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Prison Changes People

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A stoker sings: "Prideful, a prince was locked in the dark; while a poet was set free. I was the prince, alone and forgot; the poet, too, was me."

Sometimes the bad guys get caught, or maybe the good guys are falsely accused. Whatever the reason, this trope occurs when a character is thrown in prison and undergoes some change while there. When they're finally released or break out, it turns out the experience has changed them fundamentally, perhaps teaching them important life lessons or, in the case of Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook, just spurring them on to a life of crime.

Often Played for Laughs if the character was only in prison a short period of time, yet still claims to have been irreversibly changed. For a trope on how prisons change people physically, see Prisons Are Gymnasiums.

No Real Life Examples, Please!.


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    Audio Play 
  • Taken to extremes in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama The Holy Terror. Here, a murderer has been imprisoned in a Prison Dimension for so long that he's lost all memories of his criminal identity and has joined the imaginary populace of the prison as a servant, showing no signs of the insane, murderous personality he exhibited while free.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman had this as a major part of the Great White Shark's origin. He was a white-collar crook who was sent to Arkham Asylum after successfully pleading insanity, only to be tortured repeatedly by his fellow inmates. He was eventually disfigured and driven insane, and subsequently used his business acumen to become a bonafide supervillain.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: Reformation Island changes (most) of its prisoners for the better, as seen when most of the prisoners risk their lives to save their warden Mala and queen Hippolyte from seven villains who had staged an escape. Hippolyte and Mala actually award those prisoners their freedom in return, as they've demonstrated that they really have reformed from their old ways.

  • In the fanfic Ace Combat 7: Three Strikes before she was sent to the penal unit Naomi was a team player and followed orders. During her time with 444th she has to deal with the other convicts' looking out for themselves and an asshole commander that will throw anyone into solitary for the most minor offense. She becomes less trusting of those other then the few friends she made in the Spares and becomes more reckless. This comes to a head when the LRSSG splits up to take care of two separate enemy units to defend Stonehenge. After she feels that her squadron can mop up the rest of their targets she flies back right into Cyclops' targets. This makes Wiseman take off the kid gloves he has been using and harshly tells her that she has one chance to get her head straight or get sent back home and face another court martial. This gets her to sober up very quickly.
  • The Gravity Falls Dark Fic All The World's a Toybox features this being inflicted on most of the cast after Bill Cipher takes over the Earth and imprisons his enemies in specially-designed torture cells. Mabel loses a huge chunk of her confidence and descends into self-loathing, Wendy turns Ax-Crazy out of paranoia, and Gideon is subjected to a serious case of Break the Haughty. Taken to extremes in the case of Dipper, McGucket and Ford all of whom lose their grip on their own identities and are forced to take on new personalities altogether. By contrast, Pacifica Northwest matures while in prison and becomes something of a Team Mom to the other inmates.
  • Downplayed in Murderer's Row. Donut never loses his moral compass, but his time in prison results in him becoming increasingly violent to survive. Multiple people warn him when he starts coming close to parole that he needs to stop immersing himself in prison culture if he is to have any hope of surviving in the outside world.
  • With Pearl and Ruby Glowing: Julian was accused of murdering Anneliese and Erika, and in prison, he was raped several times. When Anneliese and Erika are found alive, he has become so mentally damaged from the assaults and being told he was guilty that he still believes that he killed them.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Ed Norton's character in the film American History X enters jail as a neo-nazi and leaves as a reformed man.
  • American Me is about a gangster who practically grew up in the prison system and has difficulty adjusting to the outside world when he is released as an adult.
  • During his stint in prison in The A-Team, B.A. Baracus took a vow of nonviolence. By the movie's end, however, he had discarded it.
  • After one of his trips to the past landed him in prison, and another got him out, the main character of The Butterfly Effect was startled by a waitress asking if he'd been in prison. The way he hunched over his food looked just like his brother; a defensive technique to keep other prisoners from snatching off his plate.
  • Carlito's Way was based on a gangster who resolved to live lawfully when he was released from prison—and he tried hard to.
  • Played for laughs in The Legend of Zorro, when Joaquin breaks Alejandro out of prison after less than a day. A few guards come running, and Alejandro (who is secretly the masked hero Zorro) thrashes them in about five seconds flat. When a surprised Joaquin asks him where he learned that, he quips, "Prison changes a man, son."
  • Spoofed in the third The Naked Gun film, when Frank is undercover in prison and has a talk with fellow inmate Tyrone, a black guy.
    Tyrone: Take it from me. This place changes a man.
    Frank: Oh yeah, in what way?
    Tyrone: I used to be white. [Beat] I was a drummer for The Osmonds.
  • Discussed in Shot Caller by a gang member. Indeed, when Jacob is finally released, he's not just a notorious killer, but the experience has changed him so fundamentally that he refuses to reunite with his family for their own good.
    Bottles: The fact is, we all started out as someone's little angel. And a place like this forces us to become warriors or victims. Nothing in between can exist here.

  • An iconic example in Les MisĂ©rables: When Jean Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, he was a decent, honest young man who worked hard to provide for his widowed sister and her children and who only stole out of desperation to feed them. After nineteen years of hard labor in the galleys, he emerges hardened and bitter toward the whole world, to the point that he steals silver from the Bishop of Digne after the latter gave him food and shelter, and later half-consciously steals a coin from an impoverished little boy. It takes an act of mercy from the Bishop, and later Valjean's own horror after the incident with the boy, to bring him back to the path of goodness and compassion for others.
  • The Outsiders implies that this happened to Dallas long before the story began. He later tries to convince his still innocent Morality Pet Johnny not to confess to the murder he committed in self defense because of it.
    "You don't know what a few months in jail can do to you. Oh, blast it, Johnny, you get hardened in jail. I don't want that to happen to you. Like it happened to me..."
  • After being rescued from Cyberia in Red Dwarf: Last Human, Lister's Alternate Self goes a little crazy, risks his life to steal some alcohol from the infirmary, and murders several defenseless prison guards before being restrained. Afterwards, he claims that this trope is in play, having lost all traces of his old, slobby, amiable self after months in virtual hell. He's lying: Lister's other self is a psychopath with no impulse control and no regard for the lives of others, as our Lister discovers when his doppelganger abandons him in Cyberia and forces him to take his place at the prison.
  • In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (and its film adaptation), it's specifically pointed out that prison warps your personality over time. Indeed, one of the many things that annoys the warden is the way Andy is still acting like his old self despite years of confinement, and hasn't acquired the cautious, hunched look exhibited by many long-term cons. More notably, the prison also makes the inmates dependent on it: after spending decades at Shawshank, Brooks is left totally adrift when he's finally released and finds himself unable to cope with his new existence; for a while, he seriously considers committing another crime so he can get sent back to prison - but in the end, he settles for killing himself instead. Red experiences this as well when he finally gets out, to the point that his supervisor at work is clearly annoyed by his habit of asking permission for every little thing.
  • At The School for Good Mothers the "school" is run like a prison or a reeducation camp for abusive and neglectful mothers. While the goal on paper is to teach them good parenting skills, it sets up the mothers for failure by setting unrealistic standards, providing them with zero empathy and little support for their own issues, and constantly telling them that they are bad mothers, narcissists, and a danger to their children. The school's Spear Counterpart is nowhere near as harsh.
    Not everyone came to the school a violent woman, but now, heading into month seven, they all might stab someone.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the straightest example of this appears the form of Grand Maester Pycelle: imprisoned in the infamous Black Cells for getting on the bad side of Tyrion Lannister, Pycelle emerges a shadow of his former self thanks to the terrorizing conditions within the dungeon. Left humiliated, shaken and in poor health, he seems older than ever before - even falling asleep during Joffrey's wedding. Because of this, he's unable to save Joffrey from a fatal poisoning.
  • The Unexplored Summon://Blood-Sign has a comedic example. The penal colony of Devil Island is actually a tropical paradise far removed from most of the stimuli (poverty, political disagreements, magically-enforced impunity, etc) that motivated its prisoners' crimes. Azalea is greatly softened by her time there, although that can't be said of all the prisoners.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Parodied in an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun in which Dick tries to prove that he can reform a "hardened" criminal through compassion and understanding. His chosen ex-convict was a relatively minor criminal who was only in jail for a short time, but Dick quickly starts treating him as though he's a hardened criminal.
  • After spending the first half of season 7 of Arrow in prison, Oliver Queen becomes a lot more concerned with how the consequences of his actions effect others, including the people he's helped put in jail. Oliver becomes less volatile, now preferring slower, methodical investigation that leads to legal, lawful prosecution and talking in order to de-escalate potentially violent situations rather than his previous method of making demands and putting arrows in people who don't comply. In contrast to the eponymous name, the Green Arrow has barely used his bow and arrow post-prison. Additionally, the biggest change is that Oliver is now deputized and working with Star City PD instead of acting as a vigilante as he did in the first six seasons.
  • In season 3 of Boardwalk Empire Eli Thomson got out of prison and he does not make any claims that he is a changed man but the audience quickly sees a serious level of Character Development. He is more humble, careful and Genre Savvy.
  • Michael Westen talks about the most basic manifestations of this trope for one of his minisidles note  in the fifth season of Burn Notice; guys who have been in prison tend not to make eye contact, and they ask permission before doing anything.
  • Capadocia: Before going to prison, Lorena was a suburban wife and mother. By the time the first season ends, she has joined the designer drug smuggling operation, become addicted, killed an inmate in self-defense, and entered into a relationship with another inmate.
  • One episode of CSI: Miami dealt with a young man being tossed in prison because of a Miscarriage of Justice and while he is inside he is constantly given Prison Rape by an older prisoner, to the point the young man shanks him to death to make it stop and becomes more emotionally dead in general. The investigation eventually leads to the correct criminal and thus the young man is set free (with the murder he committed waived away as self-defense), but Horatio really can't do more for him than apologize for the whole mess.
  • In CSI: NY's "Crossroads," a young man who had been sentenced to a long stint in a heinous juvenile detention center by a Hanging Judge for the horrible crime of stealing a pack of gum asks the detectives, "You know what happens to good kids in prison? They turn out bad." Yep, he turned out so bad he killed the judge in revenge and ended up going to prison for life.
  • In Farscape, Zhaan eventually reveals that she is a positive example of this: having been reduced to "a savage" by the assassination of her lover and mentor Bitaal, she was imprisoned by the Peacekeepers and - because of her violent behavior - spent most of her sentence in solitary. However, after seventeen years alone, she was gradually able to submerge her darker impulses, resume her study of the Delvian Seek, and eventually emerge from captivity as the All-Loving Hero we first encounter in the pilot episode.
  • A bit character on one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was a death row inmate who converted to Islam while in prison and wished to atone.
  • This is the character arc of quite a few figures in Orange Is the New Black. Zig-zagged and possibly deconstructed with protagonist Piper, who comes to question whether prison has really changed her, or just brought out her true self.
  • A recurring theme in Oz is how the horrible conditions of the prison changes both the inmates and guards for the worse.
  • Discussed in an episode of Proven Innocent when Madeline and Easy take on the case of a young black man who was wrongfully convicted in a shooting and has spent several years in jail. All that time in prison has aged the kid, making it that much harder to convince the jury that he was still a teenager when he was arrested.
  • An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had Miles O'Brien accused of espionage and sentenced to several decades - in a special device to implant memories of prison. The rest of the episode deals with his attempt to recover from the effects of this, and what he remembers 'doing' in prison.
  • Watchmen (2019) eventually reveals that Adrian Veidt has spent the last few years in a Gilded Cage Prison Dimension hidden on Europa. Over time, the restrictions on his lifestyle, servile clone assistants, inability to leave the prison and overall impotent rage have resulted in Adrian transforming from a narcissistic but Affably Evil Well-Intentioned Extremist to a Faux Affably Evil psychopath who regularly murders his servants in fits of pique.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Part of Dominik Mysterio's heel character in 2023 is him making himself out to be a hardened criminal who was left to languish in the darkest pits with the worst monsters known to man… when actually what happened was (in storyline) he spent a couple of hours in a county slammer after crashing his father's Christmas festivities. Even his WrestleMania entrance for his match with his aforementioned father played into this, with Dom arriving in cuffs in the back of a prison transport van, having to be escorted to the ring by several prison guards.
    Michael Cole: This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever witnessed! They should have left this Orange Is the New Black wannabe back in prison and thrown away the key!

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is a gameplay mechanic in Blades in the Dark: when a Player Character is arrested and thrown into Ironhook, their player must make an "incarceration roll" that determines how bad their time behind bars has been. On a bad roll, the character automatically receives a Trauma, which usually has major impact on future role-play, as well as being completely incurable under the regular rules.

  • In Blood Brothers, Mickey's stint in prison as an accessory to murder turns him into a severely-depressed Empty Shell.
  • By the start of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, fifteen years spent unlawfully imprisoned in an Australian Penal Colony have turned the title character from a naive and "foolish" barber into a bitter, vengeful and deeply cynical man with no moral qualms about killing to keep his secrets. And this is before he snaps and becomes a full-blown Serial Killer.

    Video Games 
  • The end of Back to the Future: The Game has this happen to the antagonists Kid Tannen and Edna Strickland. When Marty and Doc finally make it back to their time, they find the now older Kid and Edna are now married, making the latter Biff's stepmother, and have mellowed out from their time in prison. Edna has even grown fond of dogs!
  • Played with in BattleTech. Glitch's bio states that she spent years in a supermax prison after a computer error caused her to be marked as a wanted criminal, and that she was no longer the innocent young woman she once had been after finally be cleared of the charges and set free. In game however, she's extremely perky, very enthusiastic about her work, and has an almost child-like personality and voice, making it more of an Informed Attribute.
  • Enforced in Escape from Butcher Bay. The eponymous prison is separated into three security levels, the third being a Cryo-Prison where the most troublesome inmates are stored. Long-term exposure to cryostorage seems to have a degenerative effect on the minds of inmates, likely exacerbated by the fact that they're only allowed a minute of daily exercise with limited stimuli; as a result, the few inmates Riddick speaks to in this level are barely coherent. Charlie Green, a man who was considered reformed enough to be released back into Single Max is a broken, disconnected husk of his former self who can only mutter things about birds and occasionally keel over.
  • This is a theme in Furi:
    • The Strap has been driven Ax-Crazy by the effort of trying to physically tear her way out of a cell that constantly regenerates around her.
    • The Voice claims that he's been psychologically damaged by his time inside the prison, as evidenced by his comments about how "being locked up fucks you up inside". And he's not even an inmate. He's the architect who designed the prison in the first place.
    • The Voice believes that this trope applies to you, an immortal alien invader who had to be subdued by an army of hundreds, as well. He hopes that your time in the prison has changed your outlook enough that you won't destroy the planet once you're free.
  • In the climax of The Secret World, the long-imprisoned Dreamers claim that their time in captivity has changed them for the worst, confessing that they've become insensitive to the needs of others because they've forgotten what it's like to be free. It's not certain how much of this is real and how much of this is just more lying to get what they want... though it's implied that they might not have become so dangerous if they hadn't been used in order to literally build the world.
  • A key motif in The Suffering. Abbot State Penitentiary literally brings out the worst in people, the poor living conditions, brutal discipline, equally-brutal gangs and the subtle supernatural power all slowly driving inmates insane. One inmate by the name of Ranse Truman became so suicidal after a few months that he had to be transferred to Baltimore, and you can actually see his notes in the chapter intros becoming more and more fatalistic as the game continues. When you finally run into him in the sequel, the once-lively prison philosopher has parked himself in one of the most dangerous regions in the city and is determined to wait until the Malefactors find him.
  • In Sunless Skies, this is actually a requirement of inmates at Piranesi. A weird and decidedly eldritch Penal Colony deep in Elutheria, people who've been sentenced to Piranesi only stay for as long as they remain the same: only by undergoing a serious change can you ever be allowed to leave. This can mean permanently dinging your stats... or it can mean undergoing a hideous physical mutation, or even having amputated personality traits manifest as physical entities. It's a strange place to say the least. And the four wardens have gone through at least one long stay; some of the changes to their person can be easy to tell at a glance, while others... less so.

    Web Animation 
  • In Red vs. Blue, Church and Grif are captured by the Reds at Sidewinder. When they get out, Grif claims to have been changed by the experience.
    Grif: I've done hard time, Simmons. I'm not the man you used to know.
    Simmons: Hard time? We were only separated for five hours.
    Grif: Time moves slower on the inside, Simmons. It seemed like seven or eight hours to me.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!: "Ricky Spanish". Steve spends several months in juvie as a result for trusting Ricky Spanish. He became bitter upon being released.
  • Parodied in an episode of Drawn Together in which Wooldoor Sockbat is given a minor punishment and afterwards spends the rest of the episode acting like a parolee.
  • Family Guy: Meg Griffin took it to parody levels in an episode where she went to prison for a few months. She basically changes from timid teenage girl to a hardcore gangster and bully where she'll physically assault anyone who even looks at her funny.
  • In Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Harvey gets tattoos and becomes hardened while imprisoned for killing Dynomutt.
    "Step off, holmes! [...] You wouldn't last a minute in my world!"
  • The Simpsons: The episode "Brother From Another Series" revolves around this trope; Sideshow Bob was reformed by his time in prison and helps to thwart his brother's crimes. Unfortunately, Bob is arrested again regardless, and this time gives up on being good.
  • Total Drama: After spending about a year in prison, Chris has only become even worse of an individual coming out than he was when he went in, with all of his negative traits being cranked up by the time of All Stars.