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Now the jury found me guilty,
then says the judge, says he,
Oh for life, Jim Jones,
I'm sending you across the stormy sea.
— "Jim Jones", traditional
What to do with criminals is a problem for societies real and fictional. One common solution in times past and perhaps future
is the Penal Colony. This is a self-contained society consisting mostly of prisoners and those who guard them, usually separated from the civilized world by natural barriers in addition to (or instead of) prison walls; in science fiction, it may be a whole Prison Planet whose Hat
is an orange jumpsuit. Typically the prisoners will be required to do some sort of hard and dangerous labor; mining is a favourite
in Science Fiction
If the colony is fairly loosely controlled, isolated or has no guards at all, it will resemble a Wretched Hive
, with the prisoners more or less running the place.
The Penal Colony can be a rich source of story ideas; if you're recruiting for a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
, you might do it here. Revolutionary leader
captured by The Empire
and sent here? They may have to fight their way to the top of the prison hierarchy, then arrange an escape. Need a source of people you can dispose of without anyone caring? Have your Xenomorph
invade the Penal Colony. Is the place too loosely supervised? If so, it may become a base of operations for the Big Bad
Compare Wretched Hive
and Death World
(which may be what separates the Penal Colony from civilization). Particularly inescapable ones can overlap with The Alcatraz
or Phantom Zone
. Often related to Settling the Frontier
. See also Reassigned to Antarctica
. The Super Trope
to Sentenced to Down Under
, which is specifically the old British practice of sending convicts to Australia
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Hecatonchires in Outlaw Star
- Lutecia gets sent to a prison planet after the events of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Striker S. Though it's a very nice prison planet (the Takamachi family takes a vacation there in ViVid), which led to this exchange between her and a visiting Agito in Striker S Sound Stage X.
- The Excel Saga manga had one that Excel and Elgala were shipped off to. An island for women prisoners where they'd lose out to their feral instincts in a savage world with no hope of escape, and probably some sexual harassment. Excel and Elgala escaped during the boat ride there, although they got attacked by sharks and whirlpools in the process.
- The Abh wind up conquering one of these in Banner of the Stars II. Lafiel is put in charge of figuring out what to so with the inhabitants, much to her displeasure, specifically the guards and some of the female prisoners who want off.
- In GUN×SWORD, Endless Illusion was originally a prison world. The Original Seven were used by the heads of security, and the Claw was once one of those in charge. He's also the last person who remembers the details.
- Chimera in Jyu-Oh-Sei is a prison planet, or at least that's what the powers that be want people to believe. In actuality, it's a testing ground for breeding a new variety of humans hardy enough to survive in that star system.
- One of these exists at the beginning of the Filler Arc in Naruto The corrupt teacher from waaaay back at the start of the series is there, and he's been experimenting with spells that could best be described as the wizarding-ninja equivalent of steroids. He gets out, and Naruto and the other Leaf Ninja have to stop him.
- Guy Double Target has Heel as the warden of the Prison Planet Geo in which women are used as sex slaves for male prisoners as a reward.
- The Phantom Zone from Superman is another prison dimension.
- The Mines of Titan and the various Cursed Earth work farms in Judge Dredd that are used for various offenders.
- Takron-Galtos, the Legion of Super-Heroes' favorite dumping ground for cosmic baddies.
- Sonic the Hedgehog has the Devil's Gulag, a prison built on top of a mountain top. However, two breakouts have lead to the prison being abandoned.
- The British 1980's science fiction comic Starblazer had a number of these.
- Issue 7 "Holocaust Hogan". Zeta-9 was the main colony in use by Earth forces. It held a large number of hardened criminals and was protected by a detachment of guard ships.
- Issue 52 "The Mask of Fear". Milo's World had a moon called the Alpha Moon Death colony, which was used to exile political prisoners who harvested radioactive ore under horrendous working conditions.
- Issue 57 "Galactic Lawman". The planet Mynos has a penal colony made up of prisoners from the planet Tara. The criminals are forced to perform hard labor and are brutally treated by the guards.
- Issue 61 "Escape from Devil's Moon". The planet Catraz (AKA Devil's Moon) has a human penal colony with harsh working conditions. Catraz has no atmosphere and the colony is next to a nuclear waste dump.
- Issue 100 "Pirates of the Ether Sea)". The planet Pavo's polar regions house a penal colony for the dictator's political enemies.
- Issue 110 "The Tomb of Tara". The penal asteroid Gog is subject to blistering heat from a nearby sun which that quickly kills the convicts performing hard labor there.
- Issue 208 "Planet of the Dead". The planet Devil's Island's population is made up of criminals. It's monitored by a law enforcement battle station in orbit but the prisoners are mostly left to their own devices.
- Issue 221 "Beastworld". Tannadize 4 is very similar to Devil's Island above: the prisoners are left unsupervised but are watched by an orbital police post on one of the world's three moons.
- The Incal has one on water, and it's seemingly without any land or infrastructure, leaving one to wonder how prisoners are supposed to survive on it at all. Though in fairness it turns out to be a cover for a secret base.
- Bitch Planet is set on a prison planet for women.
- This is the convenient use for the levels below the Net in David Wingrove's Chung Kuo.
- Salusa Secundus in Dune was one of these.
- Originally it was the imperial capital, but then a rogue house nuked it and it became a Death World on par with Arrakis.
- Also the emperor's Sardaukar were recruited from that planet, the harsh conditions supposedly toughened them up.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, The Night's Watch has devolved into this, with it consisting mostly of people who faced the option of death or going to the Wall.
- In Peter Hamilton's The Night's Dawn Trilogy, serious criminals were suitably equipped with survival gear, and then sent on a one-way trip to the surface of a penal planet, where they would be effectively cut off from all modern (and indeed, not so modern) benefits of human civilisation, and left to fend for themselves for the rest of their lives.
- This is where one of Kafka's short stories ("In the Penal Colony") takes place. The focus of the story, however, is on an upcoming execution....
- The planet Hades in Echos of Honor, from which Honor engineers a mass escape.
- The planet Dagoola IV in the Vorkosigan Saga story "Borders of Infinity", from which Miles engineers a mass escape.
- Robert A. Heinlein:
- In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, part of the moon was a penal colony, but the Authority running the place treated the whole thing as such.
- In For Us The Living, offenders who refuse "treatment" (or psychological reprogramming to cure them of the desire to commit their crime again) are sent to live in Coventry - a penal colony which is basically lawless exile.
- In The Sardonyx Net there is a prison planet called Chabad.
- Camp Green Lake in Holes, which is a camp entirely surrounded by desert.
- Jack Chalker's Four Lords of the Diamond series features four planets which serve as penal colonies, each with a unique cutthroat society.
- The marvellously named planet Despayre in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the original construction site for the Death Star (and the first casualty of the Death Star superlaser). There are also others that tend to end up in this kind of role, such as the spice mines of Kessel.
- In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Azkaban, the wizard prison, was such an example, being an island in the middle of the north sea. As it was run by dark creatures who eventually let the prisoners escape it was a cardboard prison.
- The CoDominium universe has several, notably Haven and Tanith, but nearly every colony that isn't fortunate enough to have a nationalist patron gets
convicts and dissidents "involuntary transportees" dumped on them whenever Earth feels like it.
- Botany in the Catteni books. The similarities to the settlement of Australia are numerous and explicit.
- "A Planet Named Shayol" by Cordwainer Smith took place on a very unusual prison planet.
- In Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky, the Isles of Sorrow are a penal colony where the condemned mine iron for the rest of their lives (usually, pretty short thanks to the conditions).
- The setting of A Planet Called Treason is a penal planet for the leaders of a rebellion and their descendants. A lack of metal keeps the inhabitants on the surface while the rest of the galaxy profits from their otherwise advanced technology which is offered up for pittances of metal.
- In the Green-Sky Trilogy, the underground caves beneath the Wissenroot were initially used for those who wanted the next generation to know about humanity's dark past. Eventually, it became used to exile those who opposed the Ol-Zhaan, with a nasty lie to their relatives that the exile was devoured by monsters. The exiles and their descendants became the Erdlings.
- Austar IV, the setting of the Pit Dragon Chronicles, is a desert planet that was originally used as a penal colony.
- And in Brave New World, many dissidents are sent to various islands.
- In Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues, the protagonist Jim is sent to a prison planet to retrieve an alien artifact (actually, it's from the future). He is injected with a slow-acting poison that will kill him unless he returns with the object within 30 days.
- In the Children of Steel universe the Tri-Star corporation maintains an asteroid mine where troublesome 'morphs are incarcerated. There's an on-site bordello where those criminal morphs considered too delicate for the mines are employed, for instance Dialene after her original captain tried to play pirate.
- Enabled by the generally casual interstellar travel and thus seen on various occasions in the Perry Rhodan setting. How bad they get depends on the regime running them — at the benevolent end of the spectrum one might see relatively civilized involuntary exile with the inhabitants left to their own devices as long as they make no trouble, while the other extreme may be plausibly exemplified by the Empire of Tradom with its propensity for using slave labor regardless of trivialities like economic sense and at least one whole planet set aside dedicated solely to torture. (Somewhat justified in that its ultimate authorities turned out to be a small clique of quasi-immortal emotion eaters who fed on suffering.)
- Papillon, a memoir written by Henri Charrière, an inmate of the French Guiana prison colony.
- One of these crops up in Banner of the Stars II. A single continent on a planet has been terraformed and divided in three roughly equal sections for prisoners to reside with a smaller section for the guards. What to do with the place when the Abh conquer is becomes a rather complicated issue and female lead Lafiel is rather unhappy to have the whole mess dumped in her lap.
Live Action TV
- Captain Dylan Hunt and Andromeda had to escape from one in the episode "A Rose in the Ashes".
- The planet was specifically chosen for the abundance of alkali metals in its soil, preventing the inmates from farming, forcing them to rely on the guards for food. Fortunately, alkali metals are perfect for recharging Rommie's batteries.
- Blake's 7 had Cygnus Alpha.
- The Space: 1999 episode "Devil's Moon" had a prison moon.
- Kirk made Ceti Alpha V into a prison planet for Khan in Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Space Seed". That episode become the basis for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
- A penal colony in New Zealand was shown in the pilot Voyager episode, where Tom Paris was put after being captured while working for the Maquis.
- The "Whom Gods Destroy" episode of the Original Series centres around a penal colony for the criminally insane, the Elba II asylum.
- Desperus in the Doctor Who serial "The Daleks' Masterplan".
- In "Frontier In Space", the Doctor is sent to one on the Moon.
- The ultimate example from that show, though, may be Shada, prison planet of the Time Lords.
- Varos in "Vengeance on Varos" is a former penal colony, which goes a long way to explaining why it is such a Wretched Hive in the present.
- In The Time Tunnel episode "Devil's Island'', the time travelers arrive on the French penal colony of Devil's Island just as new prisoners arrive. They are mistaken for two of the prisoners who have escaped and are imprisoned in their stead. The other prisoners are not interested in escape until Captain Alfred Dreyfus arrives on the island.
- The heroes of Stargate SG-1 seem to wind up in these with alarming frequency.
- One of these was a world where the gate had no dialing device, although, if you happen to find a power source, you can just dial manually.
- TO be fair, the jailers probably made sure no advanced technology was available on this world. Who knew someone would develop plant-based cold fusion?
- Buck Rogers in the 25th Century had Buck visit a world which seemed at first like a charming pastoral community. Then you find out that they aren't this low-tech voluntarily...
- The entire city of San Francisco, in one episode of Sliders.
- A variation in First Wave, where Joshua, after being exposed as a human sympathizer, is punished by being put into a specially-designed pocket dimension that exists in a never-ending "Groundhog Day" Loop with Joshua never retaining any memories of the past iterations. The loop lasts for about half-an-hour an involves Joshua racing against the clock to prevent the Gua from blowing up Earth after their Alien Invasion is thwarted, all the while evading human authorities on the lookout for Gua and their sympathizers. The "gulag", as he calls it, appears to be run by a computer that always counters Joshua's attempts. The only reason it starts to fail is when Cade enters the "gulag" to get Joshua out, causing memories of previous iterations to bleed through. After they manage to succeed and get out, Cain (Joshua's Evil Twin, or rather another Gua using a cloned husk/body from the same template) gets stuck in the gulag himself, with the setting updating to punish him (he has to forever chase Cade without being able to capture him).
- One episode of the original Battlestar Galactica featured an asteroid penal colony that had gotten lost in the shuffle of the Thousand-Yahren War some generations before the start of the series. The prisoners are the descendants of the original convicts sent there, ditto for the guards. The locks on the cells haven't worked in ages; People stay where they are because of being stuck in a rut. The guards, lacking real training and conviction, would not be able to stop a prisoner from escaping if one really tried. By chance, Starbuck ends up in a cell there, and the mold is broken; he escapes easily and manages to summon the fleet to his location, and with the arrival of Commander Adama the colony is closed and the prisoners' sentences commuted.
- Warhammer 40,000 has Penal Colonies, most of which have a toxic atmosphere. Some are used for mining others are just used to hold the people. They are also used for recruitment into Penal Legions which are sent on missions too dangerous for normal troopers or ones which need the people who did it to be executed afterwards.
- Of particular note is Deliverance, the penal colony moon of the planet Kiavahr where the Raven Guard Primarch Corax landed in his stasis pod. Corax organised the prisoners to overthrow their harsh and uncaring warders and take over the colony, before conquering Kiavahr itself and founding his own small empire. Eventually the facility was converted into his Space Marine chapter's headquarters, the Ravenspire.
- One prison planet is actually named Torment. It's a poor, low-population, non-industrial world in the Darrian subsector of the Spinward Marches. It holds the most incorrigible criminals, whose violent tendencies are considered impossible to cure. The planet is bitterly cold and barren, with only one central village of convicts. The prisoners must work in mining and industry to pay for the importation of sufficient food to survive. The prison is run by a hierarchy of criminals who require obedience from their fellow prisoners.
- Classic Adventure 4 Leviathan. Gorgon is a planet of exile in the Egryn subsector of the Spinward Marches. It has several hundred prisoners from the Belgardian Sojourn society on the planet Belgard. Life is very harsh, with constant high velocity winds. The exiles live in a prison society that mines copper, zinc, palladium, silver and tin.
- Classic supplement Alien Module 6 Solomani. During the reign of the Solomani Autonomous Region, all of the malcontents and criminals of the Ultima subsector were sent to the planet Iddamakur, turning it into a Prison Planet dumping ground.
- Alternity's Star*Drive setting. The prison planet of Lucullus, in the Verge. A former Union of Sol penal colony, it overthrew the remnant of the colonial government during the Second Galactic War.
- It Came from the Late, Late Show II adventure "Bjorn on the Bayou, or Escape from Alkatrazz XII". Alkatrazz XII is a prison planet with a population of 10,000, which is mostly made up of the prisoners and their robot guards. Warden Skrank is sadistic and corrupt, and his bodyguard Jorj is strong but stupid.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Benjamin Barker was sent to Botany Bay in Australia on false charges because the judge who sentenced him wanted his wife for himself. He escaped and returned to London under a new name: Sweeney Todd.
- In Crime Cities, the penal colony occupies a three planet star system, with criminals contained because hyperdrive unit construction is a well kept secret and drives are available in-system. Prisoners are distributed among the three planets according to how violent they are, based on the minimum, medium and maximum ratings. As part of a conspiracy, research for hyperdrive technology is occurring on the most violent planet.
- The prison stations orbiting Planet Houston, and, to a lesser extent, Houston itself in Freelancer.
- The penal colony in which the game Gothic is set. It is separated from the rest of the world by a magical barrier.
- Planet Alcatraz is set on a planet-wide penal colony called Seaman's Silence (a nod to an actual detention facility in Moscow by that name). Convicts with life sentences are dropped here on landing pods (which might not even land safely) and left to fend for themselves. The player takes command of an Imperial Space Marine sent there as a prisoner to locate and destroy a ship being constructed in secret by the prisoners. The player starts with nothing and much make his way up the prison food chain in order to accomplish his mission. On the way, he finds the rest of his squad, separated during the landing. The prison is heavily inspired by Real Life Russian penal colonies, although Executive Meddling has reduced the amount of violence, racism, and gay sex to slightly more appropriate levels and has introduced female NPCs (despite the vehement protests of the lead writer Dmitry Puchkov, a former cop) as sex-slaves smuggled onto the male-only planet. Despite these changes, the game is still largely un-marketable in the Western world due to the content.
- Oovo IV in various Star Wars Expanded Universe games, which also serves as a podracing track.
- The Isle of Despair in Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura.
- In Myst V, one of the ages you go to is a prison age. Back in old D'ni society, hardened criminals were shipped off to prison ages; one-way linking books to harsher worlds. There was no way out without help from the outside. The D'ni criminals were left to their own devices on prison ages; they formed their own societies.
- New Folsom in Starcraft II, a volcanic world where the Dominion keeps everyone from political prisoners to psychotic psychic operatives. If you choose to side with Tosh he and Raynor's Raiders bust it open in an afternoon. Granted they have access to tactical nukes.
- It is heavily implied that the entire human presence in the Korprulu Sector started out as a penal colony, with a large number of criminals and undesirables simply shipped off of Earth into unknown space. The modern Terran Confederacy and Dominion are their descendants. Earth forces do show up in Brood War to take control, and eventually get stomped flat by the continuous conflict in the region.
- Gellix, a minor ice world in Mass Effect 3, was used as a penal colony by the Systems Alliance from 2161, but was shut down in 2179 after racking up the worst prison safety record ever.
- In Infinite Space, Skantzoura in the SMC and Lari and Belgirate in the LMC are planets or asteroids used as large prisons, specializing in dangerous or political prisoners.
- In Batman: Arkham City, the titular city run by Hugo Strange is this, with all of Gotham's criminals, insane or not, tossed in to die with minimal support from the outside. Naturally it devolves into a Wretched Hive/Hell Hole Prison mix almost instantly.
- A minor running gag in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! is that the Pirates of Ipecac don't want to be sent to the Lint Mines of Dustworld. "The dust bunnies! Shudder!"
- The Eye in The Lydian Option is a self-contained asteroid prison with few rules - the guards rarely intervene in fights between prisoners unless directly threatened.
- In Schlock Mercenary, Petey seems to be turning the Andromeda Galaxy into one for the more aggressive races from the Milky Way to make themselves useful. It's commented upon in at least one strip, as is his resemblance to a koala.
- The colony of Dariy'ako in Drowtales is one of these, and is populated either by political prisoners or people who are unable to pay tribute to the ruling Sharen clan are sent.
- Penal colonies feature a fair amount in Look to the West. After the American colonies object to being used as one (which was Truth in Television before the American Revolutionary War in our timeline), Britain switches to using Newfoundland and Michigan, and later West Africa. France meanwhile uses French Guiana and Russia uses Siberia, which they also did in Real Life.
- Tech Infantry had the Federation penal colony in the R45 system, which was also a Death World.
- In the Ben 10 series, the dimension known as the "Null Void" is used by many alien civilizations to dump their criminals. Kevin was once sent their before he reformed and became one of the good guys.
- English colonials established a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia
- Port Jackson (modern Sydney Harbour, Australia) was also founded as a penal colony.
- Brisbane was actually founded as a double-plus-penal colony, for transported convicts who committed crimes again while in Australia.
- Devil's Island in French Guiana. Modernly famous for the memoir Papillon written by inmate Henri Charrière (later a Steve McQueen film of the same name).
- Côn Sơn Island in French Indochina.
- The Gulags of Siberia and other remote places (the Arctic north, Sakhalin) were used this way by the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, the major industrial cities of Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Magadan all started out as Gulags.
- During the early years of WWII the Nazis planned to deport Europe's Jews to Madagascar, which was under the control of Vichy France. The plan was put on hold when it became clear the UK would not surrender, then scrapped in favour of the Final Solution when Commonwealth and Free French forces captured Madagascar.
- The Andaman Islands were used as a penal colony for participants of the Indian independence movement.
- Islas Marías Federal Prison in Mexico is an example of an extant penal colony.
- The early American colonies were a popular destination for persons convicted of crimes; they would arrange with the prosecutor to become indentured servants in America, and after a term of years would win their freedom. Furthermore, the state of Georgia was originally founded by Britain in 1732 specifically as a colony for the poor and those imprisoned for being unable to pay their debts (rather than having committed some crime), the idea being that they could work their debts off as farmers rather than rot in jail. However, after the War of Independence, Britain had nowhere to transport convicts who had previously been going to America. Canada was not an option for various reasons (chief among them unsuitable geography and a desire not to piss off the Francophones), and obviously the other big British colony—India—was out of the question (except for the few who joined the East India Company's army...). After a while, though, the British noticed that Australia was conveniently unclaimed by any of the other European powers, and was therefore "empty" (try telling an 18th century European that Indigenous Australians are real people, and you'll probably get laughed out of the room). And so Australia was chosen, and you probably know the rest of the story if you've read the rest of this section.