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https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/imperialdungeonship1.jpg
A Lictor-class dungeon ship

A Prison Ship is a penitentiary, correctional facility, or jail that typically moves under its own power (though some prisoner transports or jail vessels have to be towednote ). Often featured to highlight the questionable moral standards of the villains or enemy force, the heroics of protagonist in withstanding the cramped conditions, a setting for a prison story, or to add movement and interest to what would otherwise be a static setting. It's also an easy way to set up The Alcatraz; in the middle of the ocean or in space, there's nowhere to escape to.

For the purposes of this trope there are two types of Prison Ship:

  • The Prison Transport: this modestly-sized vessel is either designed or modified to transport prisoners between facilities, not hold them permanently. The transport spaceship in Pitch Black is not an example as it had only one prisoner strapped in; the rest of the occupants were paying passengers. Conversely the prison transport in the Lexx miniseries would count because his divine shadow is just that thorough. In fiction, there are often depictions of criminal gangs ambushing or hijacking the prison transport to free their comrades, or to capture a rival gang leader who they want to "deal with". A Bounty Hunter may use this kind of ship to hold several targets while transporting them to an actual prison.
  • The Jail Ship: often a setting in and of itself, this large vessel is usually purpose built to hold prisoners permanently, often for unscrupulous deeds committed outside of the jurisdiction. Jail ships include those that are mobile under their power and old demobilized ships that are no longer fit for military use, and which have been converted to become floating jails (they are kept at a dock).
    • Jail spaceships need to be large enough for cells (or stasis pods with life-support equipment if the prisoners are in Human Popsicle mode), guard quarters, guard stations, food preparation facilities, recreational areas, an infirmary, and so on. As well, they need some self-defense capacities to protect the Prison Ship from attackers who hope to free their comrades.

Despite the name of the trope, it covers any mobile jail or prison transport, including trains and transport planes.

Not to be confused with Shipping between prisoners.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: In Gotham, Blackgate Prison (located on an island in the harbour) has used a modified barge as overflow housing for less dangerous prisoners. Warden Zehrhardt bitterly described it as a temporary solution... of twenty years and counting. Cluemaster once planned a mass breakout that involved cutting the barge loose and having it picked up by modern-day pirate Cap'n Fear.
  • Les Passagers Du Vent contains both types at the time of the American War of Independence - a French slaver and a British prison hulk.
  • Ratchet & Clank (2010): Ratchet gets sent to one of these in Issue #2 "Friends with Benefits" after being captured by Artemis Zogg.
  • Star Wars:
    • Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: During the "Catastrophe Con" arc, Aphra is imprisoned by the Imperials on Accresker Prison, which is a unique spin on this trope. It's actually the hulks of several ships magnetically strapped together and tugged around by a Star Destroyer, whose prisoners are press-ganged to act as expendable boarding parties whenever the Imperials raid a new ship. The prisoners aren't even restrained or placed into cells, since escape is impossible — the ship pulling it is connected only through long cables, none of the component ships has so much as anything useful for building a functioning vessel left in it, and the prison never even approaches planets.
    • Star Wars Legends: In Dark Empire, Luke ends up imprisoned in a "dungeon ship" especially designed to hold Jedi.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): The Sangtee Empire has large vessels dedicated to the transport of prisoners, specifically non kreel and non-natives caught within the borders of their Empire who are then enslaved and shipped off to prison planets to mine. They're called slave ships by both the Empire and the rebels.
  • Zoids: The Marvel UK version follows the story of the survivors of a human Prison Ship which crashed on what they think is an uninhabited planet but is in fact Zoidstar, former capital of the Zoidaryan Empire.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The eponymous Amistad is a slaver ship.
  • The airplane in Con Air is a prison transport.
  • In The Dark Knight a ferry transporting prisoners from Gotham to the mainland is rigged to explode by the Joker, with the detonator on board another ferry full of civilians while the prison ship has the detonator for the civvies. He threatens to blow them both up if one doesn't pull the trigger before midnight. Neither of them blow up.
  • The Tomb in Escape Plan turns out to be an anchored tanker off the coast of Morocco.
  • Fortress 2: Re-Entry: The new prison is revealed to be a satellite orbiting the Earth.
  • The heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) truly get to know one another aboard Kyln, a prison space station where they're sent after getting into trouble on Xandar.
  • In Man of Steel, General Zod and co. are stored in a prison ship in another dimension.
  • Von Ryan's Express is set on a train being used to transport allied POWs from Italy to Germany. The prisoners escape and hijack the train.
  • In X-Men: The Last Stand, the government imprisons Mystique in a special mobile prison built on a semi-trailer that is constantly moving; thereby making it harder for the Brotherhood to locate her and stage a rescue.

    Literature 
  • Over half of Death Troopers takes place on one, until the main characters have to run from the zombies to the larger spaceship it is docked on to. Then they encounter even more zombies.
  • Doc Savage: The Fortress of Solitude opens on a Soviet prison ship transporting prisoners to The Gulag. Evil Genius Jon Sunlight orchestrates a mutiny among the prisoners and they hijack the ship. This does not go so well, as none of the prisoners kmow how to operate a ship and they wind up running aground in the Arctic circle.
  • The Dred Chronicles are set on a prison ship called Perdition, in permanent orbit in an isolated system. It's where the Conglomerate dump people who they judge beyond any attempt at rehabilitation, and it's largely lawless — there are no cells and no human guards. There are deadly robotic sentries which keep prisoners from getting too close to anything deemed too sensitive, but they don't interfere in gang warfare or non-lethal degradation of conditions.
  • In Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Abel Magwitch has escaped from a prison ship, and is transported to Australia on one.
  • In Kur of Gor Tarl finds himself on a prison planet, an artificial satellite of Gor dubbed the "Prison Moon" by the inhabitants of Gor even though they don't know that it's a prison. He is the only prisoner in the entire place at the start of the book.
  • The Matthew Hawkwood novel Rapscallion is set, in part, on the British prison hulks being used to hold POWs during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • The Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott" concerns a prison ship to Australia.
  • In John W. Campbell's short story Who Goes There?, the characters speculated that the crashed alien vessel was a Prison Ship.
  • Over the first few books in the X-Wing Series we hear talk of Lusankya, the Empire's secret prison and brainwashing facility, but only later is it revealed to be the Lusankya, a Super Star Destroyer. Even after the pounding it takes in The Bacta War there's enough left to salvage, and the New Republic captures and makes use of it until the New Jedi Order, where it goes out in a proper blaze of glory for Operation Emperor's Spear.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrow. In the Season 2 flashbacks, a lot of the action takes place on the Amazo, a converted freighter used to hold subjects for the Mad Science experiments of Dr. Anthony Ivo. He needs a ship because he's simultaneously searching islands in the North China Sea for a lost World War 2 submarine carrying the only known pure sample of the Super Serum he's researching. After being captured on the island of Lian Yu, Oliver Queen meets his future ally Anatoli Knyazev in one of the cells.
  • Both series of Battlestar Galactica had a prison ship among the ragtag fleet.
    • The original series had the Prison Barge, a ship used to hold prisoners of various kinds, including prisoners of war. Baltar organizes an escape from the ship along with various characters arrested or captured in previous episodes.
    • The re-imagined series had a prison ship called the Astral Queen which held common criminals as well as noted terrorist Tom Zarek. It was a prison transport but after the attacks the prisoners were stuck in tiny cells for months before anybody even noticed/cared. When the fleet needed laborers for dangerous duties mining water ice on a frozen moon, Zarek negotiated the partial release of the prisoners as a condition of their being used as grunt labor. The prisoners were given their former prison ship as their new home among the fleet.
  • The original cast of Blake's 7 (with one exception, introduced later) were all prisoners on a spaceship transporting them to a penal planet.
  • Doctor Who: In "Doomsday", the Doctor discovers that the Genesis Ark was a prison ship built by the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War. Being of Time Lord origin, it's Bigger on the Inside and contains a small army of Daleks.
  • Farscape: had many a episode set inside one, poignant considering Moya was one before the pilot episode. And half her crew in said pilot were escaped prisoners.
  • Intergalactic: Ash is put on the prison transport Hemlock with other female prisoners. They're headed to an offworld penal colony when some of the prisoners manage to break out, hijack the ship and escape. It continues to be their means of transportation afterward.
  • Lost in Space episode "Condemned of Space". The Robinsons encounter a computer-controlled prison ship with criminals kept in Harmless Freezing cryogenic suspension.
  • One episode of The Mandalorian has the main character take a job with other mercenaries to free an ally from a New Republic prison transport.
  • Power Rangers/Super Sentai:
  • On Red Dwarf, the ship itself serves a secondary purpose as a prison transport ship. Apparently only a few people are aware of that floor. Unfortunately the prisoners are reconstructed along with the crew in Series 8, and the main cast wind up incarcerated with them.
  • In both the original and the remake of Roots, Mandinka warrior in training Kunta Kinte is brought aboard a slave ship where he has to endure three long months inside the cargo hold during the Middle Passage. Although he starts a revolt in an attempt to kill any unnecessary crewmen, and keep the rest alive to sail them back to Africa, the uprising fails, and he and the rest of the Africans are brought to the Maryland coast, where they are bought by numerous plantation owners and Kunta ends up in John Weller's plantation.
  • The premise of Seven Days is the use of technology from the crashed Roswell UFO to develop Time Travel. In one episode, one of the inventors finally translates the markings on the ship and finds out that it is a prison transport. Unfortunately, the Grey prisoner has just escaped and is hell-bent on paying the humans back for putting him in a coma.
  • A Stargate SG-1 episode centers on the team finding a crashed prison transport, unfortunately they don't figure out what it was until the prisoners trick them into helping them fight the surviving guards.
  • One episode of Star Trek: Enterprise had Captain Archer and Trip aboard one of these. The other criminals launched an escape and killed the guards, forcing them to make themselves useful to the criminals in order to survive.
  • Star Trek: Voyager. In "Repentence", Voyager is briefly converted into a prison ship when they rescue the crew and inmates of another prison ship conveying the inmates to their execution. This leads to the inevitable Anvilicious Debate Of The Week on the ethics of capital punishment and racial profiling, and the equally inevitable Crisis of the Week when the Force Field Doors fail when the power goes out during a prison breakout.

    Music 
  • "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)" by El-P, complete with the hook "I found love on a prison ship," is about a prison ship executioner who fantasizes about running away and starting a new life with one of the prisoners set to be executed. He does his job anyway and shoots her.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The sci-fi horror RPG Abandon All Hope takes place completely inside the Gehenna, a gigantic ship that was made by a super-fascist Earth to put in everybody they deemed undesirable (criminals, political prisoners, people they deemed "useless" because of a useless skillset for the new world government and the like) and sent away... whereupon it flew inside of a Negative Space Wedgie that is best described as Hell by way of Event Horizon. The Player Characters are prisoners within the Gehenna trying to survive the subsequent demonic invasion.
  • Traveller Adventure 1 The Kinunir. The Kinunir class starship Gaesh was converted into a Prison Ship and used to hold Imperial political prisoners.
  • Warhammer 40,000's Imperium of Man has the dreaded Black Ships, each ferrying tens of thousands of psykers conscripted as per government policy. They're all taken to Holy Terra for processing, with the strong being "sanctioned" to serve as communicators or warriors, and the rest fed to a giant psychic navigational beacon.

    Theatre 

    Toys 
  • LEGO Space Police: Each iteration of the theme has a large ship that houses and transports criminals. With the exception of small personal transports, each Space Police I craft carries at least one removable cell for prisoner storage and transport.

    Video Games 
  • Iron Heights, a prison that traditionally holds The Flash's enemies appears in Batman: Arkham Knight, reimagined as an airship that crashes into the waters outside of Gotham and had captured Killer Croc for the purpose of experimenting on him and other inmates.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has you starting off in one.
  • The Escapists 2:
    • Air Force Con is an enormous Boeing jet that serves as a prison meant for only one person - you.note 
    • The HMS Orca is an enormous ocean-going ship with prison cells. You aren't allowed anywhere outside. If you go outside, the guards will beat you to unconsciousness.
    • The USS Anomaly is a space station which serves as a prison.
  • In Freelancer, Liberty Police, Inc. have prison ships in the Texas system above Planet Houston, the LPI Huntsville and the LPI Sugarland. These are type II prison ships: while called ships in the game, they hold prisoners rather than merely transporting them, act more like space stations in function, and resemble Weighted Storage Cubes in appearance.
  • In FTL: Faster Than Light, you can come across a slaver ship whose crew will either gladly sell you one of their slaves or attack you if you don't hand them over one of your crewmembers. Put enough dents in their hull and they may decide to give you a slave for free insteadnote . Smugglers hiding in Space Clouds and the Rebel transport ships may also turn out to be a prisoner transport, as do several other ships if you kill their crew without destroying the hull.
  • Mass Effect 2 has a sequence set on the prison ship Purgatory, a privately-run jail holding the type of prisoners planetary governments don't want in their prisons. The warden also makes some extra cash by threatening to release the inmates in the systems it passes through unless the locals cough up free supplies. Real nice guys, the Blue Suns. Unfortunately for them, their leader makes the decision to try and capture Shepard and hold them for ransom... which results in Shepard shooting their way to the prison ship's resident Tyke Bomb... which results in said Tyke Bomb being release from cryo and going on a Biotics-and-rage-fueled rampage through the ship that ultimately ends with said prison ship being destroyed.
  • In Phantasy Star Online, an incarnation of Dark Force Faiz was locked away in a giant Prison Ship in the center of Ragol.
  • An alternate Cave Johnson in the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative is captain of one of these.
  • Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando has one the Flying Lab on Planet Aranos, which later gets used as a prison ship for the heroes.
  • Rayman 2: The Great Escape: There's also The Buccaneer, the robot pirates' mobile headquarters and prison ship.
  • The 90s action game, Skeleton Krew for the Amiga is set in one of these, where a viral outbreak turns every prisoner onboard into savage, bloodthirsty mutants. You assume one of three commandos assigned to investigate the outbreak and find out an Evilutionary Biologist is behind the incident.
  • Starcraft II has you mount a raid on one to rescue Raynor. To highlight Mengsk's asshattery, he orders the ship to selfdestruct with Kerrigan on it... without informing the ship's crew.
    Guard: Get to the escape pods!
    Medic: This is a prison ship, there aren't any escape pods!
  • On the Navy skill-building path at the beginning of System Shock 2, one of the missions you can select therein is the UNN Pierce, which plays this straight. According to the debriefing, said prison escort apparently had a mercenary on board, disguised as a prisoner.
  • Unreal has you start out on a crashed prison transport named the "Vortex Rikers".

    Web Animation 

    Western Animation 
  • An early episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender has a Fire Nation prison shipyard, a massive oil-derrick-like construction built way out in deep water. It serves as a Tailor-Made Prison for Earthbenders, as there is nothing for them to manipulate, unlike in a traditional prison where they could work with the literal ground beneath their feet.
  • An episode of Samurai Jack involved Jack and his friend Ashi exploring an alien prison spaceship that crashed on Earth. The only surviving prisoner is a weird monster named Lazarus-92, which apparently killed all the other inmates, guards, and crew members of the ship.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television, of course.
    • These were often older decommissioned ships, kept permanently at anchor and used because of the easily available space, versus having to build a custom prison. This was especially useful during times of war, where they might temporarily have many more prisoners than they would on a long-term basis in peace time.
    • Note that decommissioned ships have seen similar use for a variety of other purposes, to include housing for military recruits, defensive outposts, and as museums (often centering on the career of the ship itself, natch).
  • The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center in New York City. It is a barge permanently moored to a pier in the Bronx that currently holds around 800 inmates, designed to handle medium to maximum security inmates.
  • Prison ships have long been associated with the English army. On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon referred to British prison ships to rally the anger of the French soldiers: “Soldiers, let those among you who have been prisoners of the English describe to you the hulks [rotting, old prison ships], and detail the most frightful miseries which they endured!”
  • The practice of chaining slaves, and cramming them into ships' cargo holds is as old as maritime trade.
  • During WWII, Allied POWs' were crammed into "Hell Ships," to be transported across Japanese occupied territory (known to Japan as the "Eastern Co-Prosperity Sphere") to be held in hellish prison camps, or as manual labor. Being unmarked, Allied naval forces would often attack and sink these "Hell Ships," thinking they were filled with supplies or combat troops. Considering the absolutely horrific conditions aboard these vessels, they may as well have been.

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