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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Russell has more success by making buddies with the actual toughest guy in the slammer, Juggernaut, who has to be kept in a separate cell.
- In Guardians of the Galaxy, after Peter, Groot, Rocket and Gamora wind up at the Kyln, a big blue inmate caresses Peter inappropriately, implying 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?"
- 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, 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 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 dominate 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In the Black Dynamite episode "Taxes and Death" or "Get Him to the Sunset Strip!", Black Dynamite and Richard Pryor get thrown in a jail cell when Richard recklessly fires Black Dynamite's Cool Gun and shoots a tire on a police car. In the cell, the unprovoked Richard decides to issue ultimatum to the other cellmates that the improbably cool Black Dynamite will "whoop [their] ass[es]" if they try anything. Since everything Richard Pryor says elicits uncontrolled laughter to those around him, any attempts at being serious falls flat.
- Played with in the case of Webster "Web" Hubbell was 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 (aka "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).