"On the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook."This is the idea that throwing people in jail makes them into worse criminals than they were before. Thrown in for petty crimes? Perhaps they may learn how to get away with serious crimes. Turned to crime for monetary reasons? It's going to be even harder to get a legitimate job with jail time on their record. Falsely convicted of crimes? Perhaps once absolved, they may get away with actual crimes partly because of the impression left by the false conviction... or may be "broken" into the criminals people think they are. Not to mention what they might have to do simply to survive such a brutal environment (kind of like He Who Fights Monsters, but more like He Who Survives Monsters). Basically, this is concept that Prison is "A College of Crime"; being in a dehumanizing "survival of the fittest" environment, having your reputation tarnished forever, and forced to live with the worst humanity can offer, will, just for the sake of survival, force you to rely on what you have learned inside; bad, violent or criminal behaviour. Generally accepted to be Truth in Television (to an extent, anyway) and is one of the reasons for criminal recidivism (unemployment will force convicts to rely on what they have learned in prison to survive). One of the reasons many countries lean towards punishments other than jail for first time offenders, and put a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for people who are in jail. Compare Wrongful Accusation Insurance, a subtrope of Hero Insurance in which the falsely convicted commits crimes and get away with it while proving his innocence of another crime. May also be related to Go Among Mad People. May double as a form of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero! when there were good intentions behind sending someone to prison.
— Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption
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Anime and Manga
- King of Thorn had Marco, a nerd sent to prison for hacking. He came out built, ripped, tattooed, armed and ready to take on The End of the World as We Know It.
- Deadman Wonderland has Senji, AKA Crow. Inside prison: a Blood Knight who's at best a Sociopathic Hero. Outside prison: The last honest cop on the force.
- Bane was born and raised in an island prison with a less-than-sympathetic warden. Guess how he turned out...
- A short story in one DC comic had a man wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to Arkham Asylum. By the time the error was discovered and the order to release him was given, the asylum and its unique blend of inhabitants had crushed his sanity.
- In Origin Story, Wonder Man says this almost verbatim regarding Alex Harris. She became a criminal after escaping custody and hospitalizing several Avengers because she was going to be sent to prison for life because she was wrongly seen as an psychologically unbalance superhuman.
- Andy, from The Shawshank Redemption, is the Trope Namer. Falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, he goes from being an honest banker to using his banking skills to help launder money for the warden. This doesn't really make him any less sympathetic, as all the crimes he commits in jail were forced upon him, and actually a means to get his abusive jailers arrested.
- The main character of Blow (based on reality) said this about himself.
- In Angels with Dirty Faces, Rocky Sullivan grows up into a notorious gangster after having been thrown into a reform school as a kid for stealing pens, and ends up going in and out of prison well into adulthood due to being corrupted. His friend, Jerry Connolly, escaped being thrown into the reform school by the police, and grew up to become a priest.
- In Boys Town, Whitey Marsh's brother Joe, who is on death row, asks Father Flanagan to take Whitey in because Joe sees Whitey starting down the same path he took. Joe is afraid that Whitey will go to reform school and then learn how to be really bad.
- Intentionally invoked in The Departed, where Costigan goes to prison to build up a reputation as a crook to be able to infiltrate The Irish Mob.
- In Murder in the First, a lawyer defends a convict accused of murdering a fellow convict, using the trope to try to get the charge reduced to involuntary manslaughter. They succeed.
- In Sleepers, four boys are sent to a juvenile detention facility where horrific sexual abuse at the hands of the guards changes their lives forever. Two of them become hardened gangsters while the other two are able to reintegrate into mainstream society, but all of them are either guilty of or complicit in illegal activities in pursuit of revenge.
- In An Innocent Man, Jimmie Rainwood (Tom Selleck) is framed as a drug dealer by two crooked cops that don't want to admit they busted into the wrong house and shot a man who simply walked out of the shower holding a hair dryer. Once he is convicted and ends up in prison, he ends up having to kill another inmate in cold blood to keep the inmate from raping him.
- In Caged, a young woman is sent to prison having been an unknowing accessory to her husband's crime. By the end, she becomes a hardened convict and is on the road to becoming a professional criminal.
- The whole point of A Prophet.
- Implied to be the case in The War Within. Hassan, a Pakistani engineering student in Paris, is kidnapped by the CIA on suspicion of terrorism, then sent back to Pakistan. In prison, he is brutally tortured, though released when his interrogators learn nothing. When we see him next, he's sneaked into the US and plotting to blow up Grand Central Station.
- In Ariel, Kasurinen committed a few petty crimes before going to prison. After he breaks out, he has graduated to bank robbery and murder.
- Sherlock Holmes mentions this phenomenon in "The Blue Carbuncle", when he decides to release the man who stole the title gem: "This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life."
- The idea of learning to commit more serious crimes is parodied in Discworld, where the Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild, an entirely legal organisation, runs official classes in the city's main prison, the Tanty.
- It's played darkly straight in Night Watch, where Vimes muses that Swing had missed the point of laws and the police- he's meant to be taking criminals and turning them into honest men, but instead he's taking honest men and turning them into criminals.
- This is the point of the novel and movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on the real life case of a man wrongly accused of a robbery and sent to the brutal Georgia prison system. After escaping — twice — he is forced into hiding, and in the film's memorable final scene, bids farewell to his former fiancee.
Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've gotta go.Helen: I can't let you go like this!Jim: I've got to.Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money? But you must, Jim. How will you live?Jim: [whispers] I steal!
- The Stainless Steel Rat tried to deliberately invoke this trope, getting himself sent to prison to learn the tricks of the trade from real criminal minds. Of course, he quickly realizes his mistake: He won't find any criminal masterminds in prison, because they don't get caught.
- Discussed in the Spenser short story Surrogate, regarding a man who was paid to rape a woman by her ex-husband, who met him while teaching a convict education program. Somewhat more ambivalent than many of the other examples.
Spenser: Lot of guys like him in the joint. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s the joint makes them like that. Sometimes being like that gets them into the joint in the first place.
- Happens to Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Misérables. After being released from a very long prison term for stealing a loaf of bread (which was "only" five years until he got it quadrupled for repeated escape attempts), he is unable to find work (because nobody was willing to hire a thief - at least not at a wage he could live on) and is forced to resort to stealing more valuable goods to survive. An unexpected act of mercy from the first person he robs after starting down this path leads to him undergoing a Heel–Face Turn.
- Discussed in one of the many Author Tracts in Starship Troopers. When explaining why the future setting of the book uses corporal punishment rather than jail for punishment, a character explains that jails were a place for so-called "juvenile delinquents" to be surrounded by other criminals and learn how to commit far worse crimes than they'd been imprisoned for.
- In the Dred Chronicles, Dred notes that even if people were sent to the chaotic Prison Ship Perdition on false convictions, they soon picked up the same way of doing things as the real criminals (or else they just died).
Live Action TV
- Game of Thrones: Tyrion is falsely accused in Season 4 of killing his nephew, the King, and is sentenced to death by his own father, who fully knows he's innocent but wants to get rid of him, anyways. When freed by Jaime on the night before his execution, he pays one final visit to his father and commits a double homicide that will almost certainly taint his reputation for the rest of his life.
- Tobias Beecher in Oz. Imprisoned for vehicular homicide, he is a murderer several times over by the end of the series.
- On Homicide: Life on the Street, Junior Bunk Mahoney was a none-too-bright enforcer for his heroin-slinging family, and couldn't stop weeping when the squad brought him in. Fast forward a couple of years, and he's a gleeful sociopath who shoots up the squadroom, injuring several main characters.
- Life: When we meet Arthur Tins in season 1, he's a low-rate con artist whom Crews sends to prison. When we see him again in season 2 after he's escaped, he's a hardened criminal who murders one man, robs an armored car and takes a family hostage.
- Bones: Serial Killer Howard Epps, possibly. He could be a Manipulative Bastard all along, or maybe he learned it while on death row. When we first meet Epps, he's claiming to be innocent and trying to get exonerated, but it ends up he just reveals he's killed even more people than previously thought, so they have to keep him alive while they process the new bodies. When he returns in season 2, Epps is even more manipulative and playing serial killer games, leading the team on a merry chase with body parts as clues.
- The short-lived 1974 TV series ''Sword of Justice" has rich playboy Jack Cole framed for massive fraud and embezzlement and sent to jail for five years. Realizing he's not the first to get screwed over like this, Cole spends the time talking to his fellow inmates to learn all the tricks of theft ("They say this place is a college for criminals. Well, I want to go to school.") When he finally gets out, he uses those skills to take down other white-collar crooks.
- When Earl went to prison in My Name Is Earl, he meets a prisoner who's on his list for accidentally being sent to Juvey by him. When he gets out of prison, the public take one look at his shaved head, his prison tattoos and the tough guy persona he adopted inside to stay alive and decide he's a crook. So he lives up to their expectations by becoming one.
Earl: The next two years were going to be hard, but now I knew I couldn't survive them by doing the same thing Glenn had; let prison turn me into someone I didn't recognize. I realized no matter how scared I get, if I'm going to survive in prison, I have to do it as myself. Cause my name isn't inmate number 28301-016. My Name is Earl.
- Defied by Earl himself. He went to jail to save his ex-wife, who had two prior offenses and would get a harsher sentence. At the beginning of the episode, in lieu of the usual Opening Narration, Earl explains how he ended up in prison, ending with "My name is inmate #28301-016." At the end of the episode, however, Earl vows to not forget the progress he has made since his days as a petty crook.
- Parodied by Stephen Colbert with regards to Guantanamo Bay. He points out that, if someone falsely accused him of terrorism and sent him to prison, he'd come out wanting to kill the people who locked him up. Hence, even an innocent person locked up for terrorism is at risk of becoming a terrorist. Thus, they should stay in detention.
- Oliver in the Breakout Kings episode "Steaks". Sent to prison for a joyride that accidentally resulted in a death, he is torturing and murdering people following his escape.
- Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey apparently learned some interesting skills in prison. Forgery is particularly useful.
- Parodied on Arrested Development when Tobias Funkë went to prison and accidentally killed the craziest guy in there. Tobias' psychoanalysis of the man broke his spirit and caused his suicide. Tobias gets a lot of street cred on the inside and his derogatory nickname "Dorothy" becomes a name to be feared.
- An important theme in Orange Is the New Black. Sweet, wide-eyed characters like Piper, Brook, and even Red commit relatively minor crimes, are stuck in an environment where they are dehumanized and broken down, and quickly morph into angry cynics unafraid to hurt others.
- Criminal Minds:
- In the episode "The Apprenticeship" they mention that prison is called "Crime U," because it gives criminals connections to make them better criminals. In this particular case, one man taught another his MO and presumably how he got away with his crimes or what he learned about hiding them by getting caught.
- The ruined reputation version happens in "Carbon Copy." The killer but NOT the Replicator was wrongly arrested for the original case being copied. After his identity was leaked to the press, he was unable to clear his name. When he was caught, he declared that these deaths were the fault of the B.A.U., not him.
- Subverted in the short lived series Sword Of Justice. The main character was falsely imprisoned and uses his time there to pick up skills from other criminals. However, upon release, he uses those skills to secretly catch criminals who are normally above the law like the ones who framed him.
- This is the message of the Law & Order: SVU episode "Making A Rapist". A man wrongly convicted of rape is released after serving sixteen years in prison. After making friends with the woman formerly believed to be his victim, he's accused of her daughter's rape and murder. It turns out he did do it, after years of rape and beatings by fellow prisoners. He became attracted to her daughter, then when she laughed him off, he (while drunk) flew into a rage.
- In the Arrow episode "Vigilante", bank robber Eric Dunn's first time in prison was as an innocent man, having been convicted for a crime he didn't commit, either due to police negligence or corruption.
Dunn: When I went to prison, I was innocent. When I came out, I wasn't so innoncent no more.
- The Wire:
- Interestingly, there are no straight examples involving characters that go to actual prison (most of whom were rather hardened before they went in), but the trope is played brutally straight for a group home. Good-natured schemer Randy Wagstaff is branded a snitch and finds that his peers and the local gangsters are suddenly his mortal enemies. Despite police protection, his home is torched, his foster mother is badly burned, and he's at the mercy of social services. A remorseful detective tries deperately to find him a better option, but ultimately Randy has no choice but to go to a group home. The following season, the police go there to try to question him again, and we find that his cheery disposition has vanished without a trace, and he's casually assaulting other kids just to maintain cred.
- Dennis "Cutty" Wise is a complete inversion. Leaving prison after fourteen years, he wavers on whether he should rejoin his old gang or go straight. Going straight is predictably difficult, so he gets back into the game as a hitman. It seems easy, as he's experienced and still has a towering reputation among the older generation. When it comes time to kill, however, he finds out that he no longer has it in him. He bows out and buckles down to find some work that provides a community service.
Slim Charles: B, he was a man in his time, you know?
Avon: Yeah. He a man today. He a man.
- A lot of songs written by Johnny Cash, especially the ones he performed at prisons such as Folsom, are about how the entire justice system (or "justice", as he might have called it) is flawed.
- Also referenced by Tupac Shakur in "Trapped."
Too many brothers, daily, headed for the big pen; niggas comin' out worse off than when they went in.
- In The Foremen's song about the failure of the California educational system, "California Couldn't Pay Our Education", in the end, California did pay their education, when it sent them to prison for petty theft, and they learned how to avoid getting caught again.
- It's not made clear why Gilby Clarke's character is being sent to jail in "Tijuana Jail." He sticks a switchblade from his boot in a guard's throat to make his escape.
- This a common theme in Steve Earle songs.
- In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, if you opt to go to prison after you get arrested, there's a random chance your Sneak and Security skills will go up as a result of learning some new techniques from your fellow inmates. When you get out, you'll quickly be given an invitation to the Thieves' Guild (or in the case of murder, Dark Brotherhood). which will make you into a more hardened and successful criminal. This can be especially notable if you went to jail for a crime as petty as stealing an apple.
- In Chrono Trigger, Crono is falsely accused of kidnapping, thrown in jail, and sentenced to death on spurious grounds. Depending on the player's actions, the worst thing he's done before going to jail is stealing and eating an old man's lunch. Escaping execution for a bum rap has him murdering guards left and right.
- Although, if you go back to the castle after this has happened as soon as possible, you will find a group of guards discussing the behavior of the prison guards. They describe the guards as strange people brought in by The Chancellor, foreshadowing him being the descendant of Yakra from 600 A.D.
- After being captured in Red vs. Blue, Grif claims this has happened to him and suggests he and Church rob a liquor store on their way home after they're let out... even though he's only been in jail for five hours.
Grif: Time moves slower on the inside. It seemed like seven or eight hours to me.
- This article from Cracked discusses how this trope plays out in Real Life. It cites research showing that punishing minor crimes with prison instead of, say, community service, backfires horribly, with the criminals 20% more likely to commit crimes once released. "It's weird-it's almost like prison puts you in a criminal mindset, as if spending all day and all night living with and talking to other criminals, completely immersed in their lifestyle and morals and way of thinking, makes you start to act like them."
- In the Zero Punctuation review of Skyrim Yahtzee jokes that the PC of each game was locked up for a minor adventure related crime before becoming a full blown adventurer as a result of their incarceration
- In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, this is how The Kingpin came to be — originally sent to prison for larcency, after one of his dad's scams went south and his bulk prevented him from following his father up a fire escape. Once he comes out, he's got 'connections', and uses what he's learned to begin building his criminal empire.
- In the Family Guy episode "Dial Meg for Murder", Meg falls in love with a convict, and goes to jail for harboring him after he escapes. When she comes out, she is a lot meaner and starts fighting back against everyone who mistreated her. By the end of the episode, Brian has to stop her from robbing a convenience store at gunpoint.
- Wasp, from Transformers Animated, gets falsely arrested as a Decepticon spy in the backstory (shown in a flashback episode). By the time he escapes over half a century later (Cybertronians are long-lived), he's almost Gollum-like in his insanity, and later becomes an actual Decepticon.
- Played with in an episode of Static Shock. When D.J. Rock, a corrupt music producer who caters to rappers, is arrested for plagiarizing Rubberband Man's music, he sees an upside to it, saying that some time in jail might improve his "rep" and thus be good for business when he gets out. However, Static has a different opinion, telling him that this case might cause other victims to come forward, meaning that by the time he does get out, his music will be good for nothing but the discount bins.
- The Simpsons plays with this. Recurring antagonist Sideshow Bob was already a criminal, but didn't start off trying to kill anybody, only framing Krusty for armed robbery so he can take over his show and make it better, since he was abused by Krusty on live air. But after Bart exposes him and gets him incarcerated, all Bob can think about is plotting a horrible revenge against Bart, and has ever since.
- Some gangs actually require members to go to jail before they can join the gang.
- This is a common criticism of the war on drugs in particular, or at least the approaches to it that involve prison sentences for the possession of illegal drugs. It is especially often applied to the US, whose prisons are regarded as especially likely to make hardened criminals and whose approach involves locking people up for so much as possessing soft drugs like marijuana for personal use.
- Sociologists have been trying to raise awareness of this, asking people to apply the concept of prison to other situations. For example: "If you had a child who was behaving poorly, would it help to take that child out of society, and place them in an environment where they are surrounded, 24/7, by other troublemakers?"
- A variation occurred in Ireland; in the wake of the Easter Rising, the British army interned large numbers of Irish people who had had little to nothing to do with it alongside the surviving rebels. The combination of unjust treatment and being placed in close proximity to dissidents meant that when internment was ended, the country had the makings of an enormous republican movement, which led to The Irish Revolution.
- Much the same thing in Tsarist Russia, where Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik revolutionaries used the time they spent in prison camps to organize and plan the revolution.
- Stacy Keach is an inversion. He was caught in the UK possessing cocaine during The '80s and sentenced to prison. The warden there wound up being such a positive influence on his life that he's been on the straight and narrow since and based the character of Warden Pope in Prison Break off that warden.
- South American serial killer Pedro Lopes started as a petty thief but graduated to murder after getting raped in jail.
- Clyde Barrow started as a petty crook prior to meeting Bonnie Parker. He got arrested first for failure to return a rental car, and then for being caught with his brother Buck in a stolen truck of turkey. In 1930, he started a two year sentence at Eastham Prison Farm for robbery. In prison, Clyde was reportedly raped and beat another inmate to death. After he got out in February 1932, his crimes became more violent and more often involved murder. Some theorize that Bonnie and Clyde's crime spree from 1932 to May 1934 was not so much For the Evulz as it was Clyde seeking revenge against the Texas prison system.
- John Dillinger was 21 when in September 1924, he and a pool hall buddy named Ed Singleton robbed a Mooresville, Indiana grocer named Frank Morgan. Two days after the attack, Dillinger was arrested, and thinking the judge would be lenient enough to let him off if he plead guilty and apologized, he didn't bother to hire a lawyer. This was a big mistake, as the judge sentenced him to a 10-20 year sentence in Indiana's Pendleton Reformatory. It was in Pendleton that Dillinger met two of the partners who would be by his side during his infamous 1933-1934 bank robbery spree: Harry "Pete" Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter, both of whom were doing time for armed robberies (Van Meter for highway robbery on a train, Pierpont for bank robbery). All three of these guys were soon transferred to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where Dillinger met most of the other men who would be by his side, including Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and John "Red" Hamilton. They all taught him the art of bank robbery. When Dillinger was paroled in May 1933, he immediately started robbing banks in Indiana and Ohio for money that he used to pull off arrangements to smuggle guns into the prison to break out Makley, Pierpont, Clark, and Hamilton.
- A concern that some raise regarding mass punishment as is fairly common in the military. Too many folks get in trouble for alcohol-related crimes on the weekend? Let's put tens of thousands of military personnel under curfew, threatening them with punishment if they are caught off base after hours, or even restrict when they can have alcohol in their own homes. Treat someone as if they were the wrongdoer enough times, and they may no longer see any incentive in behaving, and thus develop disciplinary problems.
- In 1972, Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted an experiment to test if placing normal, emotionally healthy people in a prison-like setting increased their capacity for violence. Half the test subjects were assigned the role of guards, the other half were prisoners. The result both plays straight and inverts this trope: by the end of the first week of the study, both groups had become so hostile to each other that the experiment had to be cancelled. The experiment has been questioned, though, because subjects were not screened for whether they already had tendencies toward violence and Zimbardo himself participated (playing the warden)-a huge no-no for experimenters. These results cannot be replicated, as ethical rules today prevent it.
- We had to go prison to become Islamic State
- Schooling has this issue, especially with the addition of technology. Due to the often widespread punishments when things go wrong in the schooling system, more and more priviliges are lost for everyone. This, of course, leads to many innocents joining the misbehavior for the reason that they retain their priviliges, and they'll still be punished even of they don't misbehave.