In fact, why keep a prison for even normal humans in a city at all?

Where are the benefits that offset the obvious drawbacks? From my limited knowledge on the subject, you would prefer to have a large internment center, in a remote area, preferably hard to reach and get into. It would act as a natural deterrent for escaping (what's the point of getting out if you die in the desert/zero dimension?). In case of evasion, it's easier to look for someone in empty areas rather than fully crowded urban centers.

In my settings, post Third World War, mutants make up for less than 1 out of 1000 people, with abilities ranging from a slightly better sense of smell to full-lightning speed, with a few handicapped-by-their-mutations people (I have the super-ability to survive without skeletal structure. Good for me, cause I don't have any bone.).

Like in every civilization I'm aware of, some people abuse their capacities and use them for illegal activities. Now, while a standard prison cell can hold most people, it presents little to no challenge to Mr-Big-Fists who smashes cars for breakfast. Thus, a top-security prison exists for those individuals, with specially designed cells for each long-term resident.

However, building such a cell takes time, and is not cost-efficient if the person is to be detained for a short amount of time. The soon-to-be-transferred and the short duration jail-time are thus detained near the capital, where most benevolent mutants/super-hero operates, as to be able to contain them. (Shifts of super-watch, back-up close at hand and the like.)

While I have figured those plausible reasons, what are the other that could apply in the real world and in this context?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Nyakouai! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Jan 18, 2019 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Why not, in the first place? $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2019 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ With my first evaluation, I'd have tend to put the inmates the farther away possible from any kind of population. To protect said population, first. To prevent escapees to camouflage into the crowd second. But that's why I asked in the first place: since prisons can be found in urbans center, I was obviously missing some points. $\endgroup$
    – Nyakouai
    Jan 18, 2019 at 21:45

7 Answers 7


There are a few things that make cities attractive for prisons

  1. Your pool of mutants will be higher, statistically, in dense urban populations. There are more mutants in a crowded city, so you need more prison space nearby, to house them.
  2. Transporting prisoners between the city and the prison increases costs and risk of escape. Prisons in or near the city means shorter trips and less time for ambushes or other escape efforts.
  3. Staffing is easier in/near a city. It is easier to get qualified mutant guards as well as qualified, non-mutant, support staff (cooks, administrative staff, etc.) in areas with higher populations.
  4. Interstate or other highways tend to converge on major urban areas. These high-capacity roads make it easier to bring in prisoners from rural areas or anywhere else that lacks a mutant-safe prison.
  5. Urban renewal campaigns make otherwise abandoned urban areas attractive for developers. It may be cheaper to renovate or demolish an abandoned urban block than to build in a rural zone.
  6. Infrastructure is more readily available in urban centers. Power, data, gas, water, and sewer. These services are generally more robust and more reliable in cities than rural areas.
  7. An urban site means your inmates are closer to the courts that will be trying their cases.
  8. Urban centers are more likely to have the funding to have mutant-capable police forces and equipment necessary to capture, transport, and safeguard mutant inmates. Therefore, it is convenient to have the prison near such units, so they can serve as backup in the event of a prison outbreak or escape (just as real-life urban centers are more likely to have SWAT-type units and/or bomb squads than rural police forces).

Just as a counterpoint, but in the real world, prisons are sometimes placed in more-or-less rural areas but within commuting distance of a major city -- or even better, within driving distance of two or more cities where that makes sense, because land is cheaper, businesses/citizens don't generally want prisons nearby, and to more readily serve more than one population center from the same prison.


The most obvious answers are the ones you dance around a bit:


Especially in a post-pockyclyptic setting, the farther away from a center of power you put something, the greater the costs will be to build it, fund it, supply it, secure it.

If you put your prison out in the desert, you need to haul all of the construction materials, crews and support personnel out into the wild. You need to protect them -- from wild animals, from evil mutants, from wasteland warriors and bandits. You need to build underlying infrastructure. You need to build supporting infrastructure (power, transport for prison staff, etc.) Not only will the prisoners need guards, but all the extra infrastructure needs constant surveillance.

If you put your prison in the city, all of those extra costs go away. The infrastructure already exists, you can invest that money in local projects and a local layer of security.

The other aspect to consider is

proximity to bad guys.

Out in the desert, it will be far easier for marauding mutants to breach your thinner lines of security. Either by force or by coercion. Guards who work long shifts in the boring desert may be influenced by money or other tantalising bribes. This would allow for the baddies to pop your prison wide open and free their confreres. While the potential for bribery exists in the city, it would be much more difficult for the bad guys to gain access.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1 just for pointing out cost, which is why prisons can be found in/near cities. Housing staff, shipping goods, etc., a million miles away from civilization is expensive. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 18, 2019 at 17:36

Why do we use prisons instead of a exile or death? Because we want to re-educate and integrate them into society.

The countries with stellar track records use humane environments to make the prisoner feel human. With hobbies, music and games. Lack of bad guys, because they SUCCEED reeducating them.

Besides activities that make them help the community, helping to heal the scars of their past misdeeds. Paint schools, rebuild a wall that you broke. All of those activities bind the society again.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 to this answer. It may not provide as many angles as some other, but it's a point that I had clearly overlooked. (But since the setting is kind of authoritarian government, the whole "humane environments" may not be the priority of said gov. Great answer anyway on its own) $\endgroup$
    – Nyakouai
    Jan 18, 2019 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Add enough propaganda about how great is to X and receiving the visits of your relatives which drink and use X. How they can't wait for you to come home for Xmas and share a bit of X with granma. $\endgroup$
    – Gustavo
    Jan 18, 2019 at 21:53

As a staging area before moving them on elsewhere

A complex society won't just have one prison, they'll have all sorts of prisons intended to deal with different types of offenders, for different stages in their rehabilitation.

Given that your post-apocalyptic wasteland does have a city, being a place of higher population density, it would make sense that the number of mutants is also higher in the city. Furthermore, it would be plausible that the city would attract a greater concentration of mutants, since rural areas tend to be more conservative, and a mutant might feel both more anonymous and more connected with the community of mutants while in a city.

Since your city then naturally has a large number of mutants, albeit still at a low percentage compared to the unmutated, then you also have more criminal mutants in the city. So what is involved in the process of prosecuting and incarcerating all these criminal mutants?

Naturally, you need a staging area: a prison within the city, just for mutants (or maybe just containing a block for mutants), where they are held while other matters are pending, such as deciding which rural prison to triage them to, or while they are awaiting for a remand or appeal process to finish.


To make them useful to society

The inspiration from this idea came from an anime called Deadman Wonderland. If I'm not mistaken, here's how this prison (called Deadman Wonderland) works:

Death row prisoners are given a chance to gain freedom by going through a kind of deadly obstacle course. It's full of blades, fire, traps, pifalls and such - but if you manage to get to the other side, you're free. In this universe, people pay tickets to see convicts get mutilated - which is twisted, but I'll get to a reasonable point, I promise.

In the case mentioned above, the objective is entertainment.

Though I'm not suggesting such a drastic manner of service to society, a guy capable of smashing cars for breakfest could be very useful to handle heavy machinery or even do the work of such a machine much faster.

These special abilites from convicts could have feasible use to society in prisons where they could take jobs to apply them in return for other benefits while they do their time. A guy that can cast lightning bolts could store energy while a telepath could act as a human lie detector - and you can take it from here.


Limited transportation

So you've caught your supervillain in a city. What do you do now? First, you don't want to take them far. You want them in a location that contains their powers as soon as possible. So you need a location close to where the crime was committed to turn them over to have their powers suppressed quickly. Presuming that they committed the crime in a city, that means that the jail needs to be in the city as well.

Now that you have them jailed in the city, you don't want to move them. In the jail, their powers are suppressed and the jail itself is protected from whomever might want to help them from outside. Moving them is risky. You might be willing to do it once, in a group. You won't want to move them more than that. So you have to have a jail, in the city, strong enough to hold multiple supervillains and keep their friends from breaking them out.


In a city, the entire police force is available to back up the personnel of the prison. In a remote area, the prison personnel size will dwarf that of the local law enforcement. So you'll need a larger force, since it will have little backup.

Close to judgment

Another issue is that unless you've gone full-on police state, you have to try the super criminals. They need to appear in court, with representation, and there needs to be a prosecutor, judge, jury, court reporter, witnesses, etc. Since the crime took place in the city, the natural thing is for the court to be in the city. For one thing, the witnesses will presumably be from the city. And security requirements mean that the easiest place to put the court is in the jail, where their powers are suppressed and it's hard for confederates to break them out.

By putting the court in the jail, you avoid the limited transportation problem. You don't transport them. You bring the necessary to them. If you jailed them somewhere else, you'd have to transport them twice daily (at least) during the trial. Or you'd have to drag the witnesses to the trial.

Right to a jury

In general, they have a right to an unbiased jury. If you move them (remember, only once) to a remote area with a prison, then the jury pool is inevitably going to be tainted with people who benefit from the prison. Why? Because you picked the location for being remote and with few people. So the people who are there are mostly going to be the new people. And even the old people will do most of their business with the new people, because that will be most of the people. And of course, they make money from the imprisonment. Not an unbiased group.

Compare the two situations. In the original city, there are local witnesses and a local jury pool of people who mostly have nothing to do with law enforcement. In the remote location, both witnesses and jury members will have to be brought from outside.

Prison choice

If you send the criminal to the prison first, before the trial, you can't choose the prison based on the results of the trial. However, if you try the criminal first, and then choose the final prison, you can. Why does this matter? At first, you might think that the criminal engaged in deliberate murder. But later, you might realize that the crime was accidental, only manslaughter. Do you want to put careless people in the same prisons as murderers?

You also may want to use information from the trial to determine what powers the criminal has. You wouldn't want to try to keep Magneto in an iron prison for example. And it may not be obvious that the villain can only manipulate iron. That's the kind of thing that you need the trial and investigation to determine.

You need it anyway

As previously discussed, you need a local jail capable of holding people with super powers. Once you have it, why not use it? If you keep the criminal in the city jail during the trial and for a time afterwards to arrange transportation, you have more flexibility. You can wait until a larger group needs moved. If you need space, you can organize a special caravan to clear out already convicted criminals.

If you move them first, you can have a slightly smaller local jail. But you have to run the caravans when the crimes happen all the time. You can't delay a caravan in one place so as to allow a caravan to operate somewhere else. Because the system is to move the criminals as soon as possible.

If you try to operate a hybrid system, you still have to move the alleged criminal before the trial starts. You gain some flexibility over the immediate move system, but you still have the trial problems. When compared to the post-trial move system, it allows a bit smaller local jail, which doesn't seem that much of an advantage.

Short sentences

If someone has only a short sentence, why transport them at all? You can keep such people in the local jail for a couple months and never engage in an expensive and risky transport. This actually happens frequently.

If the local jail is overwhelmed, a group of people with such sentences can be shifted to a prison at the same time.

Tradition and consistency

But the real reason is probably that it is traditional for criminals to be kept in local jails until the trial is finished. It would take more than the potential for a modestly smaller jail to change that. And this keeps consistency with trials of people without super powers. Everyone has the same basic system. This also helps in that it may not be obvious that the criminal has super powers at the time of arrest. There are then fewer changes once the powers are discovered.


Prisons, like any other large company, require staff. Guards, administrative staff, cleaning and maintenance crews, medical, food service, etc. And all those staff members need housing, food, medical care, education for their children, and so on.

So you have two choices:

  1. Locate the prison in or near a city with a large pool of potential employees, plus all the support services you need for the prison itself and for the employees and their families.

  2. Locate the prison in a remote area and create your own town to house your employees and take care of their needs. This means building schools, having farms (or transporting food), bringing in other residents to supply services. And so on.

The second choice isn't ridiculous. It's been done before. Atomic City aka Oakridge, TN, was a small town taken over by the government and turned into part of the Manhattan project. The population of the town went from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 by 1945.

But that's pretty ambitious for a prison. You're much better off keeping it close to the city.


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