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Cardboard Prison

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They don't lock you up. They just throw away the key.
"In the big rock-candy mountain
all the jails are made of tin,
And you can walk right out again
as soon as you are in..."

In the spirit of Joker Immunity, the judicial/incarceration system in fiction will be just as worthless as the police. It may keep certain villains off the street so that the heroes just have to deal with one at a time (except for those occasional "teaming up" deals), but expect them to bust out real soon or find a very sympathetic parole board.

In the real world, voters would be demanding crackdowns. In fictionland, the same person can break out hundreds of times and nobody gets fired. In some cases, they also have policies against re-arresting escaped Villains Out Shopping unless they commit another crime during the same episode.

Perhaps a necessity in stories which feature a Rogues Gallery, since you need to find a way to keep bringing them back but have the heroes seem somewhat effectual. This was particularly true in comics in the days when The Comics Code held sway — the villain had to be clearly defeated at the end of each and every appearance, requiring an escape from either being Put on a Prison Bus or apparently killed before he could show up to vex the heroes again. Often involves The Guards Must Be Crazy.

A Sub-Trope of Artistic License Prison. See also Unsafe Haven, where instead of a prison being laughably easy to break out of, a sanctuary is laughably easy to break into. See also Widely-Spaced Jail Bars, an animation convention that is sometimes comically played with, resulting in this. Contrast Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All (where escaping isn't even necessary) and The Alcatraz (which was successfully inescapable before the heroes or villain came along).

Not to be confused with "Get Out of Jail Free" Card.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Minor villain Beck from The Big O breaks out of prison no fewer than three times over the course of the series, although sometimes he has help.
  • The Mari Land prison in Onegai My Melody: Kuromi and Baku can escape with minimal efforts. Repeatedly.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Prisons generally aren't capable of holding Stand users.
    • Jotaro went into prison voluntarily to safely research his Stand, Star Platinum, in case it turns out to be too dangerous to control. His Stand is so strong that he breaks out of his cell in the middle of battle without thinking about it.
    • Anjuro Katagiri used his stand, Aqua Necklace, to survive his execution by hanging and escape his prison.
    • Subverted with Green Dolphin Street Prison. Although there are many Stand users in the prison, it's difficult to escape because the head of security, Miuccia, is a Stand user who can use her Jail House Lock to limit any escapee's memory.
  • Any prison is this for Lupin III.
    • Best shown in Lupin III: The Italian Adventure: arrested and subjected to the harsh 41-bis regime specifically to prevent him from breaking out, he does the following:
      As soon as the guards turn their backs on him, he escapes through the air vents. Had Zenigata not been expecting that, he'd have been out then and there;
      Lupin is closed in a steel box with a surveillance camera. He immediately destroys the camera, and is overpowering the guard who came in to check on him when Zenigata shows up;
      After the camera is eliminated, he calls for a priest... And he replaces the priest. Too bad Zenigata decides to check his face...
      After the previous attempt, Zenigata moves the cage on a desert island. Only Zenigata surveys it, as he knows all of Lupin's tricks and can guess his new ones. Lupin still breaks out. It takes him six months, using a brush made with his own hair and colours made from the food to paint a fake body and feigning he let himself starve to death to get Zenigata to open it and thus switch places, but he still breaks out.
  • Januar Ein from Senyuu. easily could have broken out of prison, which he got sent to for accidentally destroying a café, but he didn't.
  • Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle: The princess leaves her cell pretty much every chapter. Early on she had to sneak around, but eventually everyone stops worrying about it so long as she isn't killing anyone or staying out too long, because they've realized that she has no intention of actually escaping, and will return to her cell voluntarily once she's gathered whatever she's looking for for her latest sleep-related project..
  • Naruto has an example in the form of The Legendary Stupid Brothers. They can leave their cell anytime they'd like due to their Herculean strength. They are only persuaded to stay put with food. Even the ninja tasked with guarding them shows a measure of fear when he realizes he hasn't got any on hand. Given that they killed a man over food and thus became incarcerated in the first place it's not entirely difficult to understand. When they finally do escape due to Mizuki's manipulation, they only need to be told that it's dinnertime at the prison to go back.

    Comic Strips 
  • Dilbert:
    • When Wally is imprisoned, Dogbert tells him that the guards just pretend to lock it up. As Wally said, "I'd have to say, the lifers were the most embarrassed."
    • Another occurrence in the same comic: the PHB is sent to do time in a place so horrible it has no name — Wally's cubicle — which has no door at all (the PHB serves his term because his sense of direction is so poor he cannot find the way out again).
  • Any time Popeye goes to jail, this trope goes into effect as Popeye uses his strength to take the wall of his cell apart brick by brick. In one early strip he was kicked out of jail for doing this!

    Fan Works 
  • Snap and Loopin in My Immortal are constantly sent to St. Mango's or Azkaban, but are usually found somewhere around the school by the next chapter. It's mentioned that Britney had helped them escape once.
  • Arnold in Soulless Shell manages to talk his guards into helping him escape and joining him to fight against Leif.
  • In the Teen Titans fanfic Joker's Wild, they give the explanation that the state of Jersey gives Arkham a huge defense budget, but forces them to spend it all on security equipment, and can barely afford the little staff they have. People escape so often because the secretaries and janitors are paid so little they are easy to bribe.
  • During a debate over Thou Shalt Not Kill in Connecting the Dots between Cyborg, Robin, Sakura, Neji and Naruto. Naruto tries playing the devil's advocate until he finds out the prisons in the DC universe are this:
    Naruto: "Well if they are in prison at least they get to live but can't escape right? (Cyborg and Robin share a nervous look) RIGHT?"
  • Risk It All: When Ren and Black Mask finally meet face-to-face again, Black Mask boasts that it doesn't matter if he goes in handcuffs, he'll be sprung from prison within hours. Ren agrees and decides to prevent Black Mask from ever threatening anyone again by demolishing the mobster's respiratory system and spine.
  • In A Frog in Arkham Asylum, Jade lampshades Arkham's status as this, comparing it to Swiss cheese. In fact, she claims that the only reason she hasn't escaped yet is that she doesn't want to (since it would make her look guilty, and she's trying to clear her name). Strange confirms this by saying she's had several chances to escape, but hasn't taken them (and these are only the ones that he knows about).
  • What Happens in Vegas:
    Robin: One of these days, we're finally going to discover just where the contractor used cardboard instead of concrete to build the prison walls so he could save a few bucks.
  • In Gotham's Finest Villains, Black Mask breaks Two-Face and Mad Hatter out of Arkham a few weeks after they are confined there.
  • Kara, a Kryptonian fugitive, placed in one after her capture in Daughter of Fire and Steel, though it should be noted that it's only really this by Kryptonian standards. She's placed in a bunker that will detonate a B83 Tactical Nuke the event she tries to leave, destroying the entire prison with her inside. It's noted that something like that can't hold her or even affect her and that the only reason she hasn't broken out is because she wants to be there.
  • Whilst her canon counterpart only made one attempt to escape her cage, Asuna in Sword Art Online Abridged makes several attempts to escape, slaughtering Sugou's personnel in the process before she's eventually reined in. He eventually argues about the psych bills his personnel rack up because of her regular breakouts.
  • Tales of the Canterlot Deportation Agency: Luna Vs. The Law Machine: "Cleaning Up The Town": Describing an asylum / prison made to be like this:
    It's being built now, even faster than the trial was put together. I've seen the plans: stole myself a copy. I showed them to a friend — did I tell you I have friends, even without a proper name to introduce myself by? — who knows something about materials science, and he was rather impressed." And with a plummet into rage which nearly cracked the marble, "Until that moment, he didn't know it was possible to build an entire prison out of cardboard."

    Films — Animation 
  • In Aladdin, Aladdin is imprisoned in a pretty formidable-looking dungeon with a crazy old man for a cellmate. However, all is not as it seems: the "crazy old man" is really Jafar in disguise, who has arranged the whole thing as a way of getting Aladdin to help him get the Genie's Lamp. This being the case, Jafar has also arranged a secret passage to let them both escape the dungeon.
  • In Megamind, the title character can apparently escape the prison with ease, as long as he has help from Minion. Really, it's a Reconstruction: The background implies that Megamind must have escaped prison repeatedly, but what's shown in the movie, he's well guarded and the fact that he can still escape legitimately depends on his cleverness and technological superiority. It's not a bad prison, he's just too good at escaping.
  • In Wreck-It Ralph, Fix-It Felix Jr. is locked up in the Sugar Rush Fungeonnote . As he laments, he notices that the bars on his window are loose. He whips out his Fix-It hammer, and strikes the bars. They become twice as thick.
  • Kung Fu Panda 2. Po and the Furious Five have no problem busting into the jail where Masters Storming Ox and Croc are being kept. In fact, they actually have more trouble convincing Ox and Croc to escape, as they've been demoralized by Lord Shen's cannon and are convinced that Resistance Is Futile. Cue a hilarious scene where the various kung fu Masters keep kicking down the barred iron door or putting it back up again while they argue. And even when the cell door is destroyed during the struggle, Ox and Croc simply walk into the opposite cell and lock themselves in there. At the climax, Ox and Croc appear at the battle to stop Shen, revealing that Shifu talked some sense into them.
    Storming Ox: Like I said, you are NOT getting me out of this cell! (realizes he's been thrown out of the cell in the struggle; the cell door falls to the floor and smashes to bits)
    Po: YES! Whoo-hoo! Alright! Let's... (his triumph fades as Ox and Croc simply walk into the opposite cell and shut the door behind them) ...go.
    Croc: I get the top bunk.
    Storming Ox: It's time to surrender, panda. Kung fu is dead!
    (Po and the Five gasp, shocked to the very core)
    Po: Y-You... w-woo... kung fu is... de-eaah... FINE! You stay in your prison of fear, with bars made of hopelessness... and all you get are three square meals a day of... shame!
    Croc: With despair for dessert.
    Po: We'll take on Shen, and prove to all those who are hungry for justice and honor that kung fu still lives!
    Pig: (in another cell) Yeah...
  • Syndrome's prison in The Incredibles doesn't work for long on Violet, because she can block the electricity holding her suspended with her force fields.
  • In spite of the 24-hour surveillance, the animals in Madagascar can easily break out of Central Park Zoo, and are only caught once they all get to Grand Central Station.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Outlaw and His Wife: Eyvind breaks out of jail by simply pulling the bars of his cell apart.
  • Public Enemies shows off John Dillinger's escape from Crown Point.
  • Cool Hand Luke's title character is able to escape prison regularly (though he's usually brought back quickly). Finally, the sheriff has enough and shoots him.
  • Hancock cannot be held by any normal prison due to his powers; his willingness to stay in one is part of his Character Development.
  • In Law Abiding Citizen, protagonist Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) checks in and out of a so-called maximum security prison many times through hidden access points that he built into said prison himself. Fortunately for Clyde, it doesn't occur to the Warden to simply assign a guard to watch him or install a camera in his cell.
  • The resident superhero in Mystery Men (a spoof of superhero movies) gets tired of catching thugs, having caught all the supervillains long ago, and uses his influence to get the parole board to release one of his former enemies from an institution for the criminally insane. However, he underestimates his foe, is captured, and subsequently ends up dead. Notably, Casanova Frankenstein is one of the only nemeses he has left, the others having been given the death penalty or life imprisonment already.
  • In 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the titular prison fits this trope. It is established late in the film that Ben Wade has already escaped from Yuma at least twice before the events of the movie. After Dan Evans and Wade's posse die, Wade willingly steps onto the train and sets off on his trip towards the prison — but not before he calls his faithful horse to ride alongside the train, proving that as soon as the film ends, he'll simply escape again.
  • In Cube there is a character nicknamed The Wren who has escaped prison 6 times. Sadly, he's not so lucky in the Cube.
  • The two prisons shown in Austin Powers: Goldmember. The first one is a Swiss maximum security prison, where Doctor Evil is placed in a transparent cell in the middle of a big room, surrounded by armed guards round-the-clock. Then Dr. Evil accidentally pushes open the door to his cell. No alarms sound. He waits a second, then says "I'll get it", and closes the door. The second prison is in the US, where Dr. Evil and Mini-Me escape after starting a prison riot, despite floodlights aimed at them along the wall. The whole thing is played for laughs.
  • In Drive Angry, Hell is apparently one of these, even being described as the afterlife's prison. It's said that John isn't the first to break out of Hell, and he won't be the last. Though the movie ends with him willingly going back to hell, he says he'll break out again. Although it's implied that whenever someone escapes from Hell, someone like the Accountant hunts them down and eventually drags them back. For example, his reply when Piper threatens to kill him in order to stop him from taking Milton:
    "Someone else will come. Someone else always comes."
  • In the opening scene of El Mariachi several carloads of assassins turns up at a police station to kill a man who's in lockup. He realises what's happening, wakes up his men who unlock their cells and produce several automatic weapons. After they've killed the assassins, they just walk out of the station. The police ignore all this, having been bribed by both parties.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Earthbenders are imprisoned in a a metal prison ship in the middle of the ocean, so as to neutralize their bending. But in The Last Airbender, this is changed to a prison camp. In a quarry. Why they didn't break out in the first five minutes we'll never know. Once Aang reminds them that they were in fact Earthbenders and that this was, in fact, earth, the prison doesn't last too long.
  • Idiocracy: The prison Joe is sent to has tons of security, but Joe easily tricks the guards into letting him leave. Averted when he gets sent back to prison, and they chain him to a big rock so he can't possibly escape.
  • The Scar of Shame: It's bad enough that Alvin got ahold of a file to hack at the bars to his cell. But when he hacks through said bars, and then bends them apart like they were made of rubber, this trope is in in full effect.
  • Timeline: Instead of putting them in a dungeon, which would be far harder to get out of, Lord Oliver's men instead put the group in the top room of a thatched house. This means they can just push through a hole in the roof to escape. Similarly Claire and Merek escape by breaking through a thin wall.
  • Deadtime Stories: Played for Laughs in "Goldi Lox and the Three Baers" where Papa and Baby Baer are able to casually stroll out of the maximum security asylum for the criminally insane, and the security seemingly consists of one guard with a nightstick.
  • 7 Days in Hell: Swedish prison is apparently this, with Luxury Prison Suites and daily prison-wide orgies. Aaron only has to get past one guard to escape and is immediately declared a free man by Swedish law as soon as he does.

  • Catwoman: Soulstealer: As usual, Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary are easily broken out of. Selina twice in a row breaks Joker's thugs out of the latter. Later she's herself broken out of Arkham along with Joker himself easily.
  • The juvenile maximum-security facility in Maximum Security. James escapes with a literal piece of cardboard, exploiting a real security flaw. The scary thing is, two guards who were in on it weren't actually needed, they were just there to guarantee success.
  • Discworld:
    • The prison at the Patrician's Palace doesn't keep said Patrician in for any longer than he wants it to; he's smart enough to know he's the only one likely to be locked in it and has it built to keep people out, not in (and has a spare key hidden in a brick, of course).
    • In The Last Continent, Rincewind finds himself imprisoned in a jail cell on the continent of XXXX, awaiting execution. The guards inform him that the cell's previous inhabitant, "Tinhead Ned", used to escape with regularity. Rincewind dismisses this as an attempt to break his spirit by getting him to run around rattling bars and searching for hidden panels. Then he finds a message from Ned, telling him to "check the hinges". He discovers that the cell's door can be entirely removed with sufficient effort, and escapes. At the end of the novel, after becoming a national hero, he requests that the cell never be redecorated, thus assuring that it will retain its cardboard nature for the next person to wind up inside it.
    • Going Postal spoofs it, as the protagonist, Moist von Lipwig, discovers that he has the perfect means to escape his cell with some effort, using his spoon to scrape old plaster off the bricks. After days of effort he manages to get several bricks off — only to discover a brand new brick wall behind it, along with a fresh spoon. Lord Vetinari believes that it gives the prisoners some much-needed exercise, and keeps their minds off their impending execution.
  • In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, the government of Silesia is so corrupt that most of the authorities are, individually, in cahoots with one or another band of pirates in the area, and frequently find excuses to release them when they're caught by Manticoran patrol ships. This leads to the Royal Manticoran Navy's draconian policy: Anyone caught a second time engaging in piracy will be executed immediately.
  • In Fingerprints, a heavily drugged prisoner manages to just wander out during a computer malfunction. Yes, it was a makeshift prison being maintained by just one person, but still: epic failure.
  • In one of Enid Blyton's Magical Faraway Tree books, a character is put in jail in The Land of Goodies for eating part of someone's house (which is made out of sweets). Predictably, he just eats his way out of the prison.
  • In The Leonard Regime, the national prisons (known as DERSO Correctional Facilities) are run by idiots and have insufficient security. There are not one, but two prison breaks during the course of the book.
  • In Batman: The Birthday Bash, Batman asks Commissioner Gordon how the Joker escaped. Apparently, he had been very good lately so they let him bake a cake in the kitchen.
  • The Superman novel Miracle Monday has Jimmy Olsen save time by reporting a prison break by Lex Luthor before he had actually carried it out. Olsen's article recalls an occasion where Luthor broke out of prison then broke back in again to retrieve something he had accidentally left behind.
  • In Hornblower in the West Indies, a Marine bugler is jailed for refusing to play a flat note. Hornblower is unable to convene a court-martial before he is relieved of command as the necessary officers are unavailable. The Marine is jailed in the Admiralty House Jail, which has a thatched roof. Naturally, he escapes. Hornblower muses that although he escaped the jail, he was still on Jamaica, where his white face and uniform would stick out like a sore thumb and with the standing reward of £10 for returned prisoners he had only added to the charges against him. He is not recaptured. Hornblower later finds out that Lady Barbara bribed a merchant to transport the Marine to Puerto Rico.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth: When Milo and Tock get put in the prison in Dictionopolis, the Witch (who stays there of her own free will) shows them the secret escape passage. Officer Shrift doesn't even try to recapture them once they're out, he just assumes they served their sentence and he lost track of time.
  • In The Star Beast the titular creature is temporarily held in a steel-bar cage. The human protagonist remarks to himself that this was like confining a rebellious teenage boy by piling pies around him. The well-behaved Star Beast confines herself to merely tasting the steel. Until later.
  • In Robert McCloskey's Centerburg Tales the town sheriff offers to lock some giant-ragweed seeds in the jail until a safe disposal method can be found. Uncle Ulysses retorts that at least twenty people have broken out of it and it's even easier to break into.
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible, as a superhero story, naturally lampshades and discusses this a fair bit. The book actually starts with Dr. Impossible in jail after his latest evil plot went sideways, and he's already planning his escape. It ends the same way, driving home that Impossible has totally failed to learn anything or change for the better. Amusingly subverted with Baron Ether, a retired supervillain the other bad guys look up to. Many years ago Ether's archenemy, the Mechanist, managed to build a specialized prison that could trap Ether forever and locked him inside. However, it turned out that Mechanist was so focused on keeping Ether in that he forgot to keep other people out. As a result, Ether is not only trapped inside the prison, but is constantly being harassed by younger villains, who keep breaking in to bother him for advice.
  • The Spy School series plays with this. Some captured villains remain in jail but Murray Hill escapes custody no less than three times although the first two times he had lots of help from members of Spyder outside of prison, and the third time, he'd been taken out of jail by the heroes to help track down SPYDER's leaders.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24 plays this up to ridiculous standards sometimes. If an antagonist is somehow caught, you can bet your ass they're eventually going to escape somehow and ultimately wind up getting killed either by Jack Bauer or someone else. In the off-chance a terrorist actually doesn't manage to make a getaway, they're all but guaranteed to wind up dying within the next episode to keep them from talking about their plans. It's extremely rare for an antagonist to be incarcerated for good and still be alive by the time the season's over. This trope applies to Jack as well; every single season forces him to go rogue at least once either because he's being set up or under a case of Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!, and if he is caught he's usually free within the next episode.
  • The Andy Griffith Show plays this for comedy with Mayberry's jail. The Sheriff keeps the keys on a hook next to the door so that the town drunk can lock himself up at night and let himself out in the morning.
    • In several episodes, actually dangerous criminals are locked in Mayberry's jail. While the key on the hook is removed, the criminals always manage to get out of their cell, usually because of Barney's incompetence.
  • The prison Faith is kept in on Angel is presumably sufficient to keep ordinary humans inside. However, after Faith breaks out of it in 30 seconds (including about 1 second of planning) in "Salvage", there can be no question that her incarceration was completely voluntary.
  • Iron Heights Penitentiary is one of these in Arrow, in grand comic book tradition. They lose at least four inmates per season and, in keeping with Starling's Vice City nature, they put a higher premium on covering up their screw-ups then they do on fixing them. And that's leaving aside the inmates being recruited for the Suicide Squad.
    Felicity: Iron Heights is better at keeping secrets than prisoners.
  • In an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), Starbuck gets arrested and thrown into a prison where all the current prisoners are the descendants of the people who'd actually committed the crime. The cells were so old that the locks just didn't work anymore and the prisoners stay, making high-quality amgrosia (BG-liquor) because that's what they always done. They even take their names from their crimes (like Thief and Prostitute), making a couple of them wonder what "Starbucking" is.
  • In Deception (2018), magician Cameron Black's twin brother Jonathan is framed for murder and sent to prison. Cameron makes it clear in one episode that, as a master escape artist, he's already come up with eight full-proof plans to help Jonathan escape and "I could get him out tomorrow." He refuses, however, as that would make them both fugitives and impossible to prove Jonathan's innocence. It's hinted Jonathan could escape on his own but respects Cameron's wishes and thus stays in jail.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the Season 8 finale, "The Dæmons", the Master is finally caught by UNIT. They make a big deal about how this evil-doer has finally been caught, and led away in handcuffs. Three adventures into Season 9, the only reason he's still in the prison is that he's taken it over and turned it into his secret base.
      • Lampshaded in the Past Doctor Adventures novel The Face of the Enemy:
        The Master: Brigadier, if I wanted to break out, I wouldn't still be here.
    • River Song's incarceration in the Stormcage Containment Facility is completely voluntary on her part. Whenever she finds out that the Doctor needs her for something (whether it's the end of the world or just a nice party), it takes all of twenty minutes for her to get out. What's more, when she's done helping the Doctor, she voluntarily returns to her prison. Based on the escapes shown, River is just good at it, even though the guards do try to keep her there.
      Guard: [on the phone to his superiors] You'd better get down here, sir, she's doing it again. Dr. Song, she's... packing.
    • "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang": The Pandorica is a complicated example. It's vaunted as a Tailor-Made Prison for the most dangerous being in the entire universe, but it's very easy to open with the sonic screwdriver, with the Doctor stating that anyone can break into a prison, it's getting out that's difficult. Indeed, everyone imprisoned inside the Pandorica requires outside assistance to escape.
    • The Doctor's complex gambit at the start of Season 6 involves one where he threatens to break out of a specially designed 1960s US prison, his cell having him walled in with unbreakable dwarf-star alloy, a cell so convincing that it seems like (to outside observers, since it's all for show) that even he can't get out. Then, once the cell's built and they're all concealed, he casually snaps his fingers and reveals the TARDIS has been there the whole time.
  • Hogan's Heroes: This is yet another aspect of Nazi incompetence. Not only is Stalag 13 so cardboard that it's a waypost for other escaped prisoners and underground agents, the number of escapees that come through suggest that the other Stalags aren't much better. All of the ranking Nazis present, excepting Klink himself (and there are hints even for him), being in on it might have something to do with it. Several episodes in the series centered around Hogan having to find a way to keep the Stalag like this, usually by finding some clever way to keep Klink from being promoted/fired/shot/sent to the Russian front and getting replaced by a more competent officer. A large portion of the Heroes' time was spent keeping a careful balance of Stalag 13 appearing as The Alcatraz (No prisoner has ever escaped from Stalag 13!) while really being this trope.
    LeBeau: No, not one. Maybe a hundred, but not one!
  • Ms. Marvel (2022): The Cube, Damage Control's supposed supermax for people they arrest. The first time it appears, the Clan Destine escape about five minutes after arriving by overpowering the one guard escorting them to their cells then literally walking out the door.
  • Once Upon a Time in Wonderland: Alice's escape from the insane asylum makes it perfectly clear she could have left whenever she felt like it.
  • Pennyworth:
  • Parodied in the Ripping Yarns episode "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B", in which Major Phipps becomes the only man never to have escaped from the prison camp of the title.
  • On Riverdale, Hiram Lodge is shown easily pulling strings in prison to the point of guards reporting to him. When Veronica returns home, she's shocked to find Hiram sitting in her room and sipping wine.
    Hiram: Honey, I own that prison, I can come and go as I please.
  • She-Hulk: Attorney at Law: The Cube returns again, and it turns out it's the prison Abomination had been sent to. His guards never noticed he'd been magically teleported out by Wong to take part in underground fight clubbing until someone showed them the videos. At the end of the series, Wong busts him out again.
  • The recurring Khazon race on Star Trek: Voyager were repeatedly shown using cells that were literally a line on the floor the prisoners are told not to cross. On more than one occasion a captured main character escaped by just walking away.
    • The Federation meanwhile uses a Force-Field Door to secure those detained in the brig. Which is fairly effective for most beings... but can be simply broken through by those with certain superhuman abilities... Or sabotaged from the inside by someone intelligent enough... Or simply have a power failure, at which point ANYONE can simply walk out, as there is no physical containment whatsoever.
  • Parodied in a sketch on The State, where the warden informs the prisoners that the only two ways of escaping Lowell Maximum Security Prison are either "dead in a pine box" or "that big, wide open gate over there... let's consider the open gate (air quotes) off limits." One prisoner decides to escape while the guards aren't looking, but ends up feeling so guilty about it 5 years later that he comes back. So the warden decides to increase security by setting up orange cones that spell "OFF LIMITS" in front of the gate.
  • Supernatural:
    • The show portrays Hell as rather ineffective at containing demons. Demons who are exorcised back to Hell pop back up to cause trouble again at the Speed of Plot (e.g. Meg, Ruby, Alastair, Lilith). Considering who is in charge down there, this is probably deliberate. Lucifer's cage also qualifies if you take his army of fanatically loyal minions into account. Combinatorial calculations yield at least 1.22 x 1087 distinct methods by which he could be freed. (This figure assumes that there are exactly 600 seals, that the first and last seal are fixed, and that breaking the same seals in a different order doesn't count as different.) On top of that, the actual seals include things like a "righteous man" (read "Dean Winchester") shedding blood in Hell in a canon where Being Tortured Makes You Evil and one of the aforementioned fanatically loyal minions sacrificing herself for the cause. Accordingly, springing Lucifer is as easy as baby kitten pie. Again, given who is in charge of the imprisonment, this is deliberate.
    • In the Prison Episode "Folsom Prison Blues" (S02, Ep19), Sam and Dean also make rather short work of getting out of an actual prison, climbing out a vent in the showers with the help of the warden.
  • The Supermax facility where Neal Caffrey is held during the White Collar pilot is managed in such a way that ordering a guard's uniform online and having it shipped to oneself at the prison is a viable escape plan. Clearly the staff doesn't monitor prisoners' Internet access or screen their mail for contraband. On top of that, the guards fail to recognize a prisoner because he just shaved off his beard.

  • As mentioned in the page quote, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" describes jails made of tin sheet metal, something the common man could tear down (if not punch right through) barehanded.
  • "Fish In The Jailhouse" by Tom Waits is about a prison inmate boasting that he can easily pick a lock with a fishbone. The chorus of the song goes:
    They're serving fish in the jailhouse tonight
    Oh boy, alright
  • Visual example: When Sammy Hagar and his band are in the cell toward the end of "I Can't Drive 55", he just knocks the door over and is right back on the road.
  • From "White Flag" on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach::
    I can break out of jail with a lighter
    So is there any point in makin' laws, blood?

  • The Goon Show episode "Tales of Old Dartmoor" involves the inmates of Dartmoor Prison escaping but taking the prison with them, leaving a literal cardboard replica in its place.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Very much the case in the Freedom City setting for Mutants & Masterminds; the character most focused on making it un-cardboard is the Warden, and he's a dangerously unstable Knight Templar.
    • The supplement Lockdown describes a prison that is secretly run by a crime syndicate. Trusted prisoners are often sent out on jobs and snuck back in afterward.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, in every edition prior to fifth, actually keeping any player character in a jail cell required ignoring the standard difficulties and statistics listed in the manual, as there is essentially nothing that a character cannot eventually bypass with repeated attempts and in many editions even an excellent lock requires only a moderately good roll by an untrained character to pick unless more gold than the entire listed wealth of the city has been spent on magical reinforcement.
  • The Pathfinder Adventure Path Way of the Wicked starts with the villainous party locked up in such a low-security jail that even at level 1 they can easily escape (or even slaughter all the guards by picking them off one by one) with no help except a few smuggled items and optionally a friendly ogre. This is addressed as the captain of the guard is a greedy, corrupt man who intentionally skimmed on security and regularly cons his own men out of money. In three days time an actually competent knight visits the prison and is appalled at the state of things, transferring the player characters to an actually safe prison or executing their death sentence.
  • Herd Your Horses is a three-in-one board game with its starting location in a corral. In Mustang Escape, the player characters are mustangs who escape from the corral on the first round of play. In Rancher's Round-Up and Rancher's Revenge, the player characters are ranchers who chase horses that have already escaped from the corral.
  • The Block in Sentinels of the Multiverse is not particularly good at containing supervillains, with the environment consisting almost entirely of escaped criminals and prison riots (with a few guard cards mixed in).

  • In Knickerbocker Holiday, the council find that they have nobody to hang on Hanging Day because all the inmates of the jail got out through a hole. The hole, cut by a previous prisoner, had been there at least since last December, but the councilmen couldn't agree who should fix it. The hole is closed with an iron grating just in time to prevent Brom from escaping.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • Freefall. All jails are made of cardboard if you're an alien squid.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • In strip #489, Roy Greenhilt justifies working with a Chaotic Evil halfling on the grounds that all prisons are cardboard to him, and this way he can be put to some good use. Considering that as of #745 they are both held in prison, but Roy won't let Belkar break them out.
    • The other characters have also proven time and time again that all prisons are cardboard to any high-level character.
    • Inverted when Roy suggests locking up the Linear Guild, on the grounds that in a world of Death Is Cheap, killing their prisoners would actually be less effective than locking them up. Once your allies can start casting Resurrection, the afterlife itself becomes one. And he might have been right if said prison wasn't almost immediately destroyed by an invading army.
    • Every world the gods have made to imprison the Snarl will eventually fail no matter how well they make it. This is because the Snarl was created from the combined powers of four pantheons. Since it killed one of the pantheons, every creation that followed was only made with the powers of three pantheons. As a result, each world that acted as its prison is less real than the Snarl.
  • It's not so much that the jails in Schlock Mercenary are made of cardboard as the characters are just brilliant at escaping, which isn't so hard when you wear low-profile power armour, which they generally get to keep since it looks like regular uniforms. In addition, the title character can become any shape he wants, and thus they have to use shields to contain him.
  • In Faux Pas, Stu justly brags that no-one ever built a make-up case that could hold him. (Foolish humans, thinking you can just put a rabbit in a box.)
  • In Cucumber Quest, Peridot complains that Cabbage hasn't escaped -- the door isn't even locked.
  • In Antihero for Hire, this trope is critical for Shadehawk's financial health. He gets paid for thwarting criminals. Every time a criminal either escapes prison or somehow obtains legal early release, he can get paid for thwarting their next scheme. If the supercriminals stayed thwarted, he'd run out of lucrative schemes to thwart and go bankrupt. This is also why he tries to take major criminals alive.
  • The first chapter of Sire has the girls escaping an asylum on high security lockdown. After killing a man and while still wearing a straight jacket. At the start of chapter 2 they are successfully stowed away on a boat to London. High security lockdown and the manhunt for a murderer mean nothing to the Hyde-Child.
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: The vast majority of the legal system in Throne has given up or fled. The only ones making any attempt to still uphold it are the angels, who have the Law forged directly into their bodies—and even then, most of them use Loophole Abuse to serve as mercenaries. Therefore, the few remaining pure angels will capture criminals, hold them for a week, and then deliver them to empty courthouses to await trial from judges who are long gone. At that point, the criminals can just walk out and return to their previous business.
  • In Monster Pulse, Lulenski brings four kids to SHELL and injects them with the chemical that causes an organ to become an independent, animate "monster." One of them gains a monster from her spine, and she's convinced that it's going to try and kill her in her sleep... so she keeps it behind a baby gate. One of the other kids points out that this is unlikely to be much help should it actually try anything.

    Web Original 

    Web Videos 
  • In Noob, which is set in present-day France, Master Zen apparently was able to escape prison by digging a tunnel out and was able to bring two of his future guildmates from Relic Hunter guild along with him. Granted that Valentin's player was his cellmate, but they had to pick up Elyx's player in entire different part of the prison.
  • Brutalmoose creates one of these while playing Prison Tycoon 3. He admits he had no idea at first how to make fences for the prison, so he just set up a bunch of watchtowers in a row, and called it "Satan's Honor System Hell Prison From Hell." Predictably, every prisoner escaped.

    Real Life 
  • "Open prisons" do exist in real life, where "escaping" can often be a simple matter of walking off the premises. However, these are only intended to be used for extremely low-risk prisoners with crimes like avoiding fines, minor white-collar crimes, and petty vandalism (and usually who have a life outside that it's not worth throwing away for the chance of escape)—for these criminals, the loss of freedom and privacy is considered "punishment enough"; if someone actually does escape it's the fault of the prison service for assigning them to that facility, more than that of the guards. There are also plenty of cases for low risk crimes where the "prisoners" only have to be in jail on weekends (usually so they can continue their careers) or are allowed to go back home on weekends. "Escaping" is as simple as not returning to your cell at your assigned time. However, when caught they'll be sent to a higher security prison with their sentence extended, and so most prisoners don't.
  • There are European countries where the only criminal charge associated with escaping from prison is the theft of one's prison uniform; mail it back, and an escaped prisoner won't have any time added to their sentence. That isn't to say they won't be made to resume their sentence if recaptured, nor that they can't be tried and convicted for any other crimes committed during the escape.
  • For the first 40 years of Folsom Prison's existence, the prison had no perimeter wall. Instead, the prison relied on the presence of six gatling guns to intimidate prisoners into staying put. Prisoners who made escape attempts were identified with a (hilariously appropriate) Red Shirt.
  • Pablo Escobar created the very prison he was sent to. He was still able to execute his enemies and commit drug trafficking deals. Many civilians claimed to have witnessed him in public while he was "in prison". Soon government troops raided the prison and faced a significant cartel force shooting back at them while Pablo escaped his "prison".
  • Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, a Mexican drug lord, managed to get out of a maximum security jail with little to no effort. He and his associates had to pull some mind-boggingly huge strings and had to spend shiploads of cash to do it, but his case caused such a massive outcry in the media, that the jail from where he escaped, called "Puente Grande" ("Great Bridge"), was nicknamed "Puerta Grande" ("Big Door").
  • Harry Houdini claimed (and was able to back up) the ability to escape from anywhere. He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. A police officer is reported to have said he was very glad Houdini was not actually a criminal. Houdini once performed this trick in the Tower of London. No matter what he did, he could not unlock the door. Then, on a hunch, he tried the door handle and found the door opened. The jailer, in an attempt to fool the magician, had deliberately not locked the door.
  • Magician and psychic debunker James "The Amazing" Randi was an escape artist in his younger days, and duplicated several of Houdini's acts. He specialized in breaking out of jail cells.
  • Magician David Copperfield was able to escape from Alcatraz in one TV special aired in 1987, and he had an obstacle installed that most prisoners did not: bombs installed in three locations to hinder him.
  • Jack Sheppard escaped from a London jail four times in succession. Once within a few hours, once within a week, and the last two times in under two months each. It's amazing London didn't stop letting prisoners have bed sheets by the time he was done.
  • Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote about such an occurrence in two of his blog posts (later published in book form). In the first he tells the news story of a man who escaped prison by making a fake ID and a set of civilian clothes, and simply walked out. In the second post he reveals that the man had been caught outside a bar, intoxicated and making no attempt to hide his identity. Adams theorizes that the prisoner had simply forgotten something like a pack of cigarettes or a pair of sunglasses in his cell and got caught on purpose so he could retrieve them, certain that he could escape again, and that this time he wanted to try it drunk.
  • Willie Sutton. Broke into banks, broke out of prisons.
  • John Dillinger escaped from the Crown Point Jail (at the time it probably was the highest-security prison in the country, certainly in Indiana) by carving a fake gun out of wood (or soap) and bluffed the guard into giving him his (real) gun which he used to take two men hostage, lock the entire staff in his cell, stole the sheriff's car and drove away. According to another version of the story he bribed a guard to give him a gun, and made up the story in order to cover for him. In the Illuminatus! trilogy he claims that he walked through the walls.
  • This trope is largely averted in real life. A great number of people assume that any "especially dangerous" criminal could easily get out of any prison, when it's really quite far from the truth. All it takes is a few high profile escapes, and that security is based on the assumption that it can fail, and putting in as many safeguards in to prevent it. Guards must go through an exhaustive background check, and their training has a high attrition rate for a reason. Also, some, such as military corrections officers, have a way of minimizing the risk of an inside job through simply rotating them to a different facility every few years.
  • Toño Bicicleta was a Puerto Rican criminal that was able to escape prison several times (seven times to be exact). The next time the cops caught him, they didn't even bother arresting him and they just shot him.
  • Two men escaped a maximum security prison in Greece by being picked up by a friend in a helicopter. Twice. Actually it was a rental tour helicopter. Which they took from the ROOF... Needless to say, many jokes emerged. (What is [escapee] doing in the prison courtyard? Checking in.)
  • A prisoner once accidentally escaped Fremantle Prison in Australia by being assigned to do maintenance on the prison wall, and falling off. Not wanting to harm his chances of parole, he simply walked back around to the main gate and asked to be let back in.
  • Socrates was supposedly put in one of these. He was put on trial for what amounted to asking people really hard questions in public and making them look dumb. He was sentenced to death after suggesting he only pay a fine. They only wanted to publicly best him and were surprised when he chose not to escape. They tried to make an escape easy, so people wouldn't see them as murderers. The cell was left unlocked, guards would take frequent breaks, and he could have almost definitely have had a student bribe his way out, but never did for two reasons. The first is his philosophy on the issue and the inevitability of the situation occurring again, and the second is that he saw it as an argument; by being executed, he proved his rivals unjust.
  • This was frequent on the roughest frontier edges of The Wild West. As the real setting wasn't nearly as lawless as it's portrayed in fiction, building jails was a low priority. The occasional prisoner would be locked in a storehouse, an animal pen, or, in at least one case, tent-pegged down under a buffalo skin while awaiting trial.
  • Alain Robert, the "French Spiderman", has been arrested and imprisoned many times in his career. He's stated that he could easily have escaped from the jails he's been placed in by scaling the walls, but it's easier to wait for his lawyers to spring him than become a fugitive.
  • In 5th Century Persia, Sasanian Prince Kavadh was twice sent to a place called "The Fortress of Oblivion" due to political upheavals. He escaped. Both times. Consequently, when he had to imprison his own son, that son was sent to a different prison.
  • Steven Jay Russell, the inspiration for I Love You Phillip Morris, escaped from prison so many times that his release date is now 2140, with him held in a solitary cell which is closely monitored at all times. He did this by trickery rather than anything dramatic like tunneling or going over the walls though.
  • It's not cardboard, but the walls of the Benewah County jail are in such poor shape that a prisoner once created a hole by removing the mortar with a plastic spoon, then lowered himself to the ground on a Bedsheet Ladder, just one of the many people to escape from there.
  • During World War II, a French POW made a deal with the guards of his prison camp — he would be "allowed" to escape the camp to visit his family back in occupied France (with the guards giving him false documents, skipping him during roll call, tasking one of their own to sleep in his bunk and generally looking the other way), and in return he had to promise that he would come back, and bring some rationed delicacies (wine, cheese, cutlery, etc.) for everyone. He did-several times, but it's not as surprising as it first appears. Most camps for French PoWs and forced labor were small affairs somewhere out in the country close to the farms they worked. The camps themselves were guarded by the (newly-drafted) farmers from these farms who were too old or too sick for front line duty. So you have guards who often shared their meals and always their work with those they guarded (and rumors suggest there were also quite a few 'family matters' binding them together). Under such circumstances it is not too hard to see how such a thing could happen.
  • Oflag IV-C in Colditz Castle during World War II was a strange case of being both this and an inescapable prison. This is because, despite the fact that the castle itself was meant to keep prisoners in, the attitude of the guards was that it was the POWs' duty to try to escape. They had a gentleman's agreement that the guards would not go rough on the prisoners and in turn the prisoners would not harm any guards in their escape attempts. This, combined with the fact that most of the prisoners in Colditz were sent there because they had previously tried to escape other POW camps, meant that Colditz had one of the highest records of successful escape attempts for a Nazi POW camp. Also, there were plenty who escaped from their original POW camps, but were caught before they could get out of Germany itself. Getting out of a prison barracks unnoticed is one thing, getting across an entire country or continent unnoticed is another.
  • Nomadic cultures often employ capital punishment for a wide variety of crimes for the expedient reason that there is no way to create a structure that is both secure and able to be easily dismantled and moved.
  • Of course, you yourself can invoke this trope. Just make a prison out of a cardboard box... and see how long it takes for someone or something to get out.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Good Cannot Apprehend Evil, Cardboard Jail


Savage and Maul in Prison

After Pre Vizsla usurped Maul and threw him into Mandalores' prison cells with Savage, the Brothers break out to find a new puppet for them to rule Mandalore through.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / CardboardPrison

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