Imagine a dictator who owns a massive prison. The tech level is 12th-15th century, and the dictator has very few guards at his disposal. The prison already has all necessary resources such as food and water dispensed from vending machines, which use coins. Coins are obtained by doing work, such as carrying stones or building things. Unfortunately, with so few guards, none can be spared for this prison as they all work somewhere else.

Now, I suspect there's a way that some sort of economy in the camp based on the population of prisoners would be able to make the prisoners guard themselves. If one of them runs away, they are somehow punished. You can handwave how the vending machines that provide resources work, but assume they can know how many prisoners there are and calculate things like cost.

So, what would be an effective method of accomplishing this? You can divide up the prisoners any way you wish, and assume the "prison" is a massive camp, taking up several dozen acres with a large building for sleeping/housing the vending machines. The walls can be set up however you wish.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 5, 2019 at 4:15

4 Answers 4


For the design of the prison itself, I would use something similar to the Panopticon designed by Bentham (link to the wiki article here), but still in use in some prisons today, possibly with similar central towers in the work areas, as you could use minimal guards and even trusted prisoners to staff the towers.

You would also want to build up a fairly strong list of rules and a system of rewarding prisoners for reporting others misdoings, e.g. if you get one vending machine coin for a full day's work, then you maybe get three coins for reporting someone has contraband, and five or even ten for reporting an escape plan. Punishments for breaking the rules should be fairly severe but not result in death, as a prisoner may feel too guilty to report someone if they think it will result in that person's death. This will help build a level of fear and mistrust between the prisoners - it's harder to organise an escape plan if you can't work with anyone for fear of them reporting you.

If you are keeping them in fairly poor conditions then you could also institute systems of reward and rank, e.g. if you make ten reports that have been proven accurate (or whatever works in your system), you get a slightly nicer cell, and slightly more responsibility, e.g. overseeing the work camp duties. Prove yourself in that and the guard duty or punishment duty etc etc.

While this sounds very a harsh scenario, there are unfortunately quite a few real world parallels, particularly in South America, for example San Pedro prison. You may find this article, which talks about San Pedro and other prisons staffed by relatively few guards and self governed by the prisoners, interesting!

  • $\begingroup$ How would you prevent greedy prisoners from framing other prisoners for made-up reasons in order to get coins? $\endgroup$
    – AAM111
    Mar 5, 2019 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ @OldBunny2800 - yes unfortunately that absolutely would happen (like in the McCarthy communist witch hunt, people would report others for their own gain). You could try and regulate against false reports somehow - i.e. a punishment for false reporting, or have the prisoners themselves set up a prisoners' court (as described in the second article) but it certainly wouldn't be foolproof. This definitely wouldn't be a utopia, far from it, but just an effective way of keeping prisoners contained with minimal guards. $\endgroup$
    – L Mason
    Mar 6, 2019 at 12:21

People's greed for power is enough to accomplish what you want.

In prison, all prisoners become low in rank while even the lowest (external) guard ranks higher than any prisoner. If left to themselves, the prisoners will soon establish a new rank or hacking order by organizing themselves in gang-like structures. There are always people manipulating, intimidating or simply fighting their way through life. These will probably become the gang leaders and prisoners of highest rank.

Now you are still much higher in rank, so you can bestow previleges on certain prisoners. All it costs you is sewing 10 armbands or similar identification marks and a prison-wide announcement than anyone wearing such armband is officially considered a guard and gets a few extra coins per day if no prisoner escapes that day.

Now suddenly those prisoners with the most power anyways have an incentive to stay in prison (because their life gets more comfortable and they have the power they crave) and to keep anyone else in prison as well.

Lean back and watch them tyrannize themselves, as did the scientists supervising the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was a 1971 social psychology experiment that attempted to investigate the psychologicaleffects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers.

Early reports on experimental results claimed that students quickly embraced their assigned roles, with some guards enforcing authoritarian measures and ultimately subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture, while many prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers' request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. 

Nice addition by Cadence:
You could simplify things even further if you wanted. "Whoever shows up here at noon with X carts of [whatever this place produces; rock, I guess] gets Y carts of food. Otherwise, good luck." The people who manage to put themselves in charge of food deliveries are de facto your trustees.

  • $\begingroup$ You could simplify things even further if you wanted. "Whoever shows up here at noon with X carts of [whatever this place produces; rock, I guess] gets Y carts of food. Otherwise, good luck." The people who manage to put themselves in charge of food deliveries are de facto your trustees. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Mar 3, 2019 at 11:04

A scenario like this was the premise for a movie

See Wedlock

Prisoners wear explosive collars linked to another random unknown collar. If the two collars become separated by more than 100 yard, boom, both prisoners die. If a collar is removed without deactivation, both prisoners die.

Since you don't know who your match was, it's in your best interest to make sure nobody tries to escape.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A good idea, but very hard to do with the stated technology level. Making the penalty for escaping prison death for you and some unknown sample of other prisoners might work though, as all prisoners could expect to be executed if any of their compatriots escaped. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Mar 3, 2019 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps a variation based upon each prisoner having special coins "linked" to another prisoner's (unidentifiably), and if their "partner" (wouldn't know who) escapes, they can't redeem their coins... $\endgroup$ Mar 3, 2019 at 15:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The concept of collective punishment is an old one. Modern technology or magic not being available, these twinned collars are not possible, but they are entirely unnecessary. Everyone gets reduced rations, and also throw in a random execution or two per escapee, and the only risk is if a group is tight enough to plot without discovery and nobody gets cold feet (just one defector who will be richly rewarded and they all lose). $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2019 at 21:26

Easy, put them in some islands. There are about 100 prisoners per island, and the escape of one means the death of all others because there are these lions which prowl the islands. Each prisoner has to take some of their time to defend against the lions, and take all other time to scavenge and sleep. If someone escapes, the lion they are supposed to defend against attacks someone else, killing them because they are attacked by two lions at once, so the escape of one prisoner means the death of all others, and they will organize themselves to prevent escape. The "lions" could be anything that poses harm and needs all prisoners to work together.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ They are more likely to organize to mitigate the danger from the lions. At any given time, a large fraction of the prisoners will not be needed to deal with the lions. We know this, because a large fraction of the prisoners will be asleep at any given time. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Mar 3, 2019 at 6:29

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