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A Prison Ship is a penitentiary, correctional facility, or jail that moves under its own power. Often featured to highlight the questionable practices of villains, the heroics of protagonist, a setting in itself, or just to move the story along. 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:

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  • The Prison Transport: often hijacked, this humble vessel is either designed or modified to transport prisoners, not hold them permanently. The transport 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.
  • The Jail: often a setting in and of itself this vessel is usually purpose built to hold prisoners permanently (often for unscrupulous deeds outside of jurisdiction) needs things like guard stations, plumbing, cafeteria, life-support, or stasis pods to function.

Not to be confused with Shipping between prisoners.


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Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Cowboy Bebop episode "Black Dog Serenade". One such ship gets hijacked by prisoners.

    Comic Books 
  • The Marvel UK version of Zoids followed 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.
  • Star Wars Legends had a "dungeon ship" which Luke found himself in in Dark Empire, specially designed to hold Jedi.
  • Francois Bourgeon's series Les Passagers du vent contains both types at the time of the American War of Independence - a French slaver and a British prison hulk.
  • In Gotham City, Blackgate Prison (located on an island in the harbour) has used a modified barge as overflow housing for less dangerous prisoners. Cluemaster once planned a mass breakout that involved cutting the barge loose and having it picked up by modern-day pirate Cap'n Fear.
  • In the Ratchet & Clank Comic Ratchet gets sent to one of these in Issue #2 "Friends with Benefits" after being captured by Artemis Zogg.
  • 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 boarding parties whenever the Imperials raid a new ship.
  • 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.

    Film 
  • The airplane in Con Air was a prison transport.
  • 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.
  • The eponymous Amistad is a slaver ship.
  • 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.
  • In Man of Steel, General Zod and co. are stored in a prison ship in another dimension.
  • The Tomb in Escape Plan turns out to be an anchored tanker off the coast of Morocco.
  • The heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy truly get to know one another aboard the prison ship they happen to be locked up on.
  • Fortress 2. In Fortress (1992), The Alcatraz was built inside a mine in the desert. In the sequel, it's revealed to be a satellite orbiting the Earth.
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    Literature 
  • In John W. Campbell's short story Who Goes There?, the characters speculated that the crashed alien vessel was a Prison Ship.
  • The Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Gloria Scott concerns a prison ship to Australia.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Abel Magwitch has escaped from a prison ship, and is transported to Australia on one.
  • The Matthew Hawkwood novel Rapscallion is set, in part, on the British prison hulks being used to hold POWs during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 Prison Ship.
  • 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.
  • Lost in Space episode "Condemned of Space". The Robinsons encounter a computer-controlled prison ship with criminals kept in Harmless Freezing cryogenic suspension.
  • In Mirai Sentai Timeranger, the villains hijack a Prison Ship and name themselves after it.
  • 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.
  • 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 7Days 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 spaceship.
  • 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.
  • An episode of Star Trek: Voyager had the Voyager itself briefly converted into a Prison Ship. Using Force Field Doors, of course...

    Machinima 

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Videogames 
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has you starting off in one.
  • 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: There's also The Buccaneer, the robot pirates' mobile headquarters and prison ship.
  • Unreal has you start out on a crashed prison transport named the "Vortex Rikers".
  • In Phantasy Star Online, an incarnation of Dark Force Faiz was locked away in a giant Prison Ship in the center of Ragol.
  • 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 boneheaded 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 in a series of bad decisions and unfortunate events that ultimately ends with said prison ship being destroyed.
  • An alternate Cave Johnson in the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative is captain of one of these.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 enought dents in their hull and they may decide to give you a slave for free instead. 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.

    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.
  • The X-Men animated series featured a two-part episode with a "Spirit-drinker" that Lady Deathstrike accidentally released from an alien Prison Ship.
  • 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 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 Japan's new dominions 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.


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