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Basic Information

A prison is a place where individuals are physically confined and deprived of some of their personal freedoms. Reasons for prisoner status may range from punishment for crimes to political persecution. Prisons may also be used to hold hostages for ransom or for insurance purposes.

Prisons vary in their character from well appointed apartments to lightless oubliettes and in size from tiny, single cell lockups to whole islands, continents, planets or dimensions.
Likewise the regime in a prison may vary from minute control of every aspect of a prisoner's life to more or less complete abandonment within the walls of the facility1. In some eras and locations a prisoner of the correct status may have a great deal of license to correspond with those outside - particularly in the case of aristocratic prisoners of war in a feudal or oligarchical setting.

Imprisonment may be the sum total of the burden on the prisoner, or he may be subject to other pressures including brainwashing, re-education, torture or forced labour. It may also be that the most dangerous thing the prison is actually the prisoner's fellow inmates. Much will depend on who has imprisoned him and why and whether he has been sentenced yet or is awaiting trial (whatever form that may take).

Imprisonment as a punishment is relatively modern - after all, the prisoner does nothing useful and needs to be fed and guarded. Our ancestors tended only to imprison those they specifically required to keep out of circulation and punish the others in more immediate ways. Of course the "fed" part can be optional. A lot of historical prisons provided little or nothing in the way of food, drink, furniture or clothing for prisoners, and those without someone on the outside to provide for them would be in dire straits indeed. In many times and places, jailers also had considerable latitude as to where a prisoner was confined and could be bribed to move them to better (or worse) parts of the prison with regard to crowding, ventilation and general hygiene.

In fantasy, sci-fi and the like, prisons may be extremely esoteric places given the powers of those they may have to contain … of course, if the prisoners are dangerous enough we're talking Sealed Evil in a can instead…

In addition to traditional prisons, we also have the interesting subcategory of prison ships - which can be further subdivided into hulks (the hull of an obsolete ship, converted into a floating prison) and those that are still mobile to some degree. These seem to appear in the 19th century (with some, very limited, occurrences before then) and persist in a limited fashion to the present day. There is no absolute reason for the concept of the prison ship not to follow us into space.

List of Famous Prisons from History and Pop Culture


Game and Story Use

  • Player characters might get captured by the authorities and thrown into prison. This might not be the end of their adventuring career if they are trying to break out and eventually succeed.
  • The "fully customisable prison experience" may also be an amusing revelation for modern players. Especially if their PC doesn't have anyone on the outside.
  • Conversely, perhaps they need to rescue someone from a prison - perhaps they know the prisoner is innocent, or perhaps he has vital information which they cannot get otherwise.
    • This can even be a good black-and-grey dilemma if the person they need to rescue is guilty as sin and justly imprisoned … but they still need to get him out.
  • A suitably anarchic prison may be a venue for adventure in its own right.
    • The fantasy trope of the prison-dungeon also applies - that is, a monster infested underground maze into which prisoners are dumped. Sort of combines imprisonment with trial by ordeal and capital punishment. Has the interesting side effect of only allowing the most dangerous criminals to escape (assuming that the way out at the other end of the dungeon actually exists) - and, in most fRPG systems - making them a lot more dangerous when they do.
  • A BBEG may even be running his empire from a prison cell - the authorities refuse to move against him because "it can't be him, we have him locked away" … someone else has to act, possibly by infiltrating a prison controlled by their enemy.
    • Mr. Bridger in The Italian Job is probably a fairly minor example of this…
  • Prisoner transfers are also a good scenario for a small group of PCs, the adventure either being simply getting the prisoner from A to B in the face of obstacles and rescue attempts or revolving around things at the source or destination prisons being significantly different from what they should be.
  • In a suitably Chivalric setting a noble prisoner could end up as virtually part of his captor's family … or even actually part of it if we're talking chivalric romance.
  • The prison break is an obvious scenario … but if the prison is a mobile prison ship, there is always the possibility of stealing the prison instead.
    • For those that remember Farscape the Moya was a prison ship (or prisoner transport, it wasn't entirely clear).
  • A lot of prison ships are converted from some previous use - as are some older prison buildings. Interesting and useful features can be left behind.
    • As above, in Farscape, previous research work performed on the Moya had left all sorts of Easter Eggs behind.
    • A prison ship taken over by the prisoners could be converted to some other use, piracy being the most obvious.
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