Cryo Prisons

Now here's a science fiction trope I've never understood: cryonic jails. I was reminded of this when I recently viewed the trailer for "MS One: Maximum Security", a sci fi/action film due out in April starring Guy Pierce. The trope is probably better known from the film "Demolition Man" and basically it goes like this: in futuristic jails prisoners are cryonically frozen for the duration of their sentence. Which makes no sense if you consider the purpose of jails. I practice criminal law for a living, so perhaps this is more annoying to me than to others, but consider ...

The word "penitentiary" comes from Mediaeval Latin penitentiaria (“place of penitence”) -- it's meant to be a place where one is reformed through penance and meditation upon one's transgressions. Certainly this was the original intention when one considers the progenitors of our modern jails, those set up by the Quakers in the 1790s that involved all the inmates being held in cells alone with only the Bible to read. Penance means at the very least a certain level of punishment or discomfort. Letting prisoners sleep through their sentence completely takes away any penance and makes it merely temporary warehousing.

In terms of MS One where the premise also includes the prison being in space, I can see that, because you can't get any more secure than that -- it's a lot more difficult to escape when the jail is surrounded by hard vacuum. There's literally nowhere to go, even moreso than the Siberian gulags. But letting them sleep through the duration of the sentence ... well it certainly takes away the punishment aspect of the sentence because for the incarcerated person the sentence will be perceived as but a day or two long (and for real criminals, being seperated from friends/family because of being gone isn't really a big deal). Likewise the deterrent or denunciative aspect is nonexistent since it's awfully easy time to just snooze through your sentence. Rehabilitation is similarly out the window for the same reason -- the criminal's asleep so he can't learn anything.

That leaves the only purpose being to separate offenders from the public. Which has certain merit, I suppose, but it not very effectively accomplished by cryonics -- the twenty year old killer is still twenty years old when he's released after a 50 year sentence if cryonically frozen. He's 70 years old an a lot less likely to be physically able to commit further crimes if he's simply been warehoused in a standard institution all that time. And I doubt it would be a whole lot cheaper to keep someone on ice (refrigeration/monitoring systems) than to feed and clothe him for all that time. It just strikes me, overall, as a dumb idea. And from the trailer for MS One I have no idea why they even used it -- looks to me like just having a normal prison in space would have worked fine.


Sophia's Favorite said...

Cryo-prisons probably make even less sense than space-prisons (and those make no sense, mainly for cost reasons but also because spaceships are basically nuclear submarines, and you don't want violent offenders on those). Since MS One has a cryo-prison in space, the ridiculousness is squared.

The problem with cryo-prisons is, as you said, that, whatever model of prison a society uses, no "correction" is taking place. Whether you use the moral-reform model or the punitive model or the therapy model, they're not doing any of those things, they're just sitting literally on ice. I suppose there's some punitive base for it—an Ancient Roman curse was "may you die the last of your own", i.e. outlive everyone you care about—but fictional cryo-prisons are generally supposed to be "humane".

Demolition Man averts that flaw somewhat, since the "cryo-cons" in that are hypnotically taught new skills (and presumably given some kind of therapy) while they're frozen, but there's still the issues of cost and the basic question "Why do this, and not something vastly cheaper and less liable to go catastrophically wrong?", that a lot of SF premises never seem to address.

Luke said...

Agreed, this always bugged me too. Implanted memories make more sense relatively speaking, I think there was a ST:DS9 episode where that was used. But even that doesn't make as much sense as direct behavior modification. It seems like it would be a lot easier, let alone more humane, to make a criminal have an aversion to bad behavior than to introduce artificial memories of being punished.

A period of cryostasis might be useful to create a sense of temporal separation from the crime, giving victims time to recover. Also it is plausible that having one's life disrupted by movement to the future has a minor deterrent effect, like banishment. In conjunction with behavior modification, cryonics might make sense as a replacement for incarceration. It would certainly be cheaper (in energy costs) to store them in liquid nitrogen than feeding and clothing the inmates for the duration. Space-wise it could be very efficient, you could just store the brain and recycle the rest of the body, then clone a new one when you need it. (I doubt this would be used in a movie, but makes more sense if you are in space where carbon and water are expensive.)

One kind of intriguing idea is using something like current-day cryonics as a substitute for the death penalty... The basic concept, freezing an otherwise untreatable patient until you can fix what is wrong with them, is the same as regular cryonics -- if you want to consider criminal behavior as a medical problem.

A cryopatient/inmate would be pretty much dead by current technological standards so in a certain sense this would be an extension of the death penalty. However the practice would be more motivated by the desire to rehabilitate than kill. The person could even be legally declared "alive" for the duration.

Any kind of awareness or learning during the frozen state like seen in Vanilla Sky or Demolition Man, would be ridiculous. But modifications and repairs to the brain, either while frozen or during the thawing process is not only plausible, it is actually the only way you could hope to reanimate a patient preserved with anything like today's limited tech.

penny farthing said...

Yeah, I have always thought that the cost alone made them a stupid idea, especially since, as you said, the offender then gets out young and spry, even if he has been programmed to knit lovely sweaters. Or be even more maniacal than before..... Man, I love Demolition Man. I never considered that it turned a silly sci-fi staple on its head a bit though.... interesting.

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