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In countless zombies books, from World War Z to The Walking Dead, prisons are depicted as being the ultimate refuges for surviving the zombie apocalypse. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks dedicates 6 pages up it, whereas other refuges get only 1-2 pages.

While this argument holds obvious merits, I still have doubts. One obvious problem is that the people already there are there for a reason. Murderers and Rapists would be there waiting for you. Another is getting in. Prisons are just as hard to break in as to break out.

In a walking dead style apocalypse, would prisons be the safe havens they are painted as? What would get in the way of this?

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  • $\begingroup$ How are your people turning into Zombies? The method by which it spreads is pretty important. An airborne disease might get in and infect everyone inside, locking you in with some zombies. If you turn when you're scratched or bitten then walls and fences will be very good at keeping zombies out. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Apr 23 '17 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ Its transmitted through bites, scratches and infected water $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Apr 23 '17 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ Also, a prison's containment measures are meant to keep people in not out. So a significant chunk of the defenses and fortifications are pointing the wrong way. $\endgroup$ – Shadur Apr 23 '17 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadur you may need to reinforce the fences and gates, but reinforcing existing million dollar big budget fences with security cameras etc,.is a lot easier than building them from scratch. at the end of the day a fence will stop the zombies, you don't need the razor wire on the top and all the rest. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 23 '17 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ I suddenly want a zombie mod for Prison Architect... $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Apr 24 '17 at 16:40
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Prison complexes may well be very defensible. Obviously a cell block on it's own is no good, you'll run out of supplies.

But many prison complexes range from minimum to maximum security and have a lot of land and quite often farms in suitable areas for farming. So crops would already be in the ground, fences in place, security camera etc. It would be easier than trying to build defenses from scratch anyway you'd just reinforce what is there already.

Your main problem would be the inmates. But if you got control of the outlying parts of the prison, they would eventually starve to death anyway and you could use them to fertilise your fields, or burn the bodies or whatever.

Prisons are just as hard to break in as to break out.

No they're not, they're a lot harder to break out of for obvious reasons. The outlying prison grounds are probably no more than chain fences with razor wire. Quite possibly with living quarters for guards and other things. Minimum security prisons could probably be entered with bolt cutters. There would be more trouble getting into the maximum blocks (if you actually wanted to) but again it's just steel doors, if the guards are dead inside it wouldn't be too long before you came across keys, and the office areas are probably easier to enter than the cell blocks.

Any outbreak in the prison would be localised due to locked doors rather than general, the vast majority of prisoners would be locked down so you'd find wings full of starved to death corpses locked in cells rather than zombies wandering everywhere.

Even if you have a lot of zombies prisons are designed to funnel dangerous people, you only open the doors you need open creating a pathway to an enclosed area. So it should be easy to funnel them into a yard or something, just have a fast runner, unlock the doors all at once remotely, open only doors leading to the yard, have a ladder for your runner to the walkway, pull the ladder up after him. Block off access to the yard, mop up any strays. Flood the yard with petrol or whatever from the walkway and burn the zombies. Or leave them there, they can't do anything.

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    $\begingroup$ Admittedly some prisons have farms, but you still haven't covered the CO problem, or the population density problem. 8-10 Zombies per cell is a pretty big consideration when the cells are no longer secure. $\endgroup$ – apaul Apr 23 '17 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 why would you have zombies rather than corpses in the cells? I would expect a lockdown as soon as things started going crazy. You might even have the majority of cells empty with most prisoners in exercise yards dependiong on what time everything locked down. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 23 '17 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ CO's would not be in large groups. Prisons operate on closed door policies, you go through a door, you lock it behind you. Once you're a zombie, you no longer know how to unlock. No one is going to be wandering around everywhere. Guards don't even have keys for more than their immediate needs I assume. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 23 '17 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ In the US most inmates don't get regular yard time $\endgroup$ – apaul Apr 23 '17 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ So then they starve to death in their cells $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 23 '17 at 7:38
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No. Prisons are miserable death traps before and after the apocalypse.

And here's why... (cue music)

Besides the aforementioned murderers and rapists, prisons rely on a constant stream of resupply. Not to mention that the vast majority of prisons, in the US at least, are desperately overpopulated.

The population density in most US jails and prisons rivals major cities as far as people per square mile/km.

And then there's the resupply problem. Yes a prison offers a nice castle, but what is a castle without food and fresh water? It's an expensive tomb.

Also... Modern prisons rely on electricity to maintain security. Gates, cells, and passageway doors are often magnetically​ sealed. No power and the doors no longer work.

Although most prisons will likely have a very nice storeroom, generators, and weapons; you can expect these places to either be ground zero, or much less fortunatly some of the last holdouts for paranoid, half trained, and well armed corrections officers.

CO's are a very special kind of cruel.

"Would you like to work in an environment where the vast majority of people would like to kill and/or rape you? Well we have a job opportunity for someone with your particular indifference to human suffering!"

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    $\begingroup$ The last two paragraphs seem unnecessary. Prison officers (from my experience in the UK) are social workers with keys. They are not in any way cruel. They are concerned with the protection of the public from some dangerous people. And giving people who have seriously screwed up their lives the ability to live outside, after release. They are very frustrated when budget cuts prevent them from doing their bloody hard job. But to characterise prison officers as "cruel" is wrong, and it doesn't help your answer (which I like, apart from the last two paragraphs) $\endgroup$ – James K Apr 23 '17 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesK No offense intended, but the experience in the US is very different. Rehabilitation is far too often an afterthought, which CO's aren't really worried about. $\endgroup$ – apaul Apr 23 '17 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesK In the US, corrections jobs are also heavily privatised. Jobs are often low wage and low skill, and placed in relatively rural communities where the prospects aren't great. Leads to a sort of "the pay sucks and the health benefits are better than Walmart", sort of problem. $\endgroup$ – apaul Apr 23 '17 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ Got to agree, 4 of the American Samoa juvenile corrections people are finally up on very very serious charges after decades of abuse in that dept. Numerous complaints spanning decades were ignored by the bosses. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 23 '17 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 Additionally, one might speculate that privatised jails make a living off their "customers" and hence are interested in them returning $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 23 '17 at 20:29
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To start with, what would one look for in a refuge for a zombie apocalypse? Without reference to any detailed guides, I would list the following as ground assumptions:

  1. Isolated from initial outbreak (so you don't find yourself in the middle of a zombie population when you get there).
  2. Easy to defend.
  3. Self-sufficient - ready stock of food, water, weapons/ ammunition.
  4. Comfortable: this is what separates the refuges from the havens, and since we're looking for havens in particular...

How would a prison rate among these criteria?

Isolation: depending on the security level of the prison, this could be quite variable. Let's assume that we are talking one of those maximum-security institutions for the hard criminals (in line with OP's later assumptions). In this case, there is a good chance that the virus would not have quite penetrated either the wardens or inmates, so the prison is clean. Furthermore, if contact among wardens and inmates is kept at a minimum, there will be little chance of any errant virus spreading too quickly. 8/10.

Defensible: The high stone walls, electric fences, and watchtowers designed to keep prisoners in could be easily repurposed to keep unwanted zombies out. However, their effectiveness has to be questioned, because the main deterrent for prisoners (getting shot at) will not apply to zombies, and the zombies may find scaling those walls a lot easier than you think. Once the zombies have broken into the compound, the complicated system of iron-barred doors and gates (as I imagine it) could just as easily work against any defenders who are not completely familiar with the prison's layout. Discovering at the last second that the iron door between you and safety only opens ONE way would be comically tragic way to die. 4/10.

Self-sufficient: Prisons probably have a stock of food in their kitchens, which is good because you won't be starving anytime soon. The only downside is that it's prison food. Weaponry should also not be a problem provided that one is able to break into the armories. 9/10.

Comfort: Our maximum-security prison for hardened criminals is unlikely to be the Ritz. Amenities include bed, ensuite toilet, and your laundry done at reasonable prices. Also, the inmates may not be the easiest people to get along with (as OP assumed, although I can't be too sure), so do go in with an open mind. 2/10.

Overall, the prison rates 58%, barely passing. You would probably rely on the zombies not coming across the prison as your primary means of defense; once they make any sort of attempt to breach your refuge you would not fare too well. In the meantime, you won't actually languish, but you might wish you were dead before long. Would not seek refuge again.

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Prisons are a very good safe haven for multiple reasons but are not the best imho.

If you assume zombies behave like the the Walking dead, then any building with more than 2 floors is a safe haven if you destroy the staircase/ladder and replace them with a rope. Zombies can t climb ropes so you are safe.

Having a wall/fence adds another layer of security : DisneyLand, an abandonned military base, a school with a proper fence would be an upgrade.

Having cells where you can barricade yourself is another layer of security.

Prisons have all of the above so they are pretty good.

However the best would be to add a moat. A castle with a moat would be ideal. Fences need maintenance and break after a while if too many zombies push on it. A moat is unbreakable, you would just need to regularly clear the moat by burning the zombies that fell inside to avoid filling up the moat with zombies. You could image a system of circles with moat/fences/moats/fences etc... with famrland and outposts on the outter circles and living quarters/command center in the center.

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