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"They've got a jail here that makes Alcatraz look like Disneyland."
—Ira, Jagged Alliance 2
"What was that place? That wasn't a prison, that was HELL!"

Plenty of prisons simply content themselves with confining people, but some go the extra mile and actually try to break them. This sort of prison is an absolute hellhole - between the lack of food and proper clothing, the absence of light or sanitation, the sadistic guards, and the violently insane fellow prisoners, they hardly need the nasty looking torture equipment they probably have scattered around. Sometimes, they won't bother with things like individual cells - prisoners will just be lowered into a big pit and left to fight each other for whatever scraps are thrown down. Expect the inmates to be treated like animals, and expect most of them to act like animals as well. Indeed, being thrown to the prisoners might be used as a punishment just like being thrown to the lions, and jailers in such places occasionally suffer Karmic Death that way too.

Story-wise, this sort of prison will often get heroes thrown into it, so that the hero can demonstrate their inherent hero-ness by refusing to be defeated by the prison. It may also serve to toughen them up for the next part of the plot (since they will, of course, escape). Other times, it will just serve as a Fate Worse Than Death which the hero must fight to avoid.

A prison like this will often also be The Alcatraz or a Tailor-Made Prison, but those are defined by the difficulty of escape rather than the conditions - some prisons can actually be quite nice. Related to Bedlam House.

Examples of Hellhole Prison include:

Anime and Manga

  • All of the greatest criminals in One Piece go to Impel Down, a prison with each level having a different torture, lower numbered levels are those with less dangerous (to the government) criminals. The entire prison is controlled by a warden with the power of poison (one of the few characters who's handed the main character his ass), Badass Normal staff (including one Vice-Warden) and devilish beasts and guards. There is also a literal evocation of hell, down to the horns on most of the higher staff.

Comic Books

  • Such a prison plays a major role in the first cycle of the French comic Balade au bout du monde. It's a medieval prison in the 20th century.
  • Peña Duro, the prison where Batman foe Bane was born and raised.


  • Midnight Express. Never, ever try to smuggle hash out of Turkey!
  • The House of Particular Individuals in Idiocracy. Filthy and overcrowded conditions, inmates are fed slop poured in from a funnel, and large, overweight prisoners establish dominance by sitting on smaller ones. Fortunately for the hero, the guards are so stupid you can escape simply by telling them you're supposed to be getting out of prison.
  • The prison in the 2008 film Hunger which is based upon the 1981 Irish hunger strike. The IRA prisoners, refusing to conform to the prison's rules, are forced to live naked, routinely beaten, forcibly searched in all orifices, and beaten some more.


  • Furnace Prison from Escape From Furnace. Dear GOD.
  • Azkaban in Harry Potter qualifies- it doesn't sound as scary on a physical level, but it's described as being emotional torture because of the Dementors being the guards. One of the early signs that the Ministry of Magic isn't exactly on the good guy's side.
    • To be specific, the emotional torture is either being forced to relive your worst memories whenever the Dementors float by your cell, or feeling like you'll never be happy again. Either way, most prisoners go insane.
    • Word of God says conditions improve post-series after the dementors are removed.
  • 1984 had this in anticipation of Room 101.
  • Edmond Dantes is thrown into one of these in The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Ysanne Isard's Lusankya has a facility to torture and brainwash people into Manchurian Agents, but there's also a prison where she sends them to recover along with all her other prisoners. It's relatively mild as evil prisons go, but they get rockbreaking duty and the guards regularly shoot new prisoners to cow them. They shoot on stun settings, yes, but that's not exactly pleasant.
  • The Mexican prison that John Grady and his friend are thrown into in All The Pretty Horses.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga short story "Borders of Infinity", the Dagoola IV prison camp is designed to be as bad as possible without violating galactic law on the treatment of prisoners of war. Due to egregious Loophole Abuse, the camp has continuous illumination, riots twice daily over food distribution, frequent Prison Rape and nonexistant medical care.
  • In Dune, the entire planet of Salusa Secundus functions as a hell-world prison for Emperor Shaddam IV; and it is described as having a 60% motality rate for new prisoners. The emperor recruits those tough enough to survive it for his uber-elite and highly feared Sardaukar troops. The Fremen also view Arrakis like this on a more religious level -- "God created Arrakis to train the Faithful" -- and conditions are similarly harsh.
  • Honor Harrington has the prison planet Hades, more commonly called "Hell." The climate is dreadful, the native life inedible (but the local fauna haven't figured out that they can't eat people) and if the guards decide that one of the small prison camps spread around on its surface is getting too uppity, they just stop delivering food to it.
  • The hulks in the Matthew Hawkwood novel Rapscallion. Truth in Television.
  • The titular prison in 'Incarceron. Making it worse is that it's sentient and fully aware of what it's doing to people.

Live Action Television

  • Walker, Texas Ranger infiltrated one of these, where the prisoners were being used in some kind of Fight Club-esque tournament in which the other guards bet on who'd win, all run by the Dirty Cop warden.
  • Tom Paris and Harry Kim find themselves unrightfully thrown into one of these in Star Trek: Voyager's "The Chute" and almost kill each other during their time in there.
    • Another episode had Tuvok tell a prisoner about the completely intolerable conditions of an alien prison. He was lying his ass off.
  • Stargate SG-1 had an episode where SG-1 found themselves in one. Taken to its logical extreme as its purpose is to simulate hell itself.
  • The titular prison in the show Oz, despite a good part of it being an experiment to make it less of an hellhole.
  • Fox River State Penitentiary in Prison Break. Bizarrely, however, this prison has access to things like chem labs- which kind of makes a person wonder why riots aren't a heck of a lot worse than they already are.
  • The top-secret UNIT prison that Toshiko was thrown into for life in her origin-story flashback in Torchwood.
  • Jack Bauer spent several years in a Chinese hell prison between seasons of Twenty Four.
  • "The Attic" on Dollhouse.

Tabletop Games

  • The Magitek-style setting Rym ( ) shows a cluster of prisons called Fear, Agony and Grief. These are "prisons used by the Spiral [alien necromancers] to gather information on the suffering of mortal beings... staffed by the more intellectual Spiral priests, who go to great lengths to arrange for proper conditions, acquisition of prisoner groups, and the orchestration of the hideous little 'plays'..."
  • Parody RPG Ho L, aka Human Occupied Landfill exists as a combination penal planet and garbage dump. HoL has one of the highest body counts since Paranoia, and few players survive even their first encounter.

Video Games

  • The Lottery of Life story in Lost Odyssey is about a prison like this, in a country where the people have been brought up for generations to believe that attempting to rehabilitate even petty criminals is pointless- once you commit any kind of crime, you're officially considered subhuman for the rest of your life. When the prison gets set on fire, the guards order Kaim (who's been hired as extra security during a rebellion) to abandon the prison, leaving the 'losers' inside to burn to death.
  • The Dungeon maps in Warcraft 3 feature charming little things like cages, torture racks and iron maidens. Not to mention the skeletons that are still chained up on the wall...
  • Tixa in Jagged Alliance 2 is a torturer facility for political prisoners. Looking around will find blood covered shackles the basement is even worse.
  • Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Prisoners are kept in metal sarcophagi until the surgery block is ready to turn them into Stalkers.
    • That's the shiny new Combine-built wing; the original prison looks like it used to be (and depending on what the guards do for recreation, maybe still is) a more standard example of this trope.
  • In Bioshock 2, we have Persephone Penal Colony, a place built by the opportunistic businessman Augustus Sinclair to house those who speak out against the hypocritical city leader Andrew Ryan. Suicide, violence and suffering were common, and many prisoners endured having to serve as test subjects.
  • Vorkuta in Call of Duty: Black Ops, where a very bloody uprising leads to hundreds (if not thousands) of Prisoner and Guard deaths, and the lone escape of Cpt. Alex Mason.
    • In Modern Warfare 2, TF 141 breaks into one to kidnap the prisoner inside for information on Makarov. The entire gulag exists to punish one guy: Captain Price.
  • In Mass Effect 2, Zaeed Massani states that Batarian prisons are hellholes where the only choices are "bash head open against wall" or "kill everyone between yourself and exit". The Purgatory prison ship also qualifies, given the inmates' poor living conditions and abuse from guards. It's bad enough that it's hard not to feel bad for the prisoners, even though killing 20 people and destroying a habitat is apparently at the low end of the crimes that can land you there.

Western Animation

  • In Justice League Mister Miracle spent his childhood in such a place called the X Pit which he somehow escaped.
  • Subverted in Futurama with the Hal Institute for Criminally Insane Robots. It's not so bad for robots - it even manages to cure them - but when Fry spends time there in Insane In The Mainframe he completely loses his mind.

Real Life

  • The Confederate Andersonville POW camp during the U.S. Civil War.
    • Only partly. It wasn't built to "break" people. It was built simply to get them out of the way. The reason it was so bad is because its commandant was an Obstructive Bureaucrat and the Confederacy as a whole was running out of supplies for its own soldiers, nevermind the other side's prisoners.
    • The Union equivilent was Camp Douglas.
  • Should go without saying.
  • British prisons before Sir Robert Peel. You used to have to pay for everything and could often bribe the Gaolers to make life harder for other prisoners. Part of this was due to the fact that these payments (both official and bribes) where the only money the Gaolers made.
    • London was infamous for Newgate until the end of the 19th century(though it was used to hold only the very worst prisoners for the 50 years). Numerous references to it used the phrase (or something very near to) "Hell on Earth" to describe it, Rioters on numerous occasions made it a point to burn the place down first off, and even official reports criticized it for harsh prisoner treatment and malnourishment.
  • The Bastille however, despite its depiction in fiction and propaganda, was a very pleasant place to be imprisoned, the biggest loss being the lack of pudding.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment appeared to demonstrate that any prison has the potential to turn into this: guards, if not held accountable for their actions, become abusive; prisoners, lacking other means of fighting back, become passive-aggressive and prone to riots. The results of the study are still controversial among researchers, however; with claims that flaws in the construction of the project encouraged much worse results than would be achived in a real-world setting.
  • Natan Sharansky says that when he was confined by the KGB , they were deliberately trying to wear down his spirit with endless amounts of Cold-Blooded Torture.
    • They didn't actually enjoy their work and used methods which showed little of the six fingered man type "craftsmanship" but much of brutality. Nor did they want information. All they wanted was for him to shut up and stop being embarrassing to the regime.
  • Soviet-era prisons, particularly the gulags, are describe as this by many former inmates; most famously by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.
    • Of course, descriptions of prisons given by Solzhenitsyn from personal experience in The Gulag Archipelago (rather than from latrine rumors) are nowhere near.
    • And North Korean prisons are believed to be even worse.
    • Cuba's prisons also count as they treat prisoners as punching bags. It was so terrible that the prisoners transferred to Atlanta prison did everything they can not to be sent back into Cuba.
  • Supermaxes. Just the solitary confinement can break prisoners.
    • Back in the 19th century isolation was the standard means of imprisonment for all inmates outside work camps. Grand majority of the released prisoners were hopelessly demented.
  • Whether or not the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is one of this is a hotly contested issue.
  • While prison in any country in the Middle East and North Africa is no picnic, the Tazmamart prison camp in Morocco was noted as the most hellish prison in the world--at a time that the Gulag was still active. It was shut down in 1991.
  • Many if not most French prisons have gradually become these due to a frozen prison budget, lack of funding for new prisons, and a burgeoning prison population. Overcrowding is commonplace, there is a violent and endemic gang culture, and (hotly denied by both wardens and the government) much abuse of prisoners (by guards and fellow prisoners, inclusive of sex slavery). This goes a long way towards explaining the disdain and/or hostility many ordinary people have for the police, especially minorities.
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