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File:Crookmeg 7472.jpg

Above: Meg before prison.
Below: Meg after prison.

"On the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook."

This is for the idea that throwing people in jail makes them into worse criminals than they were before. Thrown in for petty crimes? Perhaps they may learn how to get away with serious crimes. Falsely convicted of crimes? Perhaps once absolved, they may get away with actual crimes partly because of the impression left by the false conviction... or may be "broken" into the criminals people think they are. Not to mention what they might have to do simply to survive such a brutal environment (kind of like He Who Fights Monsters, but more like He Who Survives Monsters).

This trope often implies the Family-Unfriendly Aesop that going to jail never helps anyone reform or even abstain from committing more crimes.

Compare Wrongful Accusation Insurance, a subtrope of Hero Insurance in which the falsely convicted commits crimes and get away with it while proving his innocence of another crime. May also be related to Go Among Mad People.

May double as a form of "Nice Job Breaking It, Hero" when there were good intentions behind sending someone to prison.

According to most research, this is Truth in Television.

Examples of Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook include:

Anime and Manga


  • Andy, from The Shawshank Redemption, is the Trope Namer. Falsely convicted of the murder of his wife, he goes from being an honest banker to using his banking skills to help launder money for the warden. Somewhat subverted in terms of morality, as Andy is secretly planning to escape from prison and expose said warden as a crook, but certainly played straight in terms of lawfulness, as he ends up committing many crimes, though none as serious as what he was locked up for.
  • The main character of Blow (based on reality) said this about himself.
  • In Angels with Dirty Faces, Rocky Sullivan grows up into a notorious gangster after having been thrown into a reform school as a kid for stealing pens, and ends up going in and out of prison well into adulthood due to being corrupted. His friend, Jerry Connolly, escaped being thrown into the reform school by the police, and grew up to become a priest.
  • In Boys Town, Whitey Marsh's brother Joe, who is on death row, asks Father Flanagan to take Whitey in because Joe sees Whitey starting down the same path he took. Joe is afraid that Whitey will go to reform school and then learn how to be really bad.
  • Intentionally invoked in The Departed, where Costigan goes to prison to build up a reputation as a crook to be able to infiltrate The Irish Mob.
  • Con Air discusses the trope, with the Evil Genius Cyrus "The Virus" at its core.


  • Sherlock Holmes mentions this phenomenon in "The Blue Carbuncle", when he decides to release the man who stole the title gem: "This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life."
  • The idea of learning to commit more serious crimes is parodied in Discworld, where the Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild, an entirely legal organisation, runs official classes in the city's main prison, the Tanty.
    • It's played darkly straight in Night Watch, where Vimes muses that Swing had missed the point of laws and the police- he's meant to be taking criminals and turning them into honest men, but instead he's taking honest men and turning them into criminals.
  • This is the point of the novel and movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on the real life case of a man wrongly accused of a robbery and sent to the brutal Georgia prison system. After escaping — twice — he is forced into hiding, and in the film's memorable final scene, bids farewell to his former fiancee.

 Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.

Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've gotta go.

Helen: I can't let you go like this!

Jim: I've got to.

Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money? But you must, Jim. How will you live?

Jim: [whispers] I steal!

  • The Stainless Steel Rat tried to deliberately invoke this trope, getting himself sent to prison to learn the tricks of the trade from real criminal minds. Of course, he quickly realizes his mistake: He won't find any criminal masterminds in prison, because they don't get caught.
  • Discussed in the Spenser short story Surrogate, regarding a man who was paid to rape a woman by her ex-husband, who met him while teaching a convict education program. Somewhat more ambivalent than many of the other examples.

 Spenser: Lot of guys like him in the joint. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s the joint makes them like that. Sometimes being like that gets them into the joint in the first place.

  • Arguably happens to Jean Verjean at the beginning of Les Misérables. After being released from a very long prison term for stealing a loaf of bread (Which wasn't too long until he got it quadrupled for repeated escape attempts), he is unable to find work (Because nobody was willing to hire a thief - at least not at a wage he could live on) and is forced to resort to stealing more valuable goods to survive. An unexpected act of mercy from the first person he robs after starting down this path leads to him undergoing a Heel Face Turn.

Live Action TV

  • Tobias Beecher in Oz. Imprisoned for vehicular homicide, he is a murderer several times over by the end of the series.
  • On Homicide: Life On the Street, Junior Bunk Mahoney was a none-too-bright enforcer for his heroin-slinging family, and couldn't stop weeping when the squad brought him in. Fast forward a couple of years, and he's a gleeful sociopath who shoots up the squadroom, injuring several main characters.
  • Life: When we meet Arthur Tins in season 1, he's a low-rate con artist whom Crews sends to prison. When we see him again in season 2 after he's escaped, he's a hardened criminal who murders one man, robs an armored car and takes a family hostage.
  • Bones: Serial Killer Howard Epps, possibly. He could be a Manipulative Bastard all along, or maybe he learned it while on death row. When we first meet Epps, he's claiming to be innocent and trying to get exonerated, but it ends up he just reveals he's killed even more people than previously thought, so they have to keep him alive while they process the new bodies. When he returns in season 2, Epps is even more manipulative and playing serial killer games, leading the team on a merry chase with body parts as clues.
  • When Earl went to prison in My Name Is Earl, he meets a prisoner who's on his list for accidentally being sent to Juvey by him. When he gets out of prison, the public take one look at his shaved head, his prison tattoos and the tough guy persona he adopted inside to stay alive and decide he's a crook. So he lives up to their expectations by becoming one.
  • This was a key conceit of the short-lived 1978 TV series Sword of Justice, in which an innocent man sent to jail for a crime he did not commit uses his time behind bars to learn all the tricks of the trade from the real criminals around him, and then upon his release uses their methods to first get his revenge and then act as a general crime-fighter.


  • A lot of songs written by Johnny Cash, especially the ones he performed at prisons such as Folsom, are about how the entire justice system (or "justice", as he might have called it) is flawed.
  • Also referenced by Tupac Shakur in "Trapped."

 Too many brothers, daily, headed for the big pen; n***as comin' out worse off than when they went in.


Western Animation

  • In Spider-Man the Animated Series, this is how The Kingpin came to be — originally sent to prison for larcency, after one of his dad's scams went south and his bulk prevented him from following his father up a fire escape. Once he comes out, he's got 'connections', and uses what he's learned to begin building his criminal empire.
  • In the Family Guy episode "Dial Meg for Murder", Meg falls in love with a convict, and goes to jail for harboring him after he escapes. When she comes out, she is a lot meaner and starts fighting back against everyone who mistreated her. By the end of the episode, Brian has to stop her from robbing a convenience store at gunpoint.
  • Wasp, from Transformers Animated, gets falsely arrested as a Decepticon spy in the backstory (shown in a flashback episode). By the time he escapes over half a century later (Cybertronians are long-lived), he's almost Gollum-like in his insanity.

Real Life

  • Some gangs actually require members to go to jail before they can join the gang.
  • This is a common criticism of the war on drugs in particular, or at least the approaches to it that involve prison sentences for the possession of illegal drugs. It is much applied to the US, whose prisons are regarded as especially likely to make hardened criminals and whose approach involves locking people up for so much as possessing soft drugs like marijuana for personal use.
  • A variation occured in Ireland; in the wake of the Easter Rising, the British army interned large numbers of Irish people who had had little to nothing to do with it alongside the surviving rebels. The combination of unjust treatment and being placed in close proximity to dissidents meant that when internment was ended, the country had the makings of an enormous republican movement.
  • Stacy Keach is an inversion. He was caught smuggling drugs in The Eighties and thrown in prison. The warden there wound up being such a positive influence on his life that he's been on the straight and narrow since and based the character of Warden Pope in Prison Break off that warden.
  • South American serial killer Pedro Lopes started as a petty thief but graduated to murder after getting raped in jail.
  • John Dillinger mugged a bar when he was 19. Not much of a crime, but then he got sentenced to ten years in jail. There he met such criminals as Carl Mackey, who taught him the "Lamb Method" of bank robbery. Thus he began to become a legend.