Since its initial introduction in Walking Dead #13, the prison has represented the ultimate sanctuary for Rick Grimes and his group of zombie apocalypse survivors: a shelter from the flesh-eating terrors of the outside world. Inside the prison, the group naturally started to replicate what society was like before the world was overrun with the walking dead. There was structure and rules. Monogamous relationships were encouraged. Physically hurting each other was discouraged. “Leaders” representing the group’s collective interests were elected.
And yet, as was the case with the world these survivors knew before the zombie apocalypse, the sanctuary of the prison was quickly tainted. Rules were bent and/or broken based on the circumstances. Infidelity was a problem. The survivors physically fought and, in some instances, killed each other. The leaders weren’t always followed. When Rick told the group, “We are the walking dead,” at the end of issue #24, he was not just speaking to those specific people, but to all of humanity. The prison may have seemed like a garden in the wilderness, but that was only based on appearances. At its core, the sanctuary was corrupt.
Because this sanctuary was corrupt, it was inevitable that the group would eventually be forced into exile. The fact that this expulsion came at the vengeful hands of the Governor and his followers only furthered Rick’s point that the world at large had been overcome with the despair of the wilderness – that everyone, even the living, was actually just the walking dead.
The trade paperback that collects Walking Dead #37-42 is aptly titled “The Calm Before.” These issues mostly show the group resetting after Rick, Glenn and Michonne return from their violent stay at the Governor’s Woodbury community. Despite the fact that he successfully discovered and killed off the Governor’s “mole,” who was sent to the prison in order to lead other Woodbury-ites there, Rick knows that the Governor is still waiting to strike. Glenn, Tyrese, Andrea and a few other survivors set out to find an abandoned armed forces encampment to get more weapons and supplies, while a recovering Rick waits back at the prison with his wife Lori, his son Carl, and a handful of other survivors.
Lori attempts to come clean with Rick about the affair she had with Shane back when her husband was still in a coma and presumed dead, but Rick disregards the confession as being irrelevant. Any indiscretions committed by Lori happened a lifetime ago by the standards of the new world. Rick says talking about them now serves no purpose.
The group still receives a glimmer of hope when Lori goes into labor and gives birth to her daughter Judith (also the name of the character who was cast out of the biblical Garden of Eden according to the Midrash Book of Judith). But demonstrating that even in moments of joy, this new world is still one filled with despair, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard juxtapose the scene by showing one of the other survivors, Dale, clinging to life after getting attacked by zombie while trying to get fuel for the prison’s power generator. Dale does survive the attack, but it comes at the cost of his foot that is amputated.
Feeling despair herself, another one of the prison survivors, Carol decides to commit suicide by letting a zombie attack her while the rest of the group looked on. Carol had expressed romantic feelings for Lori earlier in the series, but was rebuffed and, seeing the new mother become even more emotionally connected with her husband, is too much for Carol to bear. When Tyrese – who was also romantically involved with Carol earlier in the series – is asked about her suicide, he tells Andrea “it’s not something to be sad about, I think. Carol doesn’t deserve my sorrow.”
In a last moment of calm before the “storm,” Rick and Herschel observe the productive garden that they had planted and were harvesting throughout the prison grounds. Despite all the tragedy, death and uncertainty, this garden reinforces the idea that the prison is still a sanctuary to some degree. That is until Rick and Herschel look up and see the Governor and his followers riding a tank, vowing vengeance on the community.
In a series that’s made scenes of extreme violence and torture its trademark, Walking Dead #43-48 may contain some of the most unsettling sequences in the title’s history. The Governor’s attack on the prison creates a hard reset for the Walking Dead universe by the time it concludes in Walking Dead #48. Lori, Judith, Tyrese, Hershel, the Governor and a number of other supporting and tertiary characters all die via extraordinarily violent means.
Tyrese is captured by the Governor and then used as a bargaining chip to gain access to the prison. When Rick refuses based on the idea that the Woodbury crew would just overrun the prison and kill everyone anyway, the Governor decapitates Tyrese.
In an even more painful sequence, a bullet rips through Lori and Judith while Rick tries to get his family to safety. Despite his worst nightmare being realized, Rick urges his son Carl to keep running and not look back. The Woodbury-ite who kills Lori and Judith realizes the heinous act she committed and turns her gun on the Governor. The Governor pleads with her and the others to band together so they can fix up the prison they just overtook and make it their own sanctuary, but this garden is now soiled well beyond redemption. The Governor is shot in the head and fed to the zombies.
Rick and Carl continue to run from the prison when Carl finally realizes that Lori and Judith didn’t survive. The final scene of Walking Dead #48 depicts the heartbreaking visual of Rick embracing Carl, tears streaming down his face, as the prison stands ominously in the distance.
It’s the last visual Walking Dead readers ever get of the prison, which was such a prominent part of the story to this point. The prison, which once promised safety from the wilderness, instead came to symbolize just how heinous and awful humanity could be, and how mankind’s innate impulses could be far more destructive and fatal than any zombie bite.