out of trouble, however, and even gets an official post with the New Republic. He still has his own agenda, though....
  • The opening of The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner finds Gen in a dungeon after being caught stealing. He agrees to help find an artifact in order to get out. Ultimately subverted though, as Gen got himself caught deliberately as a Batman Gambit, so he could be part of the party looking for the artifact so that he would be able to steal it out from under them, and he's way smarter than his handlers.
  • In the first Artemis Fowl book, the LEP offers Mulch Diggums a reduced sentence in exchange for breaking into Fowl Manor. Mulch takes the deal, then steals some gold, fakes his own death and runs for it.
  • The UNACO series by Alistair Maclean various other authors is a UN crime-fighting force whose agents are former criminals.
  • The Red Dwarf novel Last Human features a prison that tried to make a planet inhabitable by using convicts. The cons were given a choice between a nightmarish hell made by whatever their subconscious thought was worst or their soul being used to bring a planet to life. The first planet used guilty cons and so was evil. For the second, they framed innocent people and forced them to choose between going back to their own personal hell and finish their sentence or become the next life force of the new planet. This caused the second planet to be plagued by an entity known as The Rage, a tornado thing possessed of the anger of the injustice the innocents had to face.
  • Robert E. Howard twists it in "Rogues in the House". A mysterious figure does approach Conan the Barbarian and offer him a way out in return for an assassination. On the other hand, he does make it clear from the beginning that he's offering a jail break.
  • In Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Sheftu, leader of La Résistance, tries to turn Mara into this, believing her to be a slave on the run from a cruel master and promising to not reveal her if she serves him. He has a mini-Heroic BSOD when he realizes the truth: she was bought and employed by his archnemesis and he never had a hold on her. Well, except for The Power of Love.
  • The first Ciaphas Cain novel has him deal with the aftermath of a riot by getting all the instigators as light a sentance as possible (both because he wants to avoid damaging the recently created battalion's morale even further and to get himself a nice, friendly fire preventing reputation for putting The Men Firstnote ). He sentences the soldiers who actually committed murder in the riots to "death" via penal legion (see the Warhammer 40,000 example in the Tabletop Games section). In the end he ends up using them for a suicide mission he has to go on himself, with the promise that they'll be spared the penal legion if they survive.
  • The highly mischievious Sun Wukong was put in a multi-millennia-long time-out by the Buddha until Guan Yin recruited him to guard the monk Xuanzang on his Journey to the West. What, you thought this was a modern trope?
  • In The Painter Knight, the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits tasked with rescuing their five-year-old queen includes one of the traitors, caught while trailing the party to kidnap her. He is subjected to an impromptu trial before his child sovereign, who nonchalantly points out that she can execute him before demanding his sworn fealty and service. He gives it at once, and is relieved to be punished by eating nightcrawlers instead.
  • In The Emperor's Soul, protagonist Shai is jailed for the theft of a state treasure, and due to be executed, until the Emperor is rendered comatose and his advisors tap her to use her skill at magical Forgery to create a new soul for him.
  • In Damnation Alley, the protagonist, Hell Tanner is given a pardon for his substantial crimes if he will cross from the East Coast to the West Coast of North America to deliver a vaccine, the world having been wrecked and North America having become an impassible wasteland.
  • Fisk of The Last Knight is indebted to Sir Michael as his squire for an indefinite amount of time. Sir Michael paid quite a hefty fine Fisk was charged for multiple fraud charges; Fisk himself couldn't pay, had no one to pay it for him, and the punishment for not paying it would be quite severe.
  • In the Rafael Sabatini's story Gismondi's Wage, the title character is a cutthroat who murders a man on the road and while stripping his corpse, discovers a letter about an assassination plot against Cesare Borgia. Gismondi goes to Borgia anticipating a reward, but Cesare quickly deduces how Gismondi got his hands on the letter, and the "reward" he offers is a choice between risking his life impersonating his victim to foil the conspiracy or facing immediate execution.
  • In the KJ Parker novel Sharps, two of the members of a fencing team ostensibly sent to an enemy country as a good will mission are shanghaied into participating through this. The Brilliant but Lazy perpetual student Girault is caught in flagrante with a coed by her father who Girault kills in semi-self defense. Afterward, he's charged with rape and murder and given a "choice" between death by hanging and participating in the fencing tour, and throughout the novel, wonders if he was set up via Honey Trap. The team's coach, Phrantzes, is given a banned but highly popular pornographic book by a friend, ostensibly as a wedding present and immediately afterward, he's arrested and his wife is imprisoned in a convent. He's then told he can clear himself and free her by agreeing to coach the team. Suspiciously, Phrantzes' "friend" is related by marriage to Girault's victim.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Mod Squad
  • The A-Team's final season deals with the titular heroes being this in nearly every episode.
  • 2000 television show The Invisible Man had a con released from prison by an intelligence agency so he could become a guinea pig and agent by undergoing surgery to give him a gland that made him invisible. In this case, the government didn't break him out for his skills; nepotism got him out, since his brother was the lead scientist of the project. It was only after his brother was murdered and the government realized that nobody else knew how to remove the gland and place it in somebody more suitable that he was drafted as a secret agent.
    • They still have a hold on him in the form of the counteragent, a drug meant to keep Darien from going insane due to a nasty side effect from the gland (that the Big Bad deliberately introduced into it in order to control potential buyers). The flaw is removed in the series finale, but Darien chooses to come back to the Agency to work of his own free will.
  • Season 3 of Heroes has Hiro briefly doing this to a former enemy.
  • It Takes a Thief (1968): Suave cat burglar Alexander Mundy, finally captured, is granted limited freedom on the condition that he ply his thieving trade for a U.S. intelligence agency.
  • This was the premise of She Spies, with the added twist that even if they cooperated fully, the girls would be sent back to prison if they failed a single mission.
  • The TV series Garrison's Gorillas chronicled the adventures of a group of convicts recruited into the U.S. Army by the offer of a post-war parole. Commanded by West Point graduate, Lt. Garrison, the "Gorillas" functioned as commandos behind Nazi lines.
  • The TV series Alias Smith and Jones deals with a variant of this situation. Heyes and Curry have been promised a provisional amnesty, but the governor is holding off until some undetermined time in the future, until which the fellows have to stay out of trouble and somehow keep from being arrested or shot and turned in for the reward on their heads—they're still wanted dead or alive, for a mind-blowing amount of money (in the 1800s) as a reward. There's no specific deadly mission for them, except the daily struggle to keep doing honest work and not be recognized for who they are.
  • Happens to our heroes on Hustle about once a series. On every occasion, the authorities are confident they can outsmart Mickey Bricks. The attempts invariably end in Epic Fail.
  • The fourth season premiere of Prison Break kicks off the season with this, involving almost every major character.
  • An episode of Dark Angel reveals that Manticore used death row inmates to train their soldiers. If the inmate makes it to the perimeter before the soldiers catch him, he gets to go free. Of course, that doesn't happen.
  • This is how Toshiko joined Torchwood in the Torchwood episode "Fragments".
  • The whole point of the short-lived series Thieves.
  • In Brimstone, the Devil releases Ezekiel Stone from Hell to capture the 113 damned souls that had escaped. If he returns all 113, he gets a second chance at life. If he fails, he returns to eternal damnation.
  • In the series premiere of Star Trek: Voyager, Tom Paris is let out of prison to help Janeway track down a Maquis ship. (Not that Paris is much of a crook.) This ends up shifting to Trading Bars for Stripes when Voyager gets stuck on the other side of the galaxy and loses a good chunk of its crew.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation did the same thing with Ro Laren, Bajoran Starfleet officer who'd been in prison. They let her out in order to help negotiate with a group of Bajoran "resistance fighters" who had expanded their war against the Cardassians to include Federation targets.
  • The premise of the USA Network series White Collar.
    • This is a less sinister variation than the page description would suggest, though: Neal is working with the FBI openly and on the books as a consultant, not as an expendable resource. At least, not officially expendable. It's not a bad deal for him, really: instead of four years in prison, he spends four years consulting for the FBI and in his spare time he can go where he likes... within the two-mile radius of his tracking anklet, of course.
      • Except when he leaves the radius and hangs out in the bad guy's HQ, to which the Bureau can't get a warrant. Of course, any evidence of criminal activity they may find in the course of apprehending him is perfectly admissible...
      • The anklet has become the show's version of a Cardboard Prison, given how easily Neal slips it, to the point where it's not even mentioned anymore. Eventually, they stop putting it on him.
    • Also, it was Neal's idea.
    • The anklet isn't designed to be impossible to remove — it's designed to be impossible to remove without alerting the government. That function works well.
  • In the second episode of The Magnificent Seven series, the judge offers Professional Gambler and Conman Ezra Standish a pardon for his crimes in exchange as acting as one of the town's peacekeepers for thirty days. It seems to have worked out well, since he's still there a couple of years later.
  • Players. Premise of the 1997 Ice-T series.
  • To kill the crew of the Lexx, Prince sends a NASA shuttle on a One-Way Trip with a death row convict he recruited "to do some more maiming, mutilation and murder before entering oblivion yourself." The quickly-dispatched killer is really there to keep the crew from realizing that there's also a ticking nuclear time bomb on the shuttle.
  • The Fixer. A special forces soldier turned Vigilante Man is released from prison to become an assassin for the British government.
  • Doctor Who:
    • River Song is this in "Flesh and Stone". In "The Wedding of River Song", we learn that the Doctor faked his death at Lake Silencio using a Teselecta, and allowed her to take the fall for it.
    • In the animated spinoff version of Scream of the Shalka, the Master, having expended his lives, now lives with the Doctor in an android body. There are, of course, many rules, and all in all he'd rather be free. On the other hand, he gets to spend a lot of time with the Doctor...
    • The Doctor gets stuck as this in a loose arc covering the very end of his Second, much of his Third and a fair amount of his Fourth incarnation — especially by the Time Lords, who have an Alien Non-Interference Clause which the Doctor refuses to obey, and which they exploit Loophole Abuse to pretend they are obeying. The sort of canonical Season 6B theory speculates that the Time Lords were using the Second Doctor as this for many years prior to his execution (in the Time Skip between "The War Games" and "Spearhead from Space"), possibly using its threat as a bargaining point against him; the Third Doctor was possibly manipulated by them into battling the Master thanks to his exile; and the Fourth Doctor, who by that point was very sick of authority, was used by the Time Lords as an agent or saboteur multiple times (see "Genesis of the Daleks" and "The Deadly Assassin") before one of his clever schemes to get out of it went horribly right and ended up making him the President.
    • The Sixth Doctor was roped along a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, including minor annoyance Sabalom Glitz, into stealing a priceless artifact for a corrupt government officer in the Expanded Universe novel Mission: Impractical. The officer also poisoned them, not actually intending to survive past the theft, but the poison doesn't work on Time Lords and Six quickly whips a cure for Glitz (which he administers without his knowledge). He then proceeds to more or less forget to inform Glitz of this until the end.
  • The Prisoner has an episode where Number Six is used as one of these without his knowing it.
  • Alias features three major examples. Arvin Sloane spends most of season 3 working with the CIA as part of his pardon agreement after turning himself in, even working as a double-agent within the Covenant. Granted, this could all have been The Plan; it's unclear within the show how much his later betrayal of the CIA was planned, and whether his entire surrender was a ploy. Nadia Santos is initially recruited into the Argentine secret service as an alternative to prison when she's finally arrested after a several-year-long crime spree (mainly theft and assault) in her teens, which leads to her eventually joining a CIA black ops division. Renée Rienne also appears to be heading this way in season 5, with Sydney offering to secure a pardon agreement in exchange for Rienne working full-time for the CIA, an offer that becomes redundant when Anna Espinosa cuts Renée's throat minutes later. Furthermore, there are many other partially-valid examples (such as Rachel, Dixon and Marshall all being recruited into the real CIA, despite having technically been criminals when working for the Shed/SD-6, on the grounds that they had been conned into believing they were already CIA operatives) and more minor straight-up examples (such as Vivica A. Fox's crooked security expert in season 3)
  • Many of the Big Bads on Burn Notice use Michael like this.
  • Leverage uses this as the basis for its season 3 arc, with a few flourishes.
    • It was more like "Nate will go to jail (again), and his crew will be killed".
  • The Sukeban Deka series, their film incarnation, and the anime series revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • Hardcastle and McCormick: Ex-con Mark McCormick is arrested for grand theft auto (the person he stole the car from having murdered Mark's mentor to get his hands on it), and newly-retired judge Milton Hardcastle offers to get Mark paroled into his custody if Mark agrees to help him go after criminals who have escaped conviction.
  • Breakout Kings is about three criminals who get one month off their sentences for every escapee they help the US Marshals recapture.
  • Criminal Minds: This is how former cracker Garcia got her job with the FBI.
  • In Breaking In ths is how the main character becomes part of the team after he gets caught defrauding the school.
  • Nikita (see Films above) was made into TV series twice: La Femme Nikita and Nikita.
  • In By Any Means, TomTom is working with the team instead of doing prison time after being convicted of computer embezzlement.
  • This is part of Walter's back story in Scorpion. After he hacked NASA's computers as a child, the FBI put him to work for them till he was 16.
  • The 100 focuses on one-hundred teenage criminals from the Ark space station who were sent to Earth to see if it's livable again after a nuclear war; if they survive, proving it's safe for the rest of the Ark to return to Earth, they'll all be pardoned for their crimes. Criminals were chosen for the job because it's pretty much a death sentence: almost no one expects them to survive on the radiation soaked Earth, and the real motivation for the mission was to conserve the Ark's limited oxygen supply by thinning the population. And it had to be teenage criminals sent down, since they're the only ones actually held in prison on the Ark; all adults convicted of a crime are automatically executed. This almost backfires for the Ark when the teenagers do survive on the Earth's surface, but, being juvenile delinquents, decide to make the Ark think they're dead so they won't have to follow its rules anymore.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons module C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness. The pre-generated team of PC's almost entirely consists of prisoners from the local dungeon given a chance for freedom if they complete the mission.
  • Warhammer 40,000 does this with the penal legions, most notably Colonel Schafer's Last Chancers, who are basically The Dirty Dozen IN SPACE!
    • Also, many Inquisitors employ convicted criminals with useful skills as agents. Most of these are well paid but never out of danger. Some Radicals even extend this idea to the metaphysical, binding Daemons to their will and using them in the same way.
    • Many Space Marines were recruited from the worst criminal scum of the Imperium. After a lot of Brainwashing for the Greater Good and Bio-Augmentation, these former criminals are transformed into the greatest defenders of the very society they once preyed upon.
  • Task Force Games
    • Starfire, Nexus magazine article "The Gauntlet". The Director of the Combined Secret Services offers the captured pirate Thomas Calloway a chance to take command of a task force and rescue a Khanate princess from the Arachnids.
    • Star Fleet Battles. Klingons use expendable penal ships manned by convicted military criminals. Once the prisoners have served long enough, their crimes are pardoned and they return to their normal duty.
  • Classic Traveller. Several of the adventure seeds in the 76 Patrons supplement involve PCs who are arrested and imprisoned by the local authorities and offered their freedom if they'll do a job for the government.
  • In the backstory to BattleTech, the Draconis Combine used a variation of this trick against its two enemies between Succession Wars. They gave a bunch of convicts and other undesirables the chance to earn freedom. They were given BattleMechs and dropped onto key enemy worlds to take out critical targets. However, they were only given minimal training, the 'Mechs they were given were barely functional anyway, and the ships that dropped them off immediately left, abandoning them. So there was never any chance for freedom; it was a suicide mission. Though it was ultimately effective, causing lots of lots of infrastructure damage.

    Video Games 
  • Team Korea in The King of Fighters is made of two former criminals, Chang Koehan and Choi Bounge, and their "supervisor", Kim Kaphwan, who's intent (or should we say, hell-bent) on reforming them. Since their alternative is jail time, they go along with it.
    • And it seems to be working, considering Kim's Training from Hell has pretty much mellowed them out to the point of comic relief (they looked much more vicious in KOF 94 and 95, notably before they got their own doboks).
  • In the backstory of City of Villains, Dr. Carl Egon, a Mad Scientist who was recklessly endangering the citizens of Cap Au Diable and ultimately killed its governor, was captured by Arachnos, publicly executed, and privately refashioned into Dr. Aeon, the new governor of Cap. It's a slight subversion; he's still an amoral Mad Scientist, only now working for (and funded by) Arachnos.
  • Thomas Standish, aka "The Turtle," helps out Sam over the radio in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory when a mission is a bank robbery.
  • Gannayev in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer
  • A significant portion of the Terran military in StarCraft are convicts guilty of often-horrific crimes who were "resocialized" (read: basically mind-scrubbed and given artificial personalities) and sent into the military. Their new, excessively kind or chipper personae are often noted as quite unnerving to be around by other characters in books set in the 'verse.
    • Then there's Reapers, who are criminals that are so tough they resist resoc, and are sent to train in Reaper Corps. If they serve for full 2 years, they get released...but currently the longest-served is only 6 months.
    • Averted, to an extent, by the Marauder heavy infantry — because they get goodies like grenade launchers, much effort is put towards placing the most (relatively, only 47% of them have been imprisoned and 23% of them have been accused of murder) well-adjusted soldiers in these suits.
    • And there's the Wings Of Liberty campaign's Token Evil Teammate, Tychus Findlay. A former outlaw and one-time partner of Raynor, he's let out of prison in the opening cinematic by order of Arcturus Mengsk, with orders to help Raynor find Kerrigan and kill her. In the ending cinematic, Raynor ends up shooting him instead.
  • Colonization has "Petty Criminals" as some of the more undesirable colonists, as they got hefty penalties for complex/indoors work. There is some room for Lumberjack, Miner and Fisherman/Farmer jobs, but this have any value only until you have experts. However, give them some rifles and convert them to militia! Or even better, dragoons (better chances, and a defeat costs only 50 horses). If they win a few battles, they don't advance in military experience, but become full-fledged colonists and actually useful around the town. Alternatively, work experience (for mining, farming, etc they are as good as free colonists) or education (if you don't mind a teacher just sitting in the schoolhouse and eating). Either way, you get an Indentured Servants (halved penalties), then Free Colonists, then experts. Pushing into congress William Brewster removes both penalized types from possible recruits forever.
    • In FreeCol Petty Criminals can't get work experience or even learn from natives, so the lest wasteful way without fighting is schooling to Indentured Servants and then shipping to native village, which makes them experts right away.
  • Company of Heroes 2 utilize Penal Battalion infantry squads for the Soviet Union, as can be seen under the Real Life folder in this page. A bit unlike their equipment situations in real life, Penal Battalion infantry are all armed with semiautomatic SVT-40 rifles to make them more effective against infantry than basic Conscripts, may be upgraded to use a flamethrower to further their infantry effectiveness and add a lot more against buildings, and use a long-fused and expensive Satchel Charge ability which will dish out a lot of damage against buildings and most armored vehicles hit or simply obliterate all other things caught in the blast.
    • Although it is worth noting, there were various types of Penal Units in the Soviet Union, ranging from Mine-Tramplers plucked from Gulags, to belligerent soldiers being assigned to very high-risk areas, to disgraced Officers fighting on the front instead of commanding from the back.. Co H 2's Penal Battalion is likely on the 'penalised soldiers' side, although their voice acting treats them as the former.
  • In the Chzo Mythos, Trilby is captured sometime after the events of 5 Days a Stranger, and is recruited to the Special Talent Project.
  • Battlefield: Bad Company is a video game portraying a company made up of the men whose offenses within the US Army aren't serious enough for a court martial and as such are used as essentially cannon fodder.
  • At least two of the three main teams in Raizing's Armed Police Batriderrogue cops and inveterate criminals who just like violence — fit this trope like a glove. The third, made up of powerful psychics held by the government for study, only half: while they were implanted with bombs to be detonated on failure or insubordination, none of them were actually offered anything in exchange for success. Not to say they didn't end up taking it anyway.
  • System Shock's plot started when the hacker was caught breaking into TriOptimum's network. One of their executives offered the hacker freedom and a new neural interface if he agreed to covertly disable some non-essential components of their space station's AI.
  • Mass Effect 2: You are ordered to recruit Jack, the most powerful human biotic in the galaxy, who just happens to be homicidal, insane and in lockup on The Alcatraz In SPACE. Unfortunately, the prison warden gets greedy and decides to capture you as well, forcing you to release Jack and every other prisoner in her block. She agrees to work for you in exchange for info on the people who experimented on her — the same group you're forced to work for.
    • In the third game, she appears to be fully reformed and is busy training young biotics on how to best use their abilities to help the Alliance. She comes up with the idea of "biotic artillery". She even stops dropping Cluster F Bombs in her new role as a teacher, unless you tease her about it.
  • Unreal: Return to Na Pali has you return to the planet you spent so much time trying to escape or get Thrown Out the Airlock. Of course, after you've recovered their lost property, they try to kill you.
  • In Halo 2, the condemned Elite being offered the chance to become the Arbiter is a variation of this: it was made quite clear to him that he would die either way. However, by becoming the Arbiter, he would have the opportunity to regain his lost honor, and cleanse himself of his status as a heretic. All other Arbiters in the series are in a similar situation, although the one from Halo Wars has been doing his job long enough to be a very dangerous physical combatant.
    • Note that in most cases, an Arbiter who manages to survive his Suicide Mission is simply sent on more of them until he eventually actually dies on one, depending on the severity of the crisis he was made Arbiter for. In the case of Halo 2's Arbiter, the Hierarchs have ordered Tartarus to kill him if this happens. Unfortunately, he survives (with help), kills Tartarus in a rematch, ultimately becomes the leader of the Covenant Separatists, allies with humanity and kills the last Hierarch with his bare hands. Helps that this Elite happened to be one of the single most powerful and experienced of his kind, having been the Supreme Commander of one of the largest Covenant armadas before his disgrace.
  • Lobelia from Sakura Wars 3 definitely qualifies. Unlike the rest of her sweet, innocent team, Lobelia fights not for Paris, but for the reduction of her one thousand year prison sentence. Also, fair is fair, as she's responsible for roughly 85% of all crimes in Paris anyway. Oh, and any failure most probably means death.
  • After General Keyser is defeated and captured in Exit Fate, his rival Bast (whom you recruited specifically to outwit Keyser) wants to draft him for your side. Keyser rightfully thinks the idea is ludicrous, but Bast points out two important things — the war is turning, with your side looking to be winning, and Keyser is more concerned about furthering his career than loyalty to a losing side. Bast then adds, "Wouldn't it be interesting to work with me instead of against me?" The General stands no chance.
  • Daveth from Dragon Age: Origins is a thief forced to join the Grey Wardens; unfortunately, he doesn't survive their dangerous initiation rite, which involves drinking poison.
    • Close to the end of the game, you can also do this to Loghain, as punishment for his coup and various other crimes.
    • In the expansion Awakening, the majority of your party members are this: Anders is an apostate mage in danger of being captured by the Templars, Nathaniel is in jail for trying to kill you and steal back his family's possessions from your stronghold, Velanna engaged in a campaign of terrorism against humans, and Sigrun fled from a battle (considered an unforgivable offense among the Legion of the Dead).
    • Even the Player Character is a Boxed Crook if you choose the Mage, City Elf or Dwarven Commoner origins. A Mage Warden (unwittingly) helps a blood mage escape, a City Elf Warden slaughters a bunch of rape-happy thugs (and possibly the evil nobleman employing them), and a Dwarven Commoner violates several ancient and sacred dwarven traditions and laws. All would have ended up in jail or worse if Duncan hadn't invoked the Rite of Conscription. In short, the Grey Wardens are very fond of Boxed Crooks.
      • It would also have been the case with the above-mentioned blood mage, who was to become a full party member, had the developers not run out of time and turned him to an incidental (but plot-important) NPC. Basically, he is caught and about to be executed for poisoning the Arl. The original plan was to have the Player Character have the option of conscripting him into the Wardens.
      • Sten slaughtered a family of farmers in a fit of rage (he thought they took his sword) and was put in a cage to be killed by the Darkspawn when they arrived. If you don't convince him to join you and get him released, he will die (then again, you can't return to that location later, so it's difficult to say).
    • Duncan himself in The Calling novel. A pickpocket on the streets of Val Royeaux (especially since he's not even Orlesian). He gets caught by the guards and is facing severe punishment. Luckily for him, a Grey Warden commander happens to be in town and invokes the Rite of Conscription. Downplayed as the Grey Warden Commander saw it as a punishment.
  • The .34 update to Dwarf Fortress adds vampires, who infiltrate your fort and drink your useful workers. The intended manner of dealing with them is to have them executed, but their supernatural qualities give them an alternative function.
  • Regal Bryant in Tales of Symphonia starts as this, as do several other prisoners in the employ of the Pope of Tethe'alla, trying to capture Colette. Then Regal spots the sister of his beloved in your group...
  • Brad Evans in the second Wild ARMs game. The commander of ARMS, Irving Vold Valeria, has implanted a detonation device in his neck to ensure he doesn't escape or do anything else funny. Later in the game, Brad finds it quite useful.
  • Red Alert 3
    • Soviet flak troopers are convicts serving as part of their sentence. They'll comment that the front lines beat being in the gulag.
    • The Empire's Steel Ronin added in Uprising are actually soldiers spared the death sentence because of their ability as warriors and instead locked into battle suits.
  • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies , the prosecutor is one Simon Blackquill, a prison convict serving time for murder. He goes to court in handcuffs... up until he gets suitably upset and breaks them, and frequently makes references to his time in prison. His presence is at first used to illustrate just how messed up the legal world of the game has become... but in the end, we learn that Miles Edgeworth, now Chief Prosecutor, believes him to be innocent and is hoping to prove it.
  • Subverted in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: You start off as a prisoner transferred to the eponymous remote province and are pardoned by The Emperor's own decree on condition that you will cooperate with his Blades on a top secret mission. The subversion comes when you realize that you can say bollocks to that and never show up for your "probation" reports, instead enjoying your new life of freedom however you want. Doubly subverted in that to actually finish the game, you will have to go to the Blades and fulfill your destiny—just as the Emperor has foreseen in his prophetic dreams.
  • In Overwatch, this is the backstory of Gunslinger Jesse McCree, who was a part of the weapon-smuggling Deadlock Gang before Overwatch busted them. Considering his marksmanship and other skills too valuable to waste, the organization offered him a choice between joining their covert-ops branch, Blackwatch, or maximum-security prison. Naturally, he chose the former.

    Web Comics 
  • In General Protection Fault, Agent #18 tells Yoshi that if he helps out with running the MuTex to save Nick from the Negaverse, he won't tell his parents about his hacking.
  • Girl Genius:
    • A fairly large group of crooks (mostly murderers with useful skills) are literally boxed inside Castle Heterodyne, a mad scientist's funhouse fulled with deathtraps and run by an insane AI, and ordered to figure the place out or die trying in what amounts to a protracted death sentence that may produce useful results.
    • The second time Othar Tryggvassen, Gentleman Adventurer! was caught and brought to Klaus, the Baron reminds him he's not a cardboard villain, so there will be no deathtraps... but a "job". Of course, the "job" sends him into Castle Heterodyne, which has deathtraps to spare. He's also fitted with an explosive collar, just like every other prisoner in the Castle.
  • Goblin Hollow: the motive for their D&D quest
  • Impure Blood The offer to the Abomination to escape the Gladiator Games.
  • In The Order of the Stick, Hinjo recruits high-level prisoners to defend the city, offering to reduce their sentences by five years if they do. This example demonstrates the importance of "insurance" and how easily an employer can be screwed over without it—one is hired by an ambitious politician to assassinate Hinjo and the other defects to the Big Bad before she even starts fighting. By contrast, Belkar considers turning on Hinjo but is forced to decide against it due to the mark of justice that only Hinjo can remove—the only incentive for the other two was a reduced sentence. Being a paladin, it is possible that binding "insurance" either didn't occur to Hinjo or would have directly conflicted with his code.
  • S.S.D.D:
    • The "dirty half dozen" were a bunch of hackers that were caught and offered pardons by a shadowy (and under funded) government agency to create the Oracle. Three ended up in jail anyways when they used the Oracle to continue hacking, one was unexpectedly hit by a bus, and the last one ran away.
    • In addition during the future arcs the CORE relies heavily on conscripted convicts, Tessa herself was sentenced to two years service for hitting a cop.
  • In Tales of the Questor, the squire was compelled to accompany Quentyn by being framed for the death of his master (it was actually just a heart attack). He reminds Quentyn of that fact when persuading him not to go back to the duke.
  • The entire mercenary group Tagon's Toughs becomes this in the Schlock Mercenary book "Under New Management", doing "dirty" jobs for General Xinchub in exchange for not having an assortment of criminal charges thrown at them and the mercenary company's license to operate be revoked. The events of the next book, "The Blackness Between", document how they ultimately got out from under Xinchub's thumb.
  • The current story in Heroes Alliance features an organisation called R.I.S.E. - a government-sponsored team of villains, kept in line by mercenaries and fallen heroes seeking redemption. What could possibly go wrong!

    Web Original 
  • The SCP Foundation's "Class-D Personnel" are convicted criminals sentenced either to life or execution. Unlike most boxed crooks these guys aren't likely to be granted freedom after their missions-they're used exclusively as expendable manpower in dangerous research. Any that survive the assorted testing are terminated at the end of the month. They appear to be specifically chosen so that the scientists don't have to worry about petty morality like they do with their less doomed coworkers.
  • In Worm, it's mentioned repeatedly that the final Godzilla Threshold is to open the Birdcage-an Extranormal Prison for supervillains with kill counts in the thousands or tens of thousands. The inmates are so terrifying to the rest of the world that even when three new Endbringers show up, they don't release them. In the end, it takes Scion, the world's greatest hero, pulling a Heel-Face Turn and deciding to wipe out humanity before they are released.

    Western Animation 
  • The Villain Episode "Task Force X" from Justice League Unlimited followed the Task Force (see the comics section) in their planned infiltration of the Watchtower.
  • On Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Space Ghost kept Zorak and Moltar as prisoners on his talk show, with Zorak leading the band and Moltar directing.
  • On The Simpsons, the IRS will let Homer off the hook for filing his taxes late if he can get a $1,000,000,000 bill from Mr. Burns.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television: Penal military units were commonly used during the Second World War. Especially dangerous in the Soviet Union, where prisoners of The Gulag are given a chance to redeem themselves by being sent out as cannon fodder. Many of them chose that as a form of suicide, and others just committed new crimes in hopes of being sent back to prison where their chance for survival was greater.
  • Frank Abagnale, author/protagonist of the book and movie Catch Me If You Can and almost undeniably at least a partial inspiration for White Collar, ultimately went to work for the Feds to help them spot check forgeries. Although in reality, unlike the movie, he was paroled normally before ever consulting for the Feds. At the same time he also began consulting for the private sector and began making rather large amounts of money.
  • The "Musta nuoli" (Black Arrow) battalion (21. ErP) in the Finnish Army, made up from paroled felons and prison wardens. The commander of the battalion was legendary Nikke Pärmi, who said now all the thieves and killers were in the job for which they already had education. Criminal convicts proved to be very reliable and trustworthy, while political convicts were liable to defect. The latter could expect no quarter on the hands of the former when caught.
    • Konnakolmonen, "Crook Three", 3. Jaeger Company, of the Pori Brigade in today's Finnish Army. Those conscripts who have criminal background are assigned there.
  • Best way to catch a hacker? Have someone who thinks like a hacker. Best way to have someone think like a hacker? Hire a former hacker. Happens to many criminals to help find a flaw he would look for in his employer's plan.
    • On occasion, hackers have actually hacked their desired employer, as a sort of job interview. One that the employer didn't know about. It tends not to go so well; most so-called "hackers" who find a job this way are normally just professional web developers using nothing but the View Source function of their browser and perhaps an ordinary network traffic-analysis tool. Gaining access to confidential information this way is not going to make you popular, even if the only thing you do with it is email the company's tech support centre with a warning.
  • Similarly to the above, very good cheaters have been hired by Las Vegas' casinos as security, trying to spot other cheaters.
  • Eugène François Vidocq embodies this trope: after having been sentenced to death, he bargained his life for his cooperation with the police as an informant. He then organized the Brigade de la Sûreté, which was to become the famous Sûreté Nationale under Napoléon, and spent his last years leading a detective agency.
  • The French Foreign Legion was famous for not asking too many questions of its recruits. Those who survived their tour of duty were rewarded with French citizenship and new identities, so this was a possible exit from a life of crime. Nowadays they have tightened up their recruiting policy and no longer accept known criminals.
  • In the days of early vaccine, some royals had criminals vaccinated to ensure they wouldn't catch the illness from it before giving it to their family (if they survived they wouldn't be hanged, although there was at least one case of a criminal who already survived the disease in question).
  • Englishman Eddie Chapman was a career criminal who was caught up by Nazi occupation in WWII while doing a stint in a Jersey island prison. He offered his services as a possible Nazi spy so he could get out and get back to England. With a rap sheet that could land him 14 years in prison if he was ever found by the British authorities and the ease he could blend into the English culture, the Nazis accepted Chapman's offer and spent a good chunk of 1940s cash to train him in espionage. The trope was later subverted however when, over his time training with the Nazis, Chapman changed his mind and immediately sought out MI5 when he landed in Britain so he could be used as a double agent against the Germans.
    • Most double-agents are this.
  • Isaac Boro led a failed secessionist struggle against the Nigerian Government in the '60s, for a "Niger Delta Republic". When, in 1967, the more serious secession of Biafra led to the Nigerian Civil War, the Federal Government released him in exchange for military service. He led a group of commandos familiar with the dense Niger Delta Rainforest, and was instrumental in the Federal Army's retaking that region. During a battle where his unit was mixed in with Federal troops, he was shot in the back of the head.
  • The South Korean Unit 684 was composed of petty criminals and unemployed youths, brutally trained and sent to kill the North Korean leader. However, relations improved and the mission was cancelled, leading to a mutiny and the unit being exterminated. It had a movie made about it, Silmido, which was pretty good.
    • While the Korean version of City Hunter is explicitly NOT based of actual events, it makes a nod to this event.
  • George Steinbrenner apparently spent years as an FBI informant to avoid prosecution for illegal contributions given to Nixon until he was granted a pardon at the end of Reagan's term.
  • The Steve McQueen character in The Sand Pebbles is a composite of several men who served in the Asiatic Fleet during the chaos that prevailed after the second Sino-Japanese war suddenly expanded into World War II. Several officers noted that a lot of habitual troublemakers and brig dwellers proved much more effective in the crisis than so-called model sailors.
  • Charles "Lucky" Luciano was released from prison in a deal with The Mafia in order to run the New York docks during World War II, (he may also have assisted in the Allied invasion of Italy and Sicily). This was after the burning of the SS Normandie, believed at the time to be a result of sabotage. It's been claimed that the Mafia set fire to the Normandie to bring this about (though this is doubted by most historians); it's also questionable whether the docks were in any danger from Italian-American dockworkers committing sabotage or spying. Regardless of his services, Luciano was deported to Italy after the war.
  • Apparently prisoners from Guantanamo Bay were released during the War On Terror and "persuaded" (according to a former offical in one case by threatening his children) to help track and kill members of Al Qaida. Codename of the project: Penny Lane.
  • In Edo-era Japan, the police would often use former criminals as spies, informants and torturers; the role was called Okappiki and has since become somewhat romanticized in popular culture.

Alternative Title(s):

Secret Community Service