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First Rule of the Yard

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"First rule of the yard, fuck-face — find the biggest guy and make him your—"
Russell Collins (before one of Black Tom Cassidy's thugs punches him in the face), Deadpool 2

Whether it is a temporary jail-cell in a small-town precinct or a privately owned maximum-security nightmare, you are likely to be stuck in an enclosed area full of tough-as-nails, neck-tat hooligans who will either poke you full of holes or plug the holes you already have at the first sign of weakness. Might Makes Right and dog-eat-dog in a place full of serial-killers and thugs who think that Violence is the Only Option and you need to send a message that you ain't nobody's bitch.

Or at least that's how it always is in the movies.

When stuck in a cell, the main character or their overconfident, instigating friend will instantly try and be the tough guy. When played seriously, the first person they meet will immediately want to pick a fight with them out of a show of dominance, or perhaps they just don't like their face and we need something to justify their time in this cell. In other cases, the protagonist or their friend will have a case of Wrong Genre Savvy and act out the trope with the belief that there is Truth in Television. Either way, someone is going to get hurt.

If the guards don't notice any of this, then The Guards Must Be Crazy.


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    Comic Books 
  • Spider-Gwen: During Gwen's stint in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s prison she runs afoul of Titania, a superpowered inmate who has routinely been the victim of this trope and decides to invert it by attacking the new inmate first.
  • Inverted in The Punisher MAX story "The Cell". As Frank is escorted to his cell, the wardens (who aren't even hiding that they're on the take) stop to introduce him to the most dangerous guy in Riker's, a Scary Black Man nicknamed Squeaky Pete ("he don't like usin' lube"), and promise that Frank will face him very soon. Frank's response is to take out his wardens and then kill Pete in the next few seconds before telling them to send the next most dangerous.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Discworld tale Gap Year Adventures, the first experience Rivka ben-Divorah has of Smith-Rhodesia is a prison cell. It's down to a forgotten lump of bhong resin that Customs find in her travelling backpack. Of course, the Queen Bee in the cell thinks a petite, slightly-built, foreigner is going to be easy meat. Rivka remarks afterwards
    I was a student at the Assassins' Guild School for seven years. After that, prison has no fears whatsoever.

    Films — Animation 
  • Invoked by Link in Monsters vs. Aliens when introducing himself to Ginormica.
    Link: Wow, look at you. I know what you're thinking: first day in prison, you wanna take on the toughest guy in the yard? Well, I'd like to see you try.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Subverted in Ant-Man. The movie opens with Scott in jail facing off against another inmate, but it turns out to be a sort of friendly hazing for people being released from jail.
  • In Deadpool 2, both Deadpool and Russell Collins wind up in the Ice-Box, a Hellhole Prison designed to imprison dangerous mutants. Familiar with the trope, Russell stashes a pen in "the old prison wallet" with the intent of finding the toughest prisoner there and shanking him with it. When he tries invoking it on Black Tom Cassidy, he gets punched in the face for his trouble. Undeterred, he tries several more times and suffers a worse beating each time. Deadpool eventually chides him for it and points out how this will end, and advises Russell befriend the toughest guy instead. He takes this to heart and has success with the actual toughest guy in the slammer, Juggernaut, who has to be kept in a separate cell.
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), after Peter, Groot, Rocket and Gamora wind up at the Kyln, a big blue inmate caresses Peter inappropriately, implying that he plans on raping him, before Groot grabs him by his nostrils. Rocket proceeds to make it clear to all of the other prisoners that Peter belongs to him and that anyone who even thinks of going after them has to get past Groot.
  • Discussed in Office Space: "Conjugal visits? Not that I know of. Now, a minimum security prison is no picnic. I have a client in there right now. You see, the trick is, kick someone's ass the first day or become someone's bitch. Then everything will be all right. Why do you ask, anyway?"
  • Dwayne Johnson's FBI profier is challenged by the top dog in a Russian prison when outed by Ryan Reynolds' art thief in Red Notice.
  • Deconstructed in Shot Caller. Jacob Harlon realizes that he has to win favor with one of the local prison gangs for protection, so when a random inmate challenges him in front of them, he immediately starts a fight to save face. They take him in afterwards, but their subsequent demands for him to smuggle drugs only ends up drawing him further and further into the gang.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: M. Gustave mentions that in prison, "never be a candy-ass". He gets in a fight with an inmate who questioned his virility, and this gets him accepted by his cellmates as one of their own.
  • Variation in American History X. Derek Vinyard is sentenced to two years in prison for manslaughter for his killings, and knows he has to join a gang to survive. He does this by deliberately working out in front of a black gang with his massive swastika chest tattoo on full display, in view of a group of onlooking Neo-Nazi gang members.

  • In Blossom, Burke advises the nephew of a friend how to survive in prison, including instructing him in how to fight and advising him to immediately get stuck into the first person who tries intimidating him, which will also make people think he might be crazy, which will make them cautious of him. This is only a temporary solution however, so Burke also pays off the toughest guy in the prison to protect him as well.
  • As a youth The Stainless Steel Rat gets himself thrown into prison so he can be educated on how to be a criminal. When his cellmate tries to attack DiGriz he easily disarms the man, whereupon his cellmate breaks down crying. It's then that DiGriz realises this wasn't such a good idea after all, as he's stuck in prison with petty bullies and losers instead of criminal masterminds.
  • Worm: When Lung is first put in the Birdcage, he decides to invoke this. He's fully aware he's not the strongest parahuman in the place, but he still goes on a rampage and murders a few of the weaker inmates just to prove he's too dangerous for anyone to screw with. That, and the first inmate he murdered was his former subordinate, whom he blamed for having gotten them locked up in the first place.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life", Frank and Mac knock Dennis unconscious with a nail-gun and drive nails into his hands with it to fake a stigmata in order to act out the fictional parts of Dennis's erotic memoir to legitimize them. It Makes Sense in Context. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the rehabilitation center that Frank and Mac left him in, only to be verbally assaulted by Sinbad and his "bitch" Rob Thomas. His entire stay there, Dennis is abused by Sinbad, who acts as though they are in a prison that Sinbad tries to be the dominant one in, made especially funny when the employees don't run it like a prison and Sinbad pretends to be affable when they are around. Considering we find out later that the clinic is actually just an empty warehouse and that Sinbad is a figment of Dennis's concussed imagination, Sinbad's role as the Scary Black Man is all just a part of Dennis's own Wrong Genre Savvy.
  • Parodied in The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon Cooper — a character who might otherwise be thought to be vulnerable — is briefly imprisoned. Thrown into a holding cell, he is appraised by the other inmates in a way that he is oblivious to and which might not augur well if played for drama. Instead, Sheldon glares at the big, hard, tough-looking con in the place nearest the door and says "You're in my spot". Figuring that anyone that harmless-looking who is willing to get in his face must be a real maniac psycho, the tough-looking con surrenders the spot. Sheldon is unmolested.
  • Parodied in Blackish. When Junior is kicked out of his private school and has to go to public school, everyone in the family is worried. Zoe tells him that surviving in public school is easy: you just find the biggest kid and pick a fight with him. Junior has a chair lifted to hit said kid in the head when he overhears the kid's conversation about Harry Potter and makes friends with him instead.
  • Discussed in Mom. When Regina is about to go to jail for embezzlement, Bonnie suggests her to pick the toughest convict she finds and knock her down, to show who's boss. Regina is not convinced:
    Regina: But doesn't that mean sooner or later someone's gonna whack the crap out of me?
  • On My Name Is Earl, Earl is sent to Prison in Season 3, and worried about how he's going to survive. He tries to pick a fight with the biggest, toughest-looking guy there, but chickens out. (And though that guy looked big and mean, later in the episode it's revealed that he's more of a Gentle Giant than anything else.)
  • Shadow and Bone: Upon Pekka's arrival at Hellgate, Matthias' cellmate immediately tries to kill him for revenge against his dead brother. Pekka overpowers him and bashes his head in, quickly bringing the prisoners under his sway.

  • Sam Garland from Reddit, better known as Poem_for_your_sprog, observes that trying to enact this trope in real prison is a very good way to get yourself killed:
    When Little Timmy grabbed a throat
    And held it very tight,
    He grabbed and squeezed and paused to gloat -

    And went to jail that night.

    "A prison's full of fearsome folk,"
    His father grumbled, gruff -
    "You'll have to make your mark," he spoke,
    "To show them all you're tough!"

    So Timmy chose the biggest six
    And loudly, proudly cried -
    "I hear you've all got tiny dicks!"

    And Timmy fucking died.

    Video Games 
  • Escape from Butcher Bay. Within a day of arriving in the Single-Max level of Butcher Bay, Riddick has openly challenged, then hunted down and killed Rust, heretofore the toughest inmate and leader of the Aquila Gang. This earns him the enmity of Abbot, the chief guard and The Man Behind the Man to Rust, and directly leads to a Prison Riot because of the resulting Evil Power Vacuum.
  • The Kiwami remake of Yakuza states that this was partially the reason why the Tojo Clan chairman sent an assassin after Kiryu when he was in jail. A substory reveals that Chairman Sera did so partly to see if Kiryu was capable of surviving prison as well as to ensure that no one would mess with him afterwards.

    Web Animation 
  • Subverted in the The Cyanide & Happiness Show short "Prison", where a new prisoner plans to beat up the biggest, meanest looking guy around to gain respect. He lands a series of sucker punches on a huge, heavily tattooed man... and finds out that the guy he attacked is the most beloved and nicest man in the prison. All the other prisoners promptly attack the new guy in outrage.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Played with in the case of Webster "Web" Hubbell, a friend of President Bill Clinton. He got convicted of over-billing clients and was sent to prison. He told a reporter that the first day the prison was crowded so he was kept in solitary (a.k.a. "the Hole") because the guards didn't have a cell for him at the time. As soon as one opened they put him in general population. Hubbell said that another prisoner asked what cell block he came from, he pointed to the solitary confinement wing. Hubbell said that the inmate's eyes went wide and the story spread across the prison. He says that he never had a problem with the other inmates after that (being 6 feet tall also helped him).


Video Example(s):


Sinbad bullying Dennis

In "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life", Mac and Frank beat Dennis within an inch of his life and leave him in a rehab center (long-story) where he is dominated by Sinbad.

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