This question is inspired by a premise from the video game Batman: Arkham City, in which a portion of Gotham City has been closed down by the public to be reserved for prisoners from such places as Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary. Unfortunately, that was only a temporary environment, as the real agenda, codenamed "Protocol 10", was to cull Gotham's excessive population.

The context in this scenario is different. In the near-future, some global or near-global disaster has forced the construction of multiple Shimizu Megacity Pyramids, Ultima Towers and X-Seeds 4000, arcological structures that are supposed to support great populations with minimal area space. Which means that any of the old cities, like New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, London and many others, would be viewed as undesirable by the public, thus converting these old cities from public settlements to extra-extra-large prison colonies. Provided that extra security measures be done--like filling the outside spaces with walls--could converting a large, metropolitan complex into a prison be feasible, much less wise?

For further clarification, physical feasibility is the only target in this question. Whatever happens inside--gang wars, survival struggles, other kinds of social unrest--is not the point.

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    $\begingroup$ How soon we forget Escape from New York. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ "Physical feasibility" seems easy: Yes, build a wall. I think the details depend on things you've seemed to indicate you don't care about: What happens inside the wall. For instance, most cities get most of their food, potable water, etc from the outside world, and couldn't be self-sufficient. $\endgroup$
    – dwizum
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why you mentioned colonization since it seems to be about managing urban space not implanting a space colony of Mars. Also, have you hear about the Berlin wall? Not exactly a prison but not too far from it. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ Seems rather unfair to the children that will inevitably exist inside even if you start with no children. So nothing unusual for the current US administration. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, we called it Australia. $\endgroup$
    – Sasha
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 18:07

5 Answers 5


Define prison.

A lot of electronics these days is manufactured in China. Some cities are practically industrial compounds where people work 34-hours shifts for minimal pay.

Steel wire meshes are fitted to buildings to prevent suicide, because enough cases happened for it to be a thing:


The workers don't own their own houses. They sleep in dormitories that belong to the factories:

More sadness

Even more sadness

The article in the link claims there are no luxuries such as air-conditioning. I will let you imagine other things such as bathrooms.

They have no money to pay for groceries nor anything. Food is part of their payment. They eat what the factories give them to eat, at rigidly stablished times:

Yet more sadness

All in all, they spend their life in the factories. They don't leave on weekends, they don't choose what they eat, they don't choose when and where they sleep... I see no difference between this life and the life of an inmate.

All this was just to show that a penal city is not only feasible, we practically have the infrastructure for those. Shenzhen gets its food and water from outside, and "imprisons" people by mixing economical hardship with an oppresive government.

In a fictional world, all you have to do for a penal city to be sustainable is to choose its residents based on criminal conviction rather than economical need.

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    $\begingroup$ That reminds me of Coal Country company stores. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ based on criminal conviction rather than economical need i.imgur.com/tMOyrZ0.png $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I'd assume they're free to leave if they want. Lack of that option is how I define a prison, no matter how infeasible it'd be to leave and then just be homeless and hungry. This should've been a comment that said, You mean like sweatshops in China? --- "Whatever happens inside--gang wars, survival struggles, other kinds of social unrest--is not the point." -1. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 0:41

It depends on where the guards are

If the guards are in the city, then that's a big prison. You can expect to see the same kinds of prison riots that humans have observed in all kinds of actively oppressed populations going back to antiquity. Expect this kind of situation if the arcologies are actively trying to punish the prisoners. Oppression rarely works out well.

Given the scale of the penal institutions, it will be very difficult for the prison's security apparatus to enforce uniform control. Expect to see the emergence of no-go zones where the prison authority cannot exercise full control.

Personally, I think this is the least likely option since it costs so much to hire and equip guards. Also, if this is a true prison population then the arcologies are on the hook to provide food and medical care for the inmates. If you're populating New York purely with inmates that have to be supported, your arcologies are either wealthy beyond reckoning or this program won't last long.

If the guards are around the arcologies to prevent the prisons from getting back in, then it's possible that we'll get an Australia style penal colony. When given a chance to start new lives, the former prisoners started businesses, married, had children and built a civilization in the middle of nowhere.

I think this is the more likely as it's cheaper to just eject people you don't like from the arcologies and make them fend for themselves. Given how well humans are at surviving, the inmates/undesirables will find a way. If you did it right, these ex-arcology people would be a useful source of trade and "off-shore" labor for the arcologies.

  • $\begingroup$ The importation and/or distribution of food would always need to be solved, since New York can't plant it's own crop. Here it differs from an Australia style penal colony in quite a significant way. $\endgroup$
    – D.J. Klomp
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ @D.J.Klomp You'd be interested to know that for a long time it did. As the city expanded it pushed the crops outside of the city. That being said, there's a lot of unutilized rooftops that could be used for growing. You could get almost as much farmland out of it, and if everything was done properly you could even work it with nearly as much efficiency as a regular farm. That was crushed by a little thing called capitalism. (I know! In NYC?! Who would have thought!) $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @coriKa, of course but with a lot less population and a different definition of city. I don't think that the farmland around or in between the villages what later made up new york were counted as city. Did only read the abstract of the dissertation, yours? $\endgroup$
    – D.J. Klomp
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @coriKa a quick calculation. If you need 2 acres to live off (0.008 km^2), think this is very low. NYC has an area of roughly 800 km^2 land, dividing these numbers you could feed about 100000 people. So still somewhat of a city but nothing compared to current NYC. So about the actual new york population of 1810 according to table 1.2 from the dissertation. $\endgroup$
    – D.J. Klomp
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 19:43

What is the goal?

As I understand it, the people in your story plan to build walls around the cities and put undesirables inside. Is the goal to get rid of most of them, without getting their hands dirty, or do they consider it necessary to keep all inside?

Building those walls is feasible. Consider the Berlin Wall and the inner-German border during the Cold War.

What happens inside a surrounded city without resupply and government services is going to be ugly. Again going to history there are the Jewish Ghettos in Nazi-occupied countries, but note that those were intentionally genocidal. But even without such intentions, simply cramming people together in an urban area without surrounding countryside won't work because they can't feed themselves.

That brings up questions of escape attempts. The Communist regime had police and secret police "inside the prison" trying to prevent escape attempts, yet those ranged from tunnels to home-made balloons (German links, but glancing over them shows the scale of attempts). Would the people guarding the wall have agents inside to detect such activitiy?

  • $\begingroup$ The German Democratic Republic was also the first thing which came to my mind. However, unlike in a prison, where most supplies are imported from the outside, the GDR was more like a self-sustaining economy. Well...YMMV...some of the GDR "inmates" also regularly received aid parcels with coffee, chocolate and other stuff which could not easily be bought in the GDR. Such parcels were, of course, checked by the guards for contraband, with the guards often "confiscating" (cough) coffee, chocolate and other stuff which could not easily be bought in the GDR. $\endgroup$
    – Klaws
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Klaws, it remains that without close supervision of the inmates, somebody might build a sailplane/glider and launch it from a skyscraper. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 15:36

Yes - although a custom built structure would be way more efficient as it would have less pre-existing escape routes (sewers, railway lines, exterior windows) to secure.

You would need to seal off the perimeter so a surrounding wall would be essential. Beyond this there are a few issues to consider:

  • Access Does anybody need to access the confined areas? In a close historical analogy, during the sealing off of ghetto cities by the Germans during the Second World War local populations entered to trade with the confined population. This made it much easier for people, information and goods to be smuggled out.

  • Security How likely are the confined populations to try and escape? No wall is going to be solid enough to keep a determined population in for ever. If people are going to attempt escape then border guards will eventually be required.

  • Health and Resources Are there sufficient resources within the enclosed area to keep the residing population alive and healthy? If there are there may be less will to escape leading to a diminished need for external security. On the other hand, if they are literally zones of slow starvation there will be a strong incentive for incumbents to penetrate the exterior barrier.

    Further, if any 'outsiders' live near the camp then their health is an issue. Disease will not stop at the barrier and plague could easily spread from poorly fed or treated prison populations.

However, there is no practical reason why this wouldn't work and the physical sealing off of cities or districts has often been carried out in history.

  • $\begingroup$ "custom built structure" +1. This guy's going to have to contract rehab jobs, instead of new-construction? Quadruple the budget, and double the time you think it will take, due to preexisting structures that must be adapted or demolished. Or just put it in the middle of Minnesota and you're done, on-time and under budget. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 0:27

Cities are an intense area of study - from Urban Design to town planning, transport and economic development.

I used to study in the field of Urban Design, and early on you realise the complex nature of cities, they are incredible objects that defy comprehension often as they are so integrated with culture, engineering, architecture, and urban planning.

From a practical point Planners struggle even today to deal adequately with infrastructure and to cater for growth and development. Development is unpredictable, land uses can be regulated but in the end people would want to do what they like and inhabit the city as they see fit. Cities also evolve to suit economic and political situations at the time - these are perhaps the largest factors affecting a modern city.

So a city as a prison? Well you can start off that way... but wait and see what would happen in a couple of decades. Have a look at the following cities:

  • SINGAPORE: An island city, isolated, no resources, import all goods, but still an economic powerhouse. Why? Because it is an ideal trade mid-point from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, Asia to Australasia.
  • SYDNEY: Started out as a penal colony! Full of criminals. But now it is one of the most liveable cities on Earth, highly regarded, and a defacto capital of a peaceful nation. Obviously didn't end up the way it started.
  • MUMBAI: Slums and more slums, full of the poor. Yet now it's development scale is off the planet - there is a massive amount of money and money flowing into India, and many are now reaping the benefits. Next to slums are new Millionaire condominiums.
  • BERLIN: West Berlin was surrounded by the most fortified wall at the time, surrounded by East Berlin. Yet the wall was to keep people OUT, not in, as so many caught in Soviet society wanted to 'escape' to the 'walled city'. This was a prison, yet strangely in reverse.

The above is not to really define a simplistic idea of a prison city, but merely to demonstrate the complexity of situations and cities make oversimplification impossible. A wall around a city is the least influencing factor of what the city actually becomes, it is more what it represents. The city will grow, shift, 'break it's banks', evolve and change, and it would be difficult to predict what its destiny will be.

  • $\begingroup$ Manhattan is "An island city, isolated, no resources, import all goods, but still an economic powerhouse. Why? Because it is an ideal trade" point from Europe to North America... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 19:54

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