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Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook

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Just try to tell her to shut up now.
"On the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook."

This is the idea that throwing people in jail makes them into worse criminals than they were before. Thrown in for petty crimes? Perhaps they may learn how to get away with serious crimes. Turned to crime for monetary reasons? It's going to be even harder to get a legitimate job with jail time on their record. Falsely convicted of crimes? Perhaps once absolved, they may get away with actual crimes partly because of the impression left by the false conviction... or may be "broken" into the criminals people think they are. Not to mention what they might have to do simply to survive such a brutal environment (kind of like He Who Fights Monsters, but more like He Who Survives Monsters).

Basically, this is the concept that Prison is "A College of Crime"; being in a dehumanizing "survival of the fittest" environment, having your reputation tarnished forever, and forced to live with the worst humanity can offer, will, just for the sake of survival, force you to rely on what you have learned inside; bad, violent or criminal behaviour.

Generally accepted to be Truth in Television (to an extent, anyway) and is one of the reasons for criminal recidivism (unemployment will force convicts to rely on what they have learned in prison to survive). One of the reasons many countries lean towards punishments other than jail for first-time offenders and put a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for people who are in jail.

Compare Wrongful Accusation Insurance, a subtrope of Hero Insurance in which the falsely convicted commits crimes and get away with it while proving his innocence of another crime. May also be related to Go Among Mad People.

May double as a form of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero when there were good intentions behind sending someone to prison.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • Bane was born and raised in an island prison with a less-than-sympathetic warden. Guess how he turned out...
    • A short story in one DC comic had a man wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to Arkham Asylum. By the time the error was discovered and the order to release him was given, the asylum and its unique blend of inhabitants had crushed his sanity.
    • A similar, albeit downplayed case happened with Warren White in Arkham Asylum: Living Hell. He was a genuinely guilty but entirely sane white-collar criminal who decided to try an Insanity Defense, being unfamiliar with Arkham. It didn't take long for him to get horribly disfigured, driven half-mad, and turned into the supercriminal Great White Shark.
    • In Batgirl, Charise Carnes was an innocent socialite who was wrongfully sent to Arkham for the murder of her parents — the actual culprit had been her then-boyfriend. After managing to appeal her sentence and get released, she became the vigilante Knightfall, violently murdering the poor and disadvantaged as part of a plan to gentrify the Cherry Hill neighborhood. Charise reveals she deliberately stayed in Arkham so she could learn from the inmates.
  • Jim Harper, aka The Guardian, took in a group of orphans known as The Newsboy Legion rather than let them be sentenced to Juvenile Hall for a petty crime, in part to specifically prevent this trope.
  • In Magic Powder, Timebomb, the dwarvish bomber, was innocent when he was first sent to prison — he was wrongfully arrested because it was assumed that he and his fellow demolitionists made a bomb that struck Thesz. After escaping, he was unable to find legitimate work and thus became a bomb-maker for the dwarvish mob.
  • Robin: Tim notes that Riot Act was always relatively harmless in comparison to Gotham's usual villains before he spent some time at Arkham during a prison transfer and was given some inspiration by the Joker.
  • In a sickly ironic twist, it was the Police Brutality he experience while wrongly incarcerated by the corrupt Senate in The Transformers (IDW) that finally convinces Megatron that writing poems and treatises won't change anything. The lesson he learned while held in prison and suffering beatings from the Senate's hatchetman (who later turns out to be Whirl of all people)? Peaceful resistance would never actually affect the Senate in any meaningful way, nor could he rely on reformers to actually succeed in overcoming the corrupt; the only message that the Senate could not ignore, was massive amounts of applied violence. Cue Megatron taking his first life in a worker riot, and then collecting his first Decepticon followers. Millions of years of war and hundreds of billions of deaths follow from this lesson.

    Fan Works 
  • Dermabrasion: Dabi relays to Hawks a story about a Single Mom Stripper who was arrested on false charges for drug trafficking for a gang. She was innocent — and a legal sex worker — but after the police tricked her into a False Confession they sent her to prison. Desperate, she took advantage of a villain breakout to escape prison, kidnapped her children from foster care, and ended up actually trafficking drugs for that gang, all because she had absolutely no faith in the system anymore.
  • In Origin Story, Wonder Man says this almost verbatim regarding Alex Harris. She became a criminal after escaping custody and hospitalizing several Avengers because she was going to be sent to prison for life because she was wrongly seen as a psychologically unbalanced superhuman.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Angels with Dirty Faces, Rocky Sullivan grows up into a notorious gangster after having been thrown into a reform school as a kid for stealing pens, and ends up going in and out of prison well into adulthood due to being corrupted. His friend, Jerry Connolly, escaped being thrown into the reform school by the police, and grew up to become a priest.
    Now let's go say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could.
  • In Ariel (1988), Kasurinen committed a few petty crimes before going to prison. After he breaks out, he has graduated to bank robbery and murder.
  • The main character of Blow (based on reality) said this about himself, as he was busted for dealing marijuana, and then came out with connections to the cocaine trade.
  • In Boys Town, Whitey Marsh's brother Joe, who is on death row, asks Father Flanagan to take Whitey in because Joe sees Whitey starting down the same path he took. Joe is afraid that Whitey will go to reform school and then learn how to be really bad.
  • In Caged, a young woman is sent to prison after having been an unknowing accessory to her husband's crime. By the end, she becomes a hardened convict and is on the road to becoming a professional criminal.
  • Discussed in Con Air where Larkin and Malloy come to a head over their conflicting viewpoints, with Larkin believing the system is responsible for criminals while Malloy sees them as just animals. They inevitably do become Fire-Forged Friends in the end, effectively agreeing that some cons like Poe are victims of the system and others like Cyrus really are heartless cruel bastards. Their very first interaction says it all:
    Vince Larkin: Cyrus is a poster child for the criminally insane. He's a true product of the system.
    Duncan Malloy: What's that supposed to mean? What are you, one of these sociology majors who thinks we're responsible for breeding these animals?
    Vince Larkin: No, but I can point a few fingers if it would make you feel comfortable.
  • Intentionally invoked in The Departed, where Costigan goes to prison to build up a reputation as a crook to be able to infiltrate The Irish Mob.
  • In An Innocent Man, Jimmie Rainwood (Tom Selleck) is framed as a drug dealer by two crooked cops who don't want to admit they busted into the wrong house and shot a man who simply walked out of the shower holding a hair dryer. Once he is convicted and ends up in prison, he ends up having to kill another inmate in cold blood to keep the inmate from raping him.
  • Bobby Earl Ferguson, in Just Cause, when his reasons for his entire conspiracy plot are brought to light in the film's climax: he was an intelligent and charming young student at Cornell with a bright future, who was accused of kidnapping and rape. While he ultimately was proven innocent in this case and all charges were eventually dropped, prior to this, the case's young prosecutor, Armstrong's wife Laurie, had him remanded without bail in order to make a name for herself, even though he had no prior record. While in jail, the other inmates, not knowing all the facts in the case, assaulted Bobby, beating him to an inch of his life, and castrating him. In addition, despite being cleared, the arrest and accusations caused Cornell to revoke Bobby's scholarship and expel him. Traumatized, mutilated, and with all his hopes of having a family, or at least a decent future now destroyed, Bobby developed a deep grudge against Laurie and plotted a dark vengeance against her: first, by committing a crime so heinous that the state would have no choice but to give him the death penalty (by actually raping and murdering a child), then manipulating the investigating officers into beating a confession out of him, then teaming up with an equally condemned serial killer into getting his conviction overturned, and then exacting revenge on Laurie by killing her and her daughter, before disappearing forever.
  • Chiron in Moonlight (2016) takes revenge on a bully who made his F Irst Love beat him up after school by breaking a chair on the back of his head in class, which leads to him being arrested and sent to juvenile detention. We later learn, that in juvenile he met a drug dealer who gave him a job, and he advances in his career to the point that after the Time Skip, we see him collecting money from underlings like his childhood father figure, Juan. When talking about this with Kevin, Chiron defends his lifestyle saying there wasn't many options for him with a violent criminal record.
  • In Murder in the First, a lawyer defends a convict accused of murdering a fellow convict, using the trope to try to get the charge reduced to involuntary manslaughter. They succeed.
  • Paddington 2, of all movies, plays with this trope, ultimately subverting it. Paddington is wrongfully convicted of robbing the local antique shop, and while in jail, he falls in with a gang of tough guys led by the prison cook Knuckles McGinty. Knuckles talks the credulous young bear into helping with an elaborate jailbreak plan, claiming that once free, they'll be able to clear his name. Paddington soon realizes what a terrible mistake he has made, but ultimately, it's his good influence on the criminals that wins out.
  • The whole point of A Prophet. An imprisoned petty criminal of Algerian origins rises in the inmate hierarchy, becoming an assassin and drug trafficker as he initiates himself into the Corsican and then Muslim subcultures.
  • Likewise in the Indonesian movie The Raid 2: Berandal, where undercover cop Rama spends three years in prison establishing himself as a thug named Yuda and befriending Uco, the son of the local crime boss. The word "berandal" basically means "thug".
  • Andy, from The Shawshank Redemption, is the Trope Namer. Falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, he goes from being an honest banker to using his banking skills to help launder money for the warden. This doesn't really make him any less sympathetic, as all the crimes he commits in jail were forced upon him, and actually a means to get his abusive jailers arrested.
  • Shot Caller: Jacob Harlon was originally convicted for two years after pleading guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge. He joins a skinhead gang in prison to survive and is forced to get his hands dirty more than once, starting by smuggling drugs and later by murdering snitches and rival gang members. During one of these attacks in the middle of a prison riot, the act is caught on camera, and Jacob is given an additional nine years (85% mandatory) on top of his original sentence and sent to the most secure section of the prison. Even after he leaves prison, he continues his activities for the gang on the outside, and orchestrates events so that he becomes the leader of the entire gang after killing his predecessor for threatening his family.
  • In Sleepers, four boys are sent to a juvenile detention facility where horrific sexual abuse at the hands of the guards changes their lives forever. Two of them become hardened gangsters while the other two are able to reintegrate into mainstream society, but all of them are either guilty of or complicit in illegal activities in pursuit of revenge.
  • Implied to be the case in The War Within. Hassan, a Pakistani engineering student in Paris, is kidnapped by the CIA on suspicion of terrorism, then sent back to Pakistan. In prison, he is brutally tortured, though released when his interrogators learn nothing. When we see him next, he's sneaked into the US and plotting to blow up Grand Central Station.

  • Discworld:
    • The idea of learning to commit more serious crimes is parodied on the Discworld, where the Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild, an entirely legal organisation, runs official classes in the city's main prison, the Tanty.
    • It's played darkly straight in Night Watch, where Vimes muses that Swing had missed the point of laws and the police — he's meant to be taking criminals and turning them into honest men, but instead he's taking honest men and turning them into criminals.
  • In the Dred Chronicles, Dred notes that even if people were sent to the chaotic Prison Ship Perdition on false convictions, they soon picked up the same way of doing things as the real criminals (or else they just died).
  • Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Max first was sent to prison as a student radical, became criminalized inside, and was rearrested for burglary after he got out. Harry (a prankster who accidentally made some politicians get into an accident and has them seek revenge) tries to avert this by keeping from taking part in the crimes of the group but eventually gets dragged in.
  • This is the point of the novel and movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on the real-life case of a man wrongly accused of a robbery and sent to the brutal Georgia prison system. After escaping — twice — he is forced into hiding, and in the film's memorable final scene, bids farewell to his former fiancee.
    Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.
    Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've gotta go.
    Helen: I can't let you go like this!
    Jim: I've got to.
    Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money? But you must, Jim. How will you live?
    Jim: [whispers] I steal!
  • The central character of The Mental State, Zack State, is originally arrested on account of Manslaughter Provocation (albeit an extremely brutal manslaughter with several casualties). However, once he finds himself in prison, his recently triggered sociopathic mindset enables him to perform several illegal acts without remorse. These acts include theft, blackmail, threats, arson, incitement, extortion, and drug-handling. Ironically, one of his objectives is to prevent this trope from happening to others.
    • Officer Reed unintentionally ends up going down this path. He is actually an undercover officer who infiltrates the prison in order to identify drug users and expose them. However, once he falls under Zack's control, he becomes a genuine drug addict and is even forced to assist Zack in his dodgy doings.
    • Sargent Haig is a sadistic yet still relatively law-abiding prison guard for most of the story. Then, after Zack frames him for dealing drugs and he ends up an inmate in his own prison, he resigns himself to joining the very criminals he used to despise in order to get revenge on Zack.
  • Happens to Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Misérables. After being released from a very long prison term for stealing a loaf of bread (which was "only" five years until he got it quadrupled for repeated escape attempts), he is unable to find work (because nobody is willing to hire a thief — at least not at a wage he can live on) and is forced to resort to stealing more valuable goods to survive. An unexpected act of mercy from the first person he robs after starting down this path leads to him undergoing a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Sherlock Holmes mentions this phenomenon in "The Blue Carbuncle", when he decides to release the man who stole the title gem: "This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life."
  • Discussed in the Spenser short story "Surrogate", regarding a man who was paid to rape a woman by her ex-husband, who met him while teaching a convict education program. Somewhat more ambivalent than many of the other examples.
    Spenser: Lot of guys like him in the joint. Sometimes, I suppose, it's the joint makes them like that. Sometimes being like that gets them into the joint in the first place.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat tries to deliberately invoke this trope, getting himself sent to prison to learn the tricks of the trade from real criminal minds. Of course, he quickly realizes his mistake: He won't find any criminal masterminds in prison, because they don't get caught.
  • Discussed in one of the many Author Tracts in Starship Troopers. When explaining why the future setting of the book uses corporal punishment rather than jail for punishment, a character explains that jails were a place for so-called "juvenile delinquents" to be surrounded by other criminals and learn how to commit far worse crimes than they'd been imprisoned for.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Parodied in Arrested Development when Tobias Funkë went to prison and accidentally killed the craziest guy in there. Tobias' psychoanalysis of the man broke his spirit and caused his suicide. Tobias gets a lot of street cred on the inside and his derogatory nickname "Dorothy" becomes a name to be feared.
  • In the Arrow episode "Vigilante", bank robber Eric Dunn's first time in prison was as an innocent man, having been convicted for a crime he didn't commit, either due to police negligence or corruption.
    Dunn: When I went to prison, I was innocent. When I came out, I wasn't so innocent no more.
  • Bones: Serial Killer Howard Epps, possibly. He could be a Manipulative Bastard all along, or maybe he learned it while on death row. When we first meet Epps, he's claiming to be innocent and trying to get exonerated, but it ends up he just reveals he's killed even more people than previously thought, so they have to keep him alive while they process the new bodies. When he returns in season 2, Epps is even more manipulative and playing serial killer games, leading the team on a merry chase with body parts as clues.
  • Oliver in the Breakout Kings episode "Steaks". Sent to prison for a joyride that accidentally resulted in a death, he is torturing and murdering people following his escape.
  • The Colbert Report: Parodied by Stephen Colbert with regards to Guantanamo Bay. He points out that, if someone is falsely accused of terrorism and sent to prison, he'd come out wanting to kill the people who locked him up. Hence, even an innocent person locked up for terrorism is at risk of becoming a terrorist. Thus, they should stay in detention.
  • Annie of "Darkest Timeline" in Community: She originally went crazy because she could not live with the guilt of Pierce's death and ended up being sent to an asylum. When Jeff manages to get her out, she has become completely insane and evil.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • In the episode "The Apprenticeship" they mention that prison is called "Crime U," because it gives criminals connections to make them better criminals. In this particular case, one man taught another his MO and presumably how he got away with his crimes or what he learned about hiding them by getting caught.
    • The ruined reputation version happens in "Carbon Copy." The killer but NOT the Replicator was wrongly arrested for the original case being copied. After his identity was leaked to the press, he was unable to clear his name. When he was caught, he declared that these deaths were the fault of the B.A.U., not him.
  • Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey apparently learned some interesting skills in prison. Forgery is particularly useful.
  • Sid Carter in Father Brown always had a penchant for mischief and petty theft, but was changed from a Lovable Rogue to a hardened vengeance-seeker after spending a year in jail for a crime he didn't commit.
  • Game of Thrones: Tyrion is falsely accused in Season 4 of killing his nephew, the King, and is sentenced to death by his own father, who fully knows he's innocent but wants to get rid of him, anyway. When freed by Jaime on the night before his execution, he pays one final visit to his father and commits a double homicide that will almost certainly taint his reputation for the rest of his life.
    • Cersei was always a high-horse backstabbing bitch, but being chained, shaved, and in a position of despair left her fractured but whole when she crawled back to her throne. This is an extremely bad situation to be in when one of the previous rulers installed self-destruct explosives in every district, with the kill switch in the hands of the current queen.
  • On Homicide: Life on the Street, Junior Bunk Mahoney was a none-too-bright enforcer for his heroin-slinging family, and couldn't stop weeping when the squad brought him in. Fast forward a couple of years, and he's a gleeful sociopath who shoots up the squad room, injuring several main characters.
  • Law & Order: Subverted when a man who spent fifteen years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him is released and then kills someone. His lawyer tried to argue that prison replaced his morality with a fight-or-flight instinct. Then it's revealed that he was a murderer before he went to prison, he just wasn't guilty of the murder he was convicted for.
  • Law & Order: SVU:
    • This is the message of the episode "Making A Rapist". A man wrongly convicted of rape is released after serving sixteen years in prison. After making friends with the woman formerly believed to be his victim, he's accused of her daughter's rape and murder. It turns out he did do it, after years of rape and beatings by fellow prisoners. He became attracted to her daughter, then when she laughed him off, he (while drunk) flew into a rage. This episode is based on the case of Steven Avery, a man who was wrongly convicted of rape and attempted murder charges in 1985. After being exonerated in 2003, he was then arrested for murder in another case and convicted. Though he maintains he's innocent, the documentary on his case is named Making A Murderer, implying the producers feel the same way (assuming he really did it).
    • Subverted in another episode where a boy who murdered a younger child claims he did it because of the effects of his time at a reform school-type camp, where other participants had abused him. But when the detectives investigate, they determine that many of his stories were false, and that he had in fact been the one terrorizing other participants.
    • Inverted and played straight in "Criminal". Javier Vega started out as a drug-addicted murderer who got clean in prison. After he got out, he became a respected professor, but was then framed for a murder he didn't commit and sent to jail. By the time the detectives realized he was framed, he had already gone back to drugs.
  • Life: When we meet Arthur Tins in season 1, he's a low-rate con artist who Crews sends to prison. When we see him again in season 2 after he's escaped, he's a hardened criminal who murders one man, robs an armored car, and takes a family hostage.
  • Midsomer Murders: In "Murder of Innocence", tragically, Grady Felton actually was innocent of the crime he was sent to prison for. But the injustice of his wrongful imprisonment left him so embittered that he plotted and executed a spree of murders against everyone he considered to have wronged him.
  • When Earl goes to prison in My Name Is Earl, he meets a prisoner who's on his list for accidentally being sent to juvie by him. When he gets out of prison, the public takes one look at his shaved head, his prison tattoos, and the tough guy persona he adopted inside to stay alive and decide he's a crook. So he lives up to their expectations by becoming one.
    • Defied by Earl himself. He went to jail to save his ex-wife, who had two prior offenses and would get a harsher sentence. At the beginning of the episode, in lieu of the usual Opening Narration, Earl explains how he ended up in prison, ending with "My name is inmate #28301-016." At the end of the episode, however, Earl vows to not forget the progress he has made since his days as a petty crook.
      Earl: The next two years were going to be hard, but now I knew I couldn't survive them by doing the same thing Glenn had; let prison turn me into someone I didn't recognize. I realized no matter how scared I get, if I'm going to survive in prison, I have to do it as myself. Cause my name isn't inmate number 28301-016. My name is Earl.
  • An important theme in Orange Is the New Black. Sweet, wide-eyed characters like Piper, Brook, and even Red commit relatively minor crimes, are stuck in an environment where they are dehumanized and broken down, and quickly morph into angry cynics unafraid to hurt others.
  • Tobias Beecher in Oz. Imprisoned for vehicular homicide, he is a murderer several times over by the end of the series.
  • Jack from Sprung (2022) was a young weed dealer who considered stealing to be morally wrong before he was sent to prison. During his time inside, however, he befriended many thieves and learned the various tricks of the trade from them. He uses this knowledge to pull jobs and get by once he's released.
  • The short-lived 1974 TV series Sword Of Justice has rich playboy Jack Cole framed for massive fraud and embezzlement and sent to jail for five years. Realizing he's not the first to get screwed over like this, Cole spends the time talking to his fellow inmates to learn all the tricks of theft ("They say this place is a college for criminals. Well, I want to go to school.") When he finally gets out, he uses those skills to take down other white-collar crooks.
  • Tidelands (Netflix): Downplayed. After being in prison for 10 years for arson and manslaughter, Cal takes part in the Orphelin Bay drug trade. It turns out she'd been framed to begin with. Given she's shown having to fight off two other inmates right before being released, it's apparent she grew hard for survival there.
  • The Wire:
    • Interestingly, there are no straight examples involving characters that go to actual prison (most of whom were rather hardened before they went in), but the trope is played brutally straight for a group home. Good-natured schemer Randy Wagstaff is branded a snitch and finds that his peers and the local gangsters are suddenly his mortal enemies. Despite police protection, his home is torched, his foster mother is badly burned, and he's at the mercy of social services. A remorseful detective tries desperately to find him a better option, but ultimately Randy has no choice but to go to a group home. The following season, the police go there to try to question him again, and we find that his cheery disposition has vanished without a trace, and he's casually assaulting other kids just to maintain cred.
    • Dennis "Cutty" Wise is a complete inversion. Leaving prison after fourteen years, he wavers on whether he should rejoin his old gang or go straight. Going straight is predictably difficult, so he gets back into the game as a hitman. It seems easy, as he's experienced and still has a towering reputation among the older generation. When it comes time to kill, however, he finds out that he no longer has it in him. He bows out and buckles down to find some work that provides a community service.
      Slim Charles: B, he was a man in his time, you know?
      Avon: Yeah. He a man today. He a man.

  • A lot of songs written by Johnny Cash, especially the ones he performed at prisons such as Folsom, are about how the entire justice system (or "justice", as he might have called it) is flawed.
  • This is a common theme in Steve Earle songs.
  • In The Foremen's song about the failure of the California educational system, "California Couldn't Pay Our Education", in the end, California did pay their education, when it sent them to prison for petty theft, and they learned how to avoid getting caught again.
  • Pawnshop Guitars: It's not made clear why Gilby Clarke's character is being sent to jail in "Tijuana Jail." He sticks a switchblade from his boot in a guard's throat to make his escape.
  • Also referenced by Tupac Shakur in "Trapped."
    Too many brothers, daily, headed for the big pen; niggas comin' out worse off than when they went in.

  • In Dead End, Gimpty recalls that "Baby-Face" Martin Used to Be a Sweet Kid before he was sent to reform school, from which he "came out tough and hard and mean, with all the tricks of the trade." Drina is driven to despair at the thought that reform school will do the same to her brother Tommy.
  • Sweeney Todd was an ordinary barber and family man until a lecherous judge had him falsely imprisoned so he could steal his wife. Sweeney returns to London a broken man who vows revenge on the judge, deciding to also murder and cannibalize several innocents in the meantime to slake his bloodlust.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Knight has a downplayed version discussed at the end of the side quest involving rescuing firemen, which ends with the reveal that the chief had been aiding and abetting Garfield Lynns, AKA Firefly, with arson in order to save his crew's jobs, resulting in Batman taking him to prison once he was saved from his kidnappers. If the quest is complete before the end of the City of Fear Campaign then the Joker hallucination will comment on how putting the Chief in prison is likely to result in him becoming, as Joker puts it "A fully formed criminal, just what Gotham needs!"
  • This is the backstory of Glitch from the Battletech video game: As a teen, she was falsely assigned as a criminal due to a system glitch (hence her callsign) and spent her formative years in a FedSun prison, where she had to learn how to act like a hardened criminal just to survive. By the time she was released, becoming a mercenary was about the only thing she was qualified to do.
  • In Chrono Trigger, Crono is falsely accused of kidnapping, thrown in jail, and sentenced to death on spurious grounds. Depending on the player's actions, the worst thing he's done before going to jail is stealing and eating an old man's lunch. Escaping execution for a bum rap has him murdering guards left and right. However, if you go back to the castle after this has happened as soon as possible, you will find a group of guards discussing the behavior of the prison guards. They describe the guards as strange people brought in by the Chancellor, foreshadowing him being the descendant of Yakra from 600 A.D.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, if you opt to go to prison after you get arrested, there's a random chance your Sneak and Security skills will go up as a result of learning some new techniques from your fellow inmates. When you get out, you'll quickly be given an invitation to the Thieves' Guild (or in the case of murder, Dark Brotherhood). which will make you into a more hardened and successful criminal. This can be especially notable if you went to jail for a crime as petty as stealing an apple.
    • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: In Markarth, if you follow the CSI-themed questline to the end, you get framed for serial-killing and sentenced to prison for life. The only ways out are to either murder an imprisoned gang leader or help him with a messy and violent jailbreak that ends in revenge. Note that you can do both but it means you've just killed the only two people in Markarth trying to make serious changes for the city.
  • Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time: It's revealed that the Big Bad of the game, Le Paradox, also comes from a long line of thieves, much like Sly does. However, they were nowhere near as good as the Coopers, and Le Paradox's father was arrested after showing up a little too late to steal the world's largest diamond. This left Le Paradox with no one to show him how to be a thief and he was quickly arrested as well. Once in jail, he began to pick up the skills on how to be an effective thief and left prison as a criminal mastermind.

    Web Animation 
  • After being captured in Red vs. Blue, Grif claims this has happened to him and suggests he and Church rob a liquor store on their way home after they're let out... even though he's only been in jail for five hours.
    Grif: Time moves slower on the inside. It seemed like seven or eight hours to me.
  • In the Zero Punctuation review of Skyrim Yahtzee jokes that the PC of each game was locked up for a minor adventure-related crime before becoming a full-blown adventurer as a result of their incarceration

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In the Family Guy episode "Dial Meg for Murder", Meg falls in love with a convict and goes to jail for harboring him after he escapes. When she comes out, she is a lot meaner and starts fighting back against everyone who mistreated her. By the end of the episode, Brian has to stop her from robbing a convenience store at gunpoint.
  • Hit-Monkey: The Accountant was a white collar criminal who was locked up in a Hellhole Prison and left in a particularly nasty cell block full of the worst offenders in the prison, which had been walled off from the rest of the prison. He eventually went mad and took over the cell block by using his connections on the outside to control the drug supply, forcing inmates to the death for his own amusement.
  • The Simpsons plays with this. Recurring antagonist Sideshow Bob was already a criminal but didn't start off trying to kill anybody, only framing Krusty for armed robbery so he can take over his show and make it better since he was abused by Krusty on live air. But after Bart exposes him and gets him incarcerated, all Bob can think about is plotting horrible revenge against Bart, and has ever since.
  • In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, this is how The Kingpin came to be — originally sent to prison for larceny after one of his dad's scams went south and his bulk prevented him from following his father up a fire escape. Once he comes out, he's got 'connections' and uses what he's learned to begin building his criminal empire.
  • Played with in an episode of Static Shock. When D.J. Rock, a corrupt music producer who caters to rappers, is arrested for plagiarizing Rubberband Man's music, he sees an upside to it, saying that some time in jail might improve his "rep" and thus be good for business when he gets out. However, Static has a different opinion, telling him that this case might cause other victims to come forward, meaning that by the time he does get out, his music will be good for nothing but the discount bins.
  • Wasp, from Transformers: Animated, gets falsely arrested as a Decepticon spy in the backstory (shown in a flashback episode). By the time he escapes over half a century later (Cybertronians are long-lived), he's almost Gollum-like in his insanity and later becomes an actual Decepticon.
  • Referenced in King of the Hill. A guy tries to steal Hank's truck but is caught and arrested. The judge says that if he sends him to prison, the other criminals there are just going to teach him how to be a better thief. Instead, the judge decides that, since he likes trucks so much, his sentence is to live in one.

    Real Life 
  • Clyde Barrow started as a petty crook prior to meeting Bonnie Parker. He got arrested first for failure to return a rental car, and then for being caught with his brother Buck in a stolen truck of turkey. In 1930, he started a two-year sentence at Eastham Prison Farm for robbery. In prison, Clyde was reportedly raped and beat another inmate to death. After he got out in February 1932, his crimes became more violent and more often involved murder. Some theorize that Bonnie and Clyde's crime spree from 1932 to May 1934 was not so much For the Evulz as it was Clyde seeking revenge against the Texas prison system.
  • John Dillinger was 21 when in September 1924, he and a pool hall buddy named Ed Singleton robbed a Mooresville, Indiana grocer named Frank Morgan. Two days after the attack, Dillinger was arrested, and thinking the judge would be lenient enough to let him off if he pled guilty and apologized, he didn't bother to hire a lawyer. This was a big mistake, as the judge sentenced him to a 10-20-year sentence in Indiana's Pendleton Reformatory. It was in Pendleton that Dillinger met two of the partners who would be by his side during his infamous 1933-1934 bank robbery spree: Harry "Pete" Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter, both of whom were doing time for armed robberies (Van Meter for highway robbery on a train, Pierpont for bank robbery). All three of these guys were soon transferred to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where Dillinger met most of the other men who would be by his side, including Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and John "Red" Hamilton. They all taught him the art of bank robbery. When Dillinger was paroled in May 1933, he immediately started robbing banks in Indiana and Ohio for money that he used to pull off arrangements to smuggle guns into the prison to break out Makley, Pierpont, Clark, and Hamilton.
  • Ruslan Alpysbayuly Kulikbayev went to prison for robbery, then again for firearms offences. While in prison, he got into contact with Salafists, who radicalised him, culminating in his perpetration of a terrorist attack in 2016.
  • Colombian serial killer Pedro López started as a petty thief but graduated to murder after getting raped in jail.
  • The self-confessed Serial Killer Carl Panzram (hanged 1930) stated that he had been driven to become brutal and loathe humanity in general over his horrific treatment inside various prisons (starting with a reform school while a juvenile). Keeping with common practice in that era, this included flogging, electrocution and long periods of isolation. He would escape on multiple occasions, committing thousands of robberies, burglaries, rapes and 21 murders. The one guard who showed him kindness, Henry Lesser, encouraged him to write an autobiography in which he confessed his misdeeds (not all of them were verified, though many murders have been). Panzram bitterly said that "the only way to reform a man is to kill him" after this prison experience, and fantasized about genocide against humanity as part of the nihilistic philosophy which he developed. He was hanged for the murder of a prison employee in Leavenworth, going to his death with eagerness. Panzram stated that if people wanted to reform prisoners, this was definitely not how it was done, and they would produce many more criminals like him if things didn't change. Panzram started with petty thefts and graduated to serial murders over time.
  • Danny Trejo inverted this trope. After several stints in jail for drugs and armed robbery, he began working as a drug counsellor for at-risk youth. Having been cast as a prison extra in Runaway Train, he was recognized by the screenwriter Eddie Bunkernote , whom he had done time with, and was offered the chance to train the actors in boxing. After seeing him at work, the director offered him a small speaking role as a prison boxer; 250 film and TV credits later, he still hasn't stopped acting. He has said "Everything good that's ever happened to me came out of helping others."


Video Example(s):


The Kingpin

Wilson Fisk (formerly Wilson Moriarty) started out as an apprentice to the small time crook that was his father. After being abandoned by his father and being left to rot in prison, he acquired the skills needed to become a criminal mastermind and the head of New York City's underworld.

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Main / HadToComeToPrisonToBeACrook

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