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Prison Tropes

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Their methods vary, but their goal is the same: incarceration.
(Clockwise from top left: Arkham Asylum, Halo Prison, Azkaban Prison, Asylum Prison)

The Big House. The Slammer. The Pen. The Clink. The Hoosegow. The Pokey. The Calaboose. Call it what you will, stories set in prisons have their own set of tropes attached to them.

Also see Escape Tropes, A Restrained Index, and Sealed Index in a Can.


  • The Alcatraz: A prison that is (supposedly) impossible to escape.
  • Alone-with-Prisoner Ploy: The Mole talks to an arrested ally by claiming they want to see the prisoner alone.
  • Ambiguous Criminal History: Often involves a stint in prison for unspecified crimes.
  • Barefoot Captives: Prisoners and slaves forced to go without shoes.
  • Bedlam House: An oppressive psychiatric hospital that is effectively a Hellhole Prison for the patients, doing nothing to make them any less crazy. May sometimes be used to detain people who are "criminally insane" (they committed some sort of crime, but were found to be legally "not guilty" due to their mental illness).
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  • Birdcaged: A villain traps the hero inside a birdcage.
  • Black Site: A secret government facility that may be used to (illegally) hold prisoners under extrajudicial detention. Physical torture and summary executions are often included.
  • Boxed Crook: A prison inmate is offered a chance for freedom if they agree to do certain favors.
    • Trading Bars for Stripes: A convicted criminal decides to serve in the military to avoid a prison sentence, or to earn their freedom.
  • Breaking Out the Boss: Members of a gang bust their boss out of jail.
  • Brig Ball Bouncing: A prisoner passes the time by bouncing a ball against the wall of their cell.
  • Bunker Woman: A woman is kidnapped and held in a contained location.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: A character is associated with a caged bird to symbolize for their sense of confinement and longing for freedom.
  • Captivity Harmonica: Someone plays the harmonica while in jail.
  • Captured on Purpose: Someone allows themselves to be captured by the enemy as part of a plan.
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  • Cardboard Prison: When inmates are able to escape from jail with absurd ease.
  • Chain Gang: Multiple prisoners literally chained together while laboring.
  • Chained Heat: Two opposing characters are stuck together and must learn how to cooperate.
  • Consulting a Convicted Killer: A detective stops by to interrogate a prison inmate while investigating a crime.
  • Conveniently Cellmates: Two characters who know each other end up sharing the same prison cell.
  • Cryo-Prison: Imprisoning people by freezing them with cryonics.
  • Crystal Prison: Imprisoning characters inside of precious stones.
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: Using an eating utensil to escape from prison.
  • Deadly Environment Prison: A prison where the surrounding area is more dangerous and impassable than any guards or walls.
  • Death March: Prisoners are transported on foot in fatal conditions, with death often the intended outcome.
  • Death Row: A prison cell block consisting of inmates who have been sentenced to death.
  • Defeated and Trophified: You lose against them, your opponent keeps you as a living trophy of their victory.
  • Doomed Fellow Prisoner: A prisoner in the same cell as the main character ends up suffering some horrible fate.
  • Epiphanic Prison: A prison someone can't escape from unless they have an epiphany.
  • Extranormal Prison: A prison that is specially designed to contain people or beings who have superhuman abilities.
  • Falling into Jail: The bad guy is defeated by falling directly into prison.
  • First Rule of the Yard: If you wind up in jail, you must assert your dominance.
  • Get into Jail Free: A person does something to help them get into prison.
  • Gilded Cage: A luxurious place that feels like a prison.
  • Girl in the Tower: A female (usually a princess) is imprisoned in a tall tower.
  • Girls Behind Bars: Women's prisons are played for fanservice purposes.
  • Glassy Prison: A person is imprisoned in a cage with transparent walls.
  • Great Escape: A grand plan to sneak one's way out of a prison.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Prison staff make it almost too easy for prisoners to escape.
  • The Gulag: A type of forced-labor prison camp that was once common in the Soviet Union.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: A criminal has the backstory of being evil because they were wrongly jailed.
  • Hell: In many different religious mythologies, there's a special afterlife designed to trap the souls of dead sinners and punish them for their misdeeds in life, often for eternity (or at least a long time before they can be forgiven and allowed to move into another realm). This is essentially the spiritual version of a mortal penal facility.
  • Hellhole Prison: The prison is a terrible place for the inmates.
  • Hooking the Keys: MacGyvering a way of stealing keys that are just out of reach.
  • Improvised Imprisonment: A character is held prisoner by amateurs, in a place not intended to hold prisoners.
  • Implicit Prison: A setting is treated like a prison, even if it's not explicitly called a prison.
  • "Inescapable" Prison Easily Escaped: A character trapped in an inescapable prison is easily able to find a way to escape.
  • Institutional Apparel: Uniforms worn by prison inmates.
  • Jail Bake: Helping an inmate escape prison by giving them baked goods that have stuff they can use to escape hidden inside.
  • Jailed One After Another: Multiple characters get arrested and imprisoned in close proximity.
  • The Jailer: A Vigilante Man who illegally incarcerates criminals in extrajudicial detention, instead of killing them or handing them over to the actual authorities.
  • Just Got Out of Jail: A character who was just released from prison.
  • Juvenile Hell: A Hellhole Prison for juvenile delinquents.
  • Lockdown: A building or other location is isolated by means of blocking access to every single entrance or exit, so that no one can get in or out.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: Disposing of someone by forcing them to live as a monk or nun in a distant church or temple.
  • Locked in the Dungeon: Imprisoning someone in an underground cell beneath a castle or fortress.
  • Longer-Than-Life Sentence: Someone has to serve a prison sentence that is far longer than anyone can live, ensuring that the prisoner will be long dead by the time they can be released.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: A prison cell that's actually a nice place for the inmate(s) living there, to the point that it trivializes how exactly this is supposed to be a punishment.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: A deformed and/or unstable character kept hidden somewhere.
  • Man in the Iron Mask: A character is held prisoner by another, even though the captive threatens the captor by his very existence.
  • Menagerie of Misery: An oppressive zoo that keeps wild animals held captive in conditions that are more like a Hellhole Prison than their natural habitat.
  • Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All: A criminal is still a danger to the public even while behind bars.
  • Mind Prison: Imprisonment in a Mental World or Virtual Reality.
  • Mistaken for Imprisonment: Mistaking situations for imprisonment.
  • Never Going Back to Prison: A character who has either been released or escaped from prison makes a pledge to never, ever go back.
  • No Prison Segregation: Convicts are housed together regardless of their differences.
  • Not Used to Freedom: Someone is too used to life in prison and can't function outside confinement.
  • The Old Convict: An elderly prisoner who's been locked up for a very long time.
  • Pariah Prisoner: A prison inmate who is strongly despised by many other prisoners for various reasons.
  • Passive Rescue: A character who rescues someone from prison without using aggression or violence to break them out.
  • Penal Colony: A distant location (usually an island, or maybe another planet in a sci-fi setting) used to dump prisoners to isolate them from the rest of civilization.
  • Pet Gets the Keys: Someone breaks out of captivity by getting an animal to bring them an implement of escape, often keys.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: Someone who could escape whenever they wish, but they decide to stay for some reason or another.
  • Pounds Are Animal Prisons: Pounds are depicted as being the domestic animal equivalent of a prison.
  • P.O.W. Camp: A military prison camp designed to hold captured enemy soldiers (AKA prisoners-of-war, or POWs). Also closely related to internment/concentration camps that are used by the military to detain non-combatant civilians during wartime.
  • Prefer Jail to the Protagonist: The villain finds the hero to be so unbearable, that they'd rather go to prison than endure them any longer.
  • Prison Changes People: Spending time in prison can change one's personality, for better or for worse.
  • Prison Dimension: Criminals are banished to and locked away in another dimension.
  • Prison Episode: An episode of the series is devoted to one of the characters ending up in jail.
  • Prison Escape Artist: A character who is known for escaping prison multiple times.
  • Prison Rape: When prisoners get sexually assaulted by other inmates (or sometimes by the guards or staff).
  • Prison Riot: Mass violence in a prison, usually involving a fight between rival gangs, or the inmates rebelling against the guards.
  • Prison Ship: A vessel designed to transport prisoners from one detention facility to another, or at least hold them indefinitely.
  • Prisoner Exchange: When two groups (usually in a state of war or conflict) make an agreement to release each others' prisoners whom they were respectively holding captive.
  • Prisoner's Work: When prisoners perform labor for their captors, usually through coercion (though sometimes it may be voluntary).
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Prison inmates are shown exercising and bodybuilding to develop their muscles.
  • Private Profit Prison: A prison that is partially or fully operated by a private corporation instead of a government organization.
  • Protector Behind Bars: The Hero is locked up in jail and can't protect anyone on the outside.
    • In Prison with the Rogues: The hero is locked up in the same prison alongside vengeful criminals they previously put behind bars.
  • Punishment Box: A shed or box that prisoners are put in to give them extra punishment.
  • Quarantine with Extreme Prejudice: When the government enforces a very strict lockdown on an area (sometimes including entire cities), in an attempt to stop the spread of a very deadly disease.
  • Rats in a Box: Locking all the prisoners in one room.
  • Self-Restraint: A prisoner willingly stays captured.
  • Shipped in Shackles: A prisoner is not only delivered to a place, but is restrained in every way possible.
  • Shirtless Captives: Prisoners who don't wear shirts.
  • Sinister Shiv: An improvised blade weapon created and used by prison inmates.
  • Sky Cell: A prison that is usually on top of a high tower with an open ceiling.
  • Stanford Prison Experiment: An infamous psychology experiment where volunteers are split between pretending they're either guards or prisoners. Soon though they began acting like it was totally real...
  • Stock Punishment: A device that holds someone immobile so that others can assault them with foodstuffs.
  • Tailor-Made Prison: A prison cell that is specially designed to contain a single specific person who cannot be locked up by any normal means.
  • Tally Marks on the Prison Wall: A prisoner draws or etches tally marks on the wall of their prison cell to keep track of how long they've been incarcerated.
  • Thrown Down a Well: A character gets trapped in an uncomfortable or remote location that's impossible to escape from.
  • Time Loop Trap: A character is deliberately trapped within a time loop.
  • Trapped in Containment: When an area of a building gets put on lockdown to try and stop something dangerous from escaping or spreading out of control, someone is unlucky enough to get sealed inside with that threat.
  • Trojan Prisoner: The heroes infiltrate an enemy base by pretending to have been captured.
  • Tunnel King: A character who is an expert at digging escape routes beneath prison grounds.
  • Vulnerable Convoy: A convoy of vehicles that are transporting prisoners get attacked en route.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The prison is run by a ruthlessly corrupt administrator.
  • What Are You in For?: A prisoner asks their cellmate what they did that got them into prison.
  • You All Meet in a Cell: The story begins with the characters in captivity.


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