Follow TV Tropes


Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All

Go To

"Of course he can get out of there whenever he wishes. He can even be declared innocent if he wanted. But he doesn't do that, because he has no need to leave the building."
Bruno Bucciarati (in regards to Polpo, a mafia caporegime), JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Vento Aureo

Sometimes the Big Bad is such a Manipulative Bastard that throwing them into prison isn't much of a hindrance to them. It's not necessarily that they're in a Cardboard Prison from which they can get out at any time, or that they're in a Luxury Prison Suite and thus might not even notice their circumstances. Rather, it's that while they're in prison, they are still capable of leading their organization and moving their schemes against the good guys forward. Prison is just a change of location for them, and won't slow down their evil plot to Take Over the World for one nanosecond. Even better, the villain is now in a secure location protected by high walls and armed men, and surrounded by fellow criminals who are easily manipulated thanks to their own lack of opportunities. It's like a made-to-order Supervillain Lair provided by the taxpayer!


In fact, the greatest of chessmasters actually plan for their eventual imprisonment and make getting caught a part of their overall Evil Plan from the beginning. This way they benefit regardless of their plan's success or failure.

Often combines with a Luxury Prison Suite in the worst cases. Compare Leaking Can of Evil for similar effects with supernatural evils.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Polpo, the high-ranking mafia operative from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Vento Aureo, stays in his cell for a couple of reasons. Partly, it's because he can still give orders to his men, he can get anything he wants in his Luxury Prison Suite and his stand, Black Sabbath, is automatic and has nearly infinite range, thus it can be summoned to pursue his enemies while he stays comfortably in his prison cell. However, the main reason for Polpo staying in prison is because he's so massive that getting him out would be a pain.
  • In Psychic Squad, Kyosuke is the world's most powerful psychic. He is kept in a cell that is supposed to block all psychic powers. He has no difficulty leading his esper organization PANDRA from there (even going as far as having some of the members in the same cell without anyone knowing).
  • In Gunsmith Cats, Gray is able to keep control of his gang and even orchestrate his own escape from inside prison.
  • In Baki the Grappler Biscuit Oliva aka Mr. Unchain has a personal library, is allowed to drink, smoke, and indulge in five-course meals on prison grounds. He basically treats the prison as a personal manor in exchange for capturing criminals for the police.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Green Lantern comics, powerfully telepathic arch-villain Hector Hammond's body is imprisoned (he's serving multiple life sentences) and is supposedly under the effects of a psionic inhibitor... but Hammond's mind is so powerful that he can still telepathically control people hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the prison without ever leaving his cell.
    • Something similar happened in his first appearances in The New 52's Superman; though he was kept in an unconscious state and monitored 24/7, he was able to exert his power enough to mess with Superman, and ultimately even take over his mind.
  • Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Lex Luthor regularly ran his criminal enterprises from the inside of his prison cell. Of course, it was basically understood, if not ever explicitly admitted, that Luthor was in prison only as long as Luthor wanted to be in prison. Post-Crisis, that is still true, but this time he'll usually just wait for his lawyers to get him out instead.
  • The Kingpin zig-zags this trope. On the one hand, he is still fully capable of running a criminal enterprise from inside prison and once even tricked Iron Man into eliminating a competitor on the outside for him, able to do so because he still had enough information on the wider criminal underworld to make deals and manipulate the authorities. In a one-shot, an ex-con who had been in prison for years remarks that the Kingpin is still the number 1 crime boss in the city after all that time, despite Fisk being behind bars at that point. On the other hand, he's only in prison after Daredevil managed to bring down most of his old criminal empire so what he had was just a shadow of his former glory, and while in prison he had made enough enemies that a lot of guys — even some of his own men — made repeated attempts to kill him. It's blatantly clear from his numerous failed deals and escape attempts that he didn't want to be in prison, and Daredevil as well as the Feds took twisted pleasure in making sure he stayed there every time he thought he was about to get out. Eventually, he only does because his wife convinces Matt to be his lawyer and gets all charges dropped.
  • An unusual version in the Marvel Universe: The Mad Thinker spent several years of real time in an ordinary prison cell—but his brain implant enabled him to project his mind into android duplicates, enabling him to enjoy life and go on the occasional crime spree.
  • Batman:
    • Foe Warren White, aka the Great White Shark, runs a profitable criminal empire (mostly catering to fellow members of Batman's Rogues Gallery) from inside Arkham Asylum. White was originally just a white-collar criminal who very stupidly used the Insanity Defense to avoid going to prison for committing the biggest fraud in U.S history — the judge chose to send him to Arkham, which was a hundred times worse. White only became a psychotic crime boss after he was sent to Arkham and endured all the abuse and trauma and mutilation that came with it (with half the staff turning blind eye since White's crime touched them too) — he didn't even have a criminal empire before he went in!
    • The Ratcatcher can control the massive amount of rats in Gotham from inside of his prison cell.
    • In The '70s, when The Joker had his own bi-monthly comic book, the writers had a conundrum. On one hand, the Comics Code Authority at the time required that villains never get away at the end of a story, to show that Justice Will Prevail. On the other hand, showing a new elaborate escape at the beginning of every issue would get tedious and take precious pages away from the story they wanted to tell. Their solution? Give the Joker an Elaborate Underground Base located directly beneath Arkham Asylum, called the "Ha-Hacienda". He even had a Secret Underground Passage in his cell. Apparently, nobody at the CCA tripped to the Fridge Logic of "punishing" someone by imprisoning him in a place he can walk out of at any time.
  • Daredevil villain Mr. Fear at the end of the Hell to Pay storyline. In addition to the above-mentioned Kingpin. Hell, most of Daredevil's higher tier villains...
  • In X-Men Noir, Warden Halloway gives the prisoners at the Welfare Island Penitentiary free rein to do whatever they want - because crime lord inmate Sean Cassidy is running a heroin trade out of the joint and bought him off with the proceeds.
  • Ethan Harrow in Hard Time has the power to leave his body as an invisible force that can manipulate objects and people. He doesn't use this to commit crimes, but being able to more or less leave the prison freely at night goes a long way towards keeping him sane. He's serving 50 to life, he needs something to hold onto to keep him from losing his spirit.
  • The Punisher's higher-up criminals often do this in high-security prisons (given the Crapsack World nature of the legal system here), leading to Frank occasionally getting deliberately arrested and sent to the same prison so he can do some cleaning.
  • In one issue of Batgirl (2000), David Cain easily escapes from prison (where he'd been ever since the conclusion of Bruce Wayne: Fugitive.) to deliver his daughter a knife as a birthday present, and then casually waltzes right back in during the middle of the investigation into how he did it.
  • Wonder Woman Volume 1: During the Golden Age prior to her reformation, Paula has a Supervillain Lair right underneath her cell after she's caught by Wondy and Steve Trevor the first time, and has bribed the enough of the guards that she can leave anytime she pleases.
  • At the end of Marvel's Damnation miniseries, Mephisto is dethroned from Hell and imprisoned in a cell of the Hotel Inferno he raised in Las Vegas. Aside from the loss of his throne and thus the blow to his ego, no visitors are actually barred from visiting him by mystical means, so he's still entirely free to cut deals with mortals as much as he likes. He's shown in multiple other titles after his imprisonment negotiating with clients with the only indication he's still imprisoned being one wall of the room being cell bars.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Mr. Bridger from the original The Italian Job (1969) ran his gangland empire from his Luxury Prison Suite. To the point that when ex-con Charlie breaks back into prison to get his permission for a job, he complains to the governor about the lapse in security.
  • In Law Abiding Citizen, Clyde Shelton is a grieving husband and father whose Roaring Rampage of Revenge against everyone involved in the Philadelphia criminal justice system is not even slowed by incarceration in solitary confinement. Eventually, it's revealed that he has spent the past decade digging tunnels and installing secret doors into every solitary confinement cell in the prison. Getting sent to jail and solitary was all part of his Evil Plan.
  • Corsican mob leader César in Jacques Audiard's Un prophète. His gang and the prison administration obey him; he helps the protagonist, Malik, get day leave so he can run his errands for him. (Well, for most of the film anyway...)
  • In American Me, la Eme gradually takes control over the drug trade on the streets of East L.A. by leveraging their control over prison into influence out in the free world. Granted, this is Truth in Television, as the real la Eme did the same thing...
  • An Older Than Television example, albeit an asylum variant, is The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Evil Genius Mabuse writes his plans for spreading chaos For the Evulz, and his entranced supervisor passes them on to the outside. So powerful is the will of Mabuse that he commits Grand Theft Me upon death to keep up the work.
  • Theoretical comedy Buy & Cell is pretty much all about this. A whole prison full of convicts carry on an extensive and successful stock trading operation, as "Con Inc.", from inside the prison, even installing a whole room full of trading screens and consoles which instantly reverts to bare concrete at the touch of a button, all without the warden ever getting the slightest clue that anything out of the ordinary is happening.
  • Mechanic Resurrection. Arthur Bishop's first job involves the Get into Jail Free trope, as his target is an African warlord incarcerated (along with several of his men as bodyguards) in a maximum-security prison in Malaysia, on an island with shark-infested waters. He runs his arms-dealing business from there, secure in the knowledge that none of his enemies can get in to kill him. Until now.
  • In The Criminal, Frank Saffrion is regarded as the king of Cellblock A. He is in touch with various criminal bigwigs on the outside and is able to obtain almost any kind of contraband—for a price. Late in the movie, he orchestrates a Prison Riot, a transfer for Johnny, and for the prison van to ambushed while it is on the road.
  • Shot Caller: Even with being in prison and kept isolated, the heads of the AB chapter still run their operations outside, with guards on the payroll. Very much Truth in Television.
  • In Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Baron Frankenstein takes over the asylum for the criminally insane to which he has been committed and uses it as a base from which to continue his fiendish experiments.

  • 2666: Klaus gains so much power and media attention in prison that he takes a few steps in solving the investigation himself. He even has a cell phone to communicate to the outside world whenever he wants.
  • In the massive Neal Stephenson trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, Newgate and the Tower of London can look like this: visitors freely come and go and some prisoners have a kind of parole. Humorously, high class is another kind of prison: in the Tower, you are allowed to live on the publicly accessible grounds on the entirely reasonable assumption that leaving is tantamount to an admission of guilt and the forfeiture of rank, which latter is tantamount to death.
  • In the Dale Brown novel Wings of Fire it eventually comes to light that Pavel Kazakov is still a real threat despite having been arrested at the end of the previous book in the series and subsequently imprisoned.
  • In Chronicles of Nick, Nick's father, Adarian Malachai is the ultimate evil. He was arrested for killing a multitude of people that he claimed were demons (which is later speculated to be true) and sentenced to multiple life sentences. He can break out at any point, and is virtually unbeatable to the point of guards shooting him with bullets didn't even phase him, but prefers to stay inside jail because human hate and malice power him up. of course while in jail he sets up as much as he can to get to his son.
  • Averted in Soon I Will Be Invincible, where Doctor Impossible notes the great lengths they go to to keep him from getting out or doing anything. Yet, it doesn't stop the heroes from thinking this trope is in play, such that even though he's been locked up for a year he's still the prime suspect in the disappearance of his Arch-Nemesis Core Fire.
  • Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Obviously, the tunnel that everyone goes in and out of at will serves to this affect for the prisoners to sneak out to pull off crimes or just enjoy freedom.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angelus in two episodes of Season 4 of Angel. He was stuck in a cage but was still able to pit the team members against each other and manipulate his way out.
  • Dumont, the recurring sociopath hacker from Jake 2.0, could manipulate events, hack computers, and even order hits from behind bars.
  • Avon Barksdale during Season 2 of The Wire. While locked up in prison, he still manages to maintain control of his business through outside correspondence with Stringer, take over the supply of drugs flowing into the prison, and spend his free time playing video games and eating KFC.
  • Hogan's Heroes: The main characters are operating an underground resistance movement out of a German POW camp. They also pretty much run that prison camp in everything but the official paperwork. They also have a habit of leaving whenever they feel like it.
  • In a variant on Hustle, Albert Stroller is kept hostage in a holding cell by a publicity-seeking detective, who forces his fellow con-artists to lure a bank robber into a trap. While he doesn't stay inside long enough to run a criminal empire, Albert quickly befriends the guards by (deliberately) losing poker games to them, then commits a series of crimes inside the gaol to dispose of the false evidence against his crew.
  • "Genial" Harry Grout from Porridge wasn't necessarily shown to be running any business outside the prison, but he certainly was more in control of the prison itself than the governor was.
    Fletcher: That was Harry Grout, he runs this nick.
    Rudge: I thought that was the governor's job.
    Fletcher: Only officially. Next time you meet him, bow, curtsy, or lick his boots if that's what he wants, OK?
  • In The Shield Antoine Mitchell taunts Vic with this fact after Vic accuses him of having Lem murdered. He didn't; Shane killed him. He says he could have, but what would be the point, since he has practically everything he had on the outside in prison and killing a cop would blow all that. He punctuates this by giving orders to a nearby prison guard, who calls him "Mr. Mitchell" in response.
  • The Season 2 Story Arc of Bugs has Big Bad Jean-Daniel casually manipulating events from his prison cell to make enough money to pull off possibly the most audacious escape plan in history: he buys the prison and lets himself out.
  • Megalomaniac Dale Biderbeck is sent to prison in his first appearance in season one of Monk, but he still manages to orchestrate quite a bit of mayhem from behind bars, including an assassination attempt on the governor of California, which very nearly succeeds. In a post-show novel, Mr. Monk Gets Even, he even orchestrates an attempted escape using accomplices at a time when he's subject to bypass surgery to get himself down to a more normal weight.
  • Seemed to be the case in an episode of Psych, until the "boss" in question turned up as the next victim and it was revealed that he was never really running things at all.
  • David Robert Jones of Fringe leads ZFT from prison and also orchestrates his own escape.
  • In the White Collar episode "Payback", Matthew Keller arranges the kidnapping of an FBI agent from his prison cell. He then uses the proceeds of his crime to escape before he can be transferred to a more effective prison.
  • On Once Upon a Time, Rumpelstiltskin is being kept by Snow White and Prince Charming in a magical prison inside a repurposed dwarven mine, but still manages to pull the strings anyway. (Admittedly, he's aided by the prison's Swiss Cheese Security, which allows the Evil Queen to just stroll up to his cell for advice whenever she likes.) It's also later revealed that he could have walked out anytime he wanted, but he stayed because of his Xanatos Gambit.
  • A Smallville episode featured people buying strategic places in Metropolis in order to buy the city's natural water supply. Winslow Schott (the Toyman) masterminded the whole operation from inside his prison cell.
  • In an episode of The West Wing, some DEA agents are captured by a Colombian drug cartel, which demands that a Pablo Escobar stand-in be released from prison in exchange for their return. The Colombian government is willing to do it, leaving the White House to debate whether to give in to a terrorist demand, with Sam arguing (unsuccessfully) that because the guy has been able to order kidnappings and murders from his cell, it doesn't make any difference whether he's in prison or not.
  • Leverage: Season 4 Big Bad and former Mark Victor Dubenich, masterminds the entire eighteen episode arc from inside his prison cell, only escaping in the finale. He may not want to be in prison, but with some help from corrupt investor Jack Latimer, he doesn't let it hinder him at all.
  • An episode of Bones has one man have someone murdered while in prison.
  • Person of Interest: The good news is that Carl Elias has been put in prison. The bad news is that his control over organized crime has not been affected. Subverted in a later season when his enemies have regained enough power that they can arrange for a prison transfer that will result in Elias being killed 'while escaping'. Suddenly prison is no longer so safe for him.
    • This also could zigzag from good to bad. As on the good side, he is indebted to Team Machine and is always willing to use his underground connections to keep the various criminal organizations off their backs.
  • Jimmy In And Out from Breaking Bad is a variation. Prison is nothing to him, not because of his capacity for scheming, but simply because he's been in and out of prison his whole life and is so institutionalized that it barely matters to him whether he's in prison or not. For this reason, he makes money by confessing to crimes committed by people who have more to fear from a prison stretch.
  • MacGyver (1985): Jack Dalton is moving around relatively freely in his barrack in prison in "Jack in the Box", is plotting his schemes, and is eating decent food.
  • Substitute "Insane Asylum" for "Prison" and you have Mona Vanderwaal's situation during the first part of Season 3 of Pretty Little Liars: Even while kept in Radley Sanitorium, she was able to freely issue instructions to the A-team and receive instructions from the leader. To hammer home just how little it matters whether or not she's in the asylum, she sneaks out during the Season 3 Halloween Episode, then promptly returns to her room at the end of it.
  • Mission: Impossible: In "Reprisal", an inmate masterminds a scheme to take revenge on Jim Phelps from inside a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane.
  • Doctor Who, River Song, aka Melody Pond spent her days in Stormcage Containment Facility (her nights, well, that's between her and the Doctor). She even lampshades it while returning one morning, telling the staff to shut off the alarm because, "I'm breaking in, not out!" and that she'll take breakfast "at the usual hour".
  • Daredevil (2015): Wilson Fisk is imprisoned after having to have his criminal operation exposed in Season 1, but as the following season shows, he still has people working for him while he is behind bars and begins building a jailhouse operation. After Frank Castle is also imprisoned, Fisk manages to play events so that Frank kills his competition, allowing Fisk to take over the prison and obtain a new source of funding. Through this funding, he buys a hotel and converts the penthouse suite into a Luxury Prison Suite that allows him to still control his criminal empire with ease, and to get himself transferred there, he performs a long-term manipulation con on Ray Nadeem. Even while under "house arrest", Fisk manages to create a massive extortion racket that collects protection money from other gangs, directs a riot back at the prison in an overly complex scheme to get rid of Matt, and turns Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter into his personal attack dog.
  • Elementary: Midway through Season 3, a cartel boss that Watson helped take down in the season premiere manages to arrange an attempted revenge hit on Watson from her prison cell. Afterwards, the cartel boss is assassinated on the order of Moriarty, who is herself still in federal custody, for daring to go after one of her Worthy Opponents.
  • In the mini-series Red Fox (based on the novel by Gerald Seymour), a terrorist orders an assassination from her prison cell via a lawyer, despite their entire conversation being videotaped. As they're speaking in Trouble Entendre, no-one understands what is really being said until after attack.
  • Batwoman (2019): In the back half of Season 1, Alice and Mouse are arrested and locked up in Arkham Asylum. By the end of the following episode, they've taken over the facility (thanks to Mouse pulling a Kill and Replace on the chief doctor with one of his flesh masks), and rather than escaping decide to turn it into their own personal fortress as they prepare to eventually take revenge on Gotham.
  • For Life: Cassius manages to contact his goons on the outside to do his dirty work, such as tying up and threatening the family of a guard.
  • Hightown: Frankie Sr. Guards allow him time to use contraband cellphones to order hits, to meet with drug dealers and have sex with Renee all in private rooms that they are guarding.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Monopoly, a late-game tactic is to stay in jail for as long as possible. While in jail, you're still free to conduct business as usual - collecting rent from, bidding on or selling properties. Moving around the board has only two major advantages - collecting $200 for passing "Go" and having right of first refusal for landing on an unsold property. But since there are very few unsold properties in the late game and the $200 for passing "Go" is a pittance compared to landing on another player's developed property, Jail is actually the best place to be. Some players enact House Rules for this reason that rent on a jailed player's property is either free or goes towards that other popular House Rule, the "Free Parking" kitty.
  • A rare heroic version in Princess: The Hopeful: when Radiant Queens and their Courts were defeated by minions of the Darkness centuries ago, the latter tried to bypass their Born-Again Immortality by trapping their souls in the Dreamlands, a Lotus-Eater Machine realm where supernatural Wardens would use illusions to fool them into thinking they were still being active while the real world was being corrupted. This worked for centuries (long enough to make Earth a Crapsack World), but backfired spectacularly when the Queens did realize what was going on, as they promptly defeated the Wardens and took over a huge portion of the Dreamlands, essentially turning it into their home realm. Nowadays, they stay here by choice, as reincarnating would weaken them by forcing them to start back as Princesses- while staying allows them to support their Courts, who do reincarnate to take back the real world. And, because the Darkness doesn't have any mean to travel to the Dreamlands, the Queens are now out of their reach.

    Video Games 
  • In Batman: Arkham Asylum, we learn that The Joker discovered that one of the doctors had plans to create a Venom-variant using Arkham inmates as test subjects- supported by the Ax-Crazy Knight Templar Warden-, and using a Secret Identity agreed to fund her project with his secret stash of millions of dollars. He later escapes solely to trap Batman inside while Harley Quinn stages a takeover (with the help of at least one corrupt guard), but by that point, you might as well say he was running the Asylum before the events of the game even took place. And the people in charge didn't even know it.
  • BioShock 2: Sofia Lamb, First-Rate Bitch that she is, not only planned her jail-sentence and the circumstances that led to it, but did so specifically because it was everything she needed when she needed it, being the perfect place for a Dark Messiah Villain with Good Publicity to expand The Rapture Family during the city's descent into madness. The fact that it wasn't a Cardboard Prison made it the perfect place for a Supervillain Lair: what's better than a tightly-guarded, easily-forgotten fortress full of potential Mooks to help her retake the city After the End?
  • Infinite Space: The Krieos pirates are seemingly unaffected by the imprisonment of their leader. Turns out the warden murdered and impersonated him.
  • Played with in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Kristoph Gavin manages to poison two different people from behind bars, without seeing any of them for seven years... by complete coincidence, as he intended for the trap he set to kill them seven years prior. And, of course, he has Luxury Prison Suite.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, within Cidhna Mines, Madanach not only has a private cell with various accommodations but still holds power as the leader of the Forsworn, which Thonar Silver-Blood uses to get him to use them as his personal assassins.
  • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the master trainer for Security, J'Baana, is currently locked up in the Imperial City's Legion compound. He still regularly participates in Thieves' Guild business, however, and a quick check of his inventory reveals that he holds the keys to every door in the compound, as well as thirty lockpicks, making the reason he even bothers to stay in the prison a mystery.
  • In Fallen London, if you grind up 40 renown with the Criminals, and then manage to be sent to prison with 7 favours, you can spend the favours to meet the One Who Pulls The Strings. From then on, they can serve as your companion, boosting your Shadowy and Dreaded stats — despite not actually leaving the cell at any point.
    They reside in the deepest cell in New Newgate. It does not disadvantage them.
  • Grand Theft Auto IV subverts this with Gerald McReary. At one point, he gets sent to jail, something which he was counting on after his latest heist, and he still sends the main protagonist to do some jobs for him while on the inside, confident that he is getting out soon. However, a number of unfortunate factors beyond anyone's control completely derails McReary's plans as his plan to sell the diamonds is ruined by a Russian mook who spitefully throws them on the trash so that no one can get it. Gerald realizes that he is going to stay under as more evidence turns up to ensure his jailing, so he is pretty much resigned to his situation by the time you last meet him.

    Web Comics 
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: The King of All Devils, a creature known only as Himself, sits in the deepest pit in the darkest Hell, trapped in an iron box riddled with spears. While He insists on calling the Heretics Court His "captors", the truth is that He is still the ultimate authority on all devils, and knows absolutely everything they are doing at all times.
  • Stalker x Stalker: Junko's dad tells Yukio that he got this treatment in prison: He only got 10 years for murdering two entire families (possibly thanks to Yuno’s ties to the police), and what little we see of the prison staff implies that he was The Dreaded inside the walls. Even the warden outright says that he misses him being there, implying that he did something in prison to warrant such careful and lavish treatment. With the reveal that he’s actually a former assassin who worked for a corrupt politician, it’s likely that some bribes may have been taken to ensure that he was treated well.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Justice League, Batman allowed himself to be captured by the Injustice Gang; he feigned helplessness in order to manipulate one of the Gang's members. He later revealed he could have escaped at any time, but if he did he wouldn't have had a resource "on the inside". In fact, Joker was the only member to flat-out state they should just shoot him when they had the chance.
  • The pilot episode of Darkwing Duck had its major villain, Taurus Bulba, running his operation from prison. He could escape at any time and he chose to remain in prison because he felt that it was the perfect hideout for him, despite constantly having to deal with an annoying warden. He even had his cell converted into an office, complete with an outside phone line, and he can press a button to transform it back into a prison cell whenever the warden comes along. This culminates in an epic jailbreak, as he reveals he had the entire cell block he was in converted into a flying fortress, which launches, leaving behind the rest of the prison.
  • Gargoyles:
    • David Xanatos spends a few of the early post-pilot episodes in prison for a Possession of Stolen Goods charge. It doesn't stop him from having the Manhattan Clan repeatedly attacked while he sits tight to run out his jail term for that relatively minor charge. As an added bonus, when he got out of prison, whenever someone brought up his criminal record, he would just respond that he paid his debt to society legally; and do they believe in the judicial/correctional system or not?
    • Towards the end of the second season, Tony Dracon turns out to be just as good at running his crime syndicate from his prison cell as from his mansion. It's even implied that he could have ordered a breakout.
  • A plot point in The Batman. Hugo Strange calls Batman to his cell and announces that, despite the minor inconvenience of being in prison, he's managed to release a zombie virus throughout Gotham; it's up to Batman to find where Strange's antidote is hidden and save the city. If you think this is far-fetched, you're right: Strange can only affect the area inside and immediately around his cell; when Batman shows up Strange exposes him to a hallucinogen that makes him see Gotham in ruins and its people as zombies, and the "antidote" Batman's seeking to spread is this same drug.
  • In Lilo & Stitch: The Series, although the authorities think that Hamsterviel is perpetually trapped in the ceiling of his holding cell unable to do anything destructive, he's actually somehow managed to trick out the dungeon cell with various gadgets, contacts Gantu frequently, and even has objects teleported between his cell and Gantu's ship... all while the prison guards aren't looking.
  • Willy Watt in Batman Beyond was fully capable of exerting his telekinetic abilities to do whatever he wanted wherever he pleased while still being in juvenile hall. Though he admits he does this on purpose because in a short time he will be let out legally and with all this power that no one is aware of. That all ends after his powers are exposed and Terry recaptures him. He's last seen shackled and wearing a Power Limiter helmet that negates his telekinesis...and he still doesn't get any visitors.
  • In one episode of The Legend of Korra, Varrick is arrested. However, his prison cell is spacious with two desks, a king-sized bed, and chair and table. His assistant, Zhu Li, is also with him in the cell. He explains that since his company had built the prison, he designed the cell for himself— expecting to need it one day.
  • In one episode of the western Street Fighter animated series, Bison is captured by a British team of super-agents (Cammy was a former member) and sent to prison. This turned out to be a distraction on Bison's part that allowed his agents to enact a scheme that threatened all of England. Bison then forces the British government to hand over a ransom of one billion pounds sterling — all while chilling in his cell and sipping tea.
  • Most of the villains of The Spectacular Spider-Man are like this. Doctor Octopus fakes a return to his old, harmless self and by pretending to have been insanenote  is able to get himself into a psychiatric treatment center that's a lot less stringent than prison would be, and he starts running a criminal empire from there. Most of the other villains do their time in a maximum-security Cardboard Prison and go in knowing they only have to bide their time before their underworld connections break them out. Mysterio has a robot double doing time for him, so he literally isn't in prison at all.
  • In the very first episode of Young Justice the villains Captain Cold, Icicle Jr., Killer Frost, and Mister Freeze are captured by different heroes and their sidekicks in separate incidents but on the same day. Batman doubts that this was a coincidence, and thought they all went down too easily, but they are all carted off to Belle Reve prison. A few episodes later, it turned out Icicle Sr., who was already in Belle Reve, arranged the whole thing and wanted them to get caught so they could help him and the other incarcerated villains stage a mass breakout, but this is foiled. Then in The Stinger, it was revealed the whole thing was an Evil Plan orchestrated by The Light to get Warden Amanda Waller fired and replaced by their man Hugo Strange, the prison psychiatrist, so that they control the prison. Over the rest of the season, various prisoners such as Mad Scientist Professor Ivo are secretly broken out of and returned to their cells, or simply asked for advice in other crimes, in order to help out the Light with their various criminal schemes, and they all seem comfortable there knowing that they secretly run the place and can leave when needed. By the penultimate episode, Batman has the proof he needs to shut the operation down, but if the matter is resolved it happens off-screen as we are never shown it. Neither Belle Reve, Strange or any of the prisoners have shown up in season 2 yet as of the mid-season summer break.
  • Ben 10: Omniverse episode It Was Them has Rook mention a case where an alien criminal did this. We have yet to actually see said criminal, however.

    Real Life 
  • There are, unfortunately, a number of Real Life examples of this; mafia-dons and drug kingpins who continue to run their organization with unabated effect while behind bars, often through crooked lawyers who can pass on orders under the cover of "Client Confidentiality", or "bought" cops who can turn a deaf ear.
    • Pablo Escobar, then Colombia's richest man, had a plea deal that meant he hired the contractors to build his own prison, "La Catedral." Rather than be a punishment, being imprisoned basically just meant he had to change his drug business' headquarters to the prison, where he was protected from his enemies and had a staff of people (that is, the guards) waiting on him hand and foot. He allegedly even used the prison to execute members of his crime syndicate who had betrayed him. There were rumors that he was seen outside this prison, visiting and shopping in local towns and cities. Suffice to say, when he decided to "escape", all he did was walk out the door, bribe the "guards" outside, and disappear into the countryside.
    • Warren Jeffs, the leader and self-proclaimed "prophet" of the FLDS Church. He's currently serving life, plus twenty years for felony child sexual assault. Unfortunately, this hasn't damaged his followers' faith in him in the slightest, and while in prison he has continued to pass edicts down to his believers through intermediaries, and written what he claims to be a new gospel, that for some reason revolves around how God would really like it if he would be allowed out of prison. Although he doesn't exactly live in luxury, a large part of sending Jeffs to prison was because it was supposed to behead the FLDS, but they just keep on going as if he was still with them.
    • According to WOLA (The Washington Office on South America), this is commonplace in corrupt Mexican prisons where drug cartel bosses often continue their business dealings in relative safety. Likewise in Brazil, where imprisoned gang leaders from the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have the money and influence to run their operations from inside, and establish quite lavish conditions for themselves.
    • Fernandinho Beira-Mar is the leader of the Brazilian criminal organization Red Command, he is in prison since 2002 but still keeps his position as the leader to this day and gives orders to his peers through a scheme of notes, and he still had to face trial for crimes he commited inside prison which greatly extended his sentence, which is is currently 309 years and 2 months.
    • Explicitly Defied in Italy with the 41-bis prison regime: a convict sentenced to this suffers from various communications bans intended to cut him off from contact with his former criminal associates. This was originally devised to deal with terrorists, but was later extended to Mafia members, members of child pornography/prostitution rings, kidnappers for ransom or robbery, slavers, human traffickers, gang rapists, drug traffickers and cigarette smugglers.
    • To the surprise of absolutely no one familiar with him and his M.O. James "Whitey" Bulger took full advantage of his celebrity in prison despite being in his 80s and in failing health. He allegedly formed an improper relationship with a female psychologist who did favors for him a la Harley Quinn and managed to still make money off of autographed merchandise and other memorabilia that'd been smuggled out.
    • In the Italian-American mafia, the heads of crime families stay in power until they either retire or die. As such, mob bosses who are sent to prison often set up acting bosses to whom they relay orders and who run the family on their behalf while they serve their sentences. Possibly the crowning example of this is Carmine "the Snake" Persico, who was boss of the Colombo family for nearly 50 years, most of which was spent behind bars. When first sent to prison, his initial choice of replacement was his son Alphonse (aka "Little Allie Boy"), but as he was also serving a prison sentence of his own, Persico put his underboss Vic Orena in charge as acting boss until Alphonse got out; this led to a Mob War when Orena tried to usurp control of the family from the Persicos, which only ended when he went to jail himself. After this, Persico understandably didn't trust anyone outside blood family anymore, so when Alphonse was sent back to jail for a longer sentence, Persico decided to forego an acting boss and just led the family personally from jail until his death in 2019.
    • When Jeffrey Epstein was sentenced to prison in 2008, his time in prison was almost farcical. He was allowed to freely leave during the day on "work release" six days a week and went about his business as usual, only going back to jail to sleep at night. When his imprisonment was changed to house arrest, he was allowed to fly back and forth from Florida to New York in his private jet and got to go on shopping trips and wander around Palm Beach for "exercise".
  • Prison gangs often make this trope play out in real life. Career criminals on the street have to consider what will happen if they or their friends or loved ones serve time in prison, which, given their activities and lifestyles, is very likely to eventually happen sooner or later. Prison gangs can very often become the most powerful criminal organizations outside of prison, as well as inside, by relying on this fact and promising retaliation against people who have crossed them on the outside.
    • The best example of this would probably be the Mexican Mafia ("La Eme)", which was formed in a California prison in 1957. Eventually, they spread to other penitentiaries, and as their members were released and their influence spread beyond prison walls, they had the clout and numbers to dictate terms to gangs on the streets with the same authority as if they were in the same room. Their leaders are all imprisoned for multiple life sentences, and yet their word is still law for thousands of gangsters across California and beyond.
  • Minimum-security prisons, or "country clubs" as they are often known, are barely prisons at all. They rarely have fences and aren't always guarded. The prisons themselves are fairly comfortable places (if not as lavish as the convicts are probably used to, more on that later.) The main incentive to stay inside them is that if a convict is caught outside them, they will have to go to a medium-security prison. Given that minimum security convicts are generally white-collar criminals, who would have real trouble surviving a medium-security prison, this is a fairly scary thought for them.
  • General Malet plotted his coup d'état of 1812 from his prison cell; the security was so relaxed that he and his accomplice Lafon managed to set up a "recruiting bureau" of sorts without drawing any attention. note 
  • The Aryan Brotherhood's leaders, despite all serving multiple life sentences and held in the ADX Supermax (the most secure US prison that exists) while kept on lockdown 23 hours per day inside their solitary cells, still run the gang from there. In fact, they were discovered to be ordering hits by making invisible ink to write out messages between lines using letters they sent out.
  • The country of Venezuela has an ongoing massive problem with prisons, such as Vista Hermosa or Maracaibo National Prison, literally being run by the inmates as organized crime groups/"pranatos"/"pran" are running a criminal system out of prisons and taking advantage of overcrowding prison populations and lack of security personnel to bolster their influence. Approximately 80% of Venezuelan prisons are run by their prisoners. Some prisons even established a tax system where prisoners paid taxes to the pran each week. Failure to do so resulted in beatings or death and prisoners could even pay more to the pran for a nicer cell or a flat-screen TV.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: