Could prisoners serve 1,000 year virtual sentences in 8 hours in the future?

This is something that popped up on my Facebook feed a couple of days ago. Note that the article is from 2014.

I’m pretty sure they got the idea from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Hard Time”, in which O’Brien suffers virtual incarceration for like 30 years and becomes hallucinatory, violent, and suicidal when he gets out.

Imagine having the technology needed to learn so many skills in a thousand years. How good a piano player could you become, or a poet, or an architect? And using it just to punish people. This world, smh.

Well that certainly isn’t a dystopic Kurbickian nightmare from the minds of Philip K. Dick and Anthony Burgess.


That was preceded by an episode of The Outer Limits called The Sentence starring David Hyde Pierce. My break is almost over. I’ll be back later.

It will never happen, unless prisons find a way to get 1,000 years of labor out of prisoners serving the virtual sentence.

This also leads to an awful feedback loop where a person does a minor crime, gets an inflated virtual sentence, comes out more antisocial, commits a bigger crime the very next day, until the person ends up deciding suicide is a better option, and unfortunately might not go alone.

And preceded by a story by Barry Longyear (“The House of If”)

My favorite take on this is from “Gun, with Occasional Music.

In this future, you get frozen for your sentence, and wake up in some unfamiliar future.

The remarkable Banks novel Surface Detail is about a species that create a virtual reality hell - a truly gruesome medieval hell - to punish people. And (I’m not kidding) about who gets the contract to run the servers.

[ Blurred for what I think is a mild spoiler, I can’t remember how early this element is revealed. ]

One of the main purposes of incarceration is to isolate dangerous people from society. This system would make them even more violent and then release them after 8 hours into a society they hate and have forgotten how to navigate. It’s not going to happen.

Business Insider is not as bad as The Daily Mail, but they love posting the most speculative nonsense on only the thinnest factual foundation. You’ll note that the word “could” gets used a lot. The tech is not there and may never be there, even if this were a policy that makes sense to implement, which it isn’t.

It was also used in the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas,” with the twist that the prisoner is actually the criminal’s digitally replicated consciousness.

This thread could just as well go in Cafe Society, as it’s mostly about science fiction.

The novel Altered Carbon also, IIRC, had things like this, but used extrajudicially (by organized criminals, to punish their enemies).

The real questions you need to ask are, first, what is the purpose of prison, and second, whether your hypothetical science fiction prison fills that purpose. Last I saw, nobody could even agree on that first point, for real-world prison.

I think there’s an interesting story if there was a choice between virtual prison or real prison. (assume the virtual prison is the same, mostly boring, experience of real prison). On one hand, with virtual you know you’re completely safe and you get the rest of your life back when you’re done. On the other, you have no contact with the real world, meaning experience years without any contact with your family, no chance to appeal the sentence, etc.

Schlock Mercenary used a variation of this when they isolated an AI without shutting it down completely. The roughly 15 minutes of elapsed time in universe was hundreds of thousands of years for the AI. Needless to say, it ended badly.

I like the short story approach in “Time In Advance”. If you take the deal you serve half your sentence upfront, and then you get to commit your crime without further punishment. If you fail to do the time, but still commit the crime, you get the full sentence.

The trick is the punishment is horrible - terraforming “hell” planets. The survival rate is like 10%. So either you die, solving the immediate crime problem, or you quit, but you get no benefit of time served, and if you go ahead and commit your crime, you get to go back for the full time. Best to not do it.

If the VR prison is simply 1000 years of a normal prison experience, then there is no point to it. About the only thing our prisons do well is to keep criminals off the streets until they get too old to be effective criminals. (Crime is a young man’s game. When you get too old to outrun the cops, you are forced by necessity to go straight.) They would be just a dangerous when released, as when they went in.

On the other hand, if the VR experience is 1000 years of a mental hospital and brainwashing—er, I mean, rehabilitation clinic, then it might be useful.

Exactly. Prison should be about keeping society safe by removing violent criminals from our midst. Punishment should only be a secondary concern, if at all.

What would a VR prison look like anyway? Would the VR program subject them to prison violence? Or would we just teach them to knit and crave Taco Bell?

If you do survive the term for murder, people treat you very cautiously when you get back (William Tenn is the author, by the way)

Doesn’t this go back to the Phantom Zone, which dates back to 1961?

This reminds me of the Stephen King story The Jaunt which describes a technology that instantly transports you great distances. The catch is that if you go through one of the portals while awake, you’ll perceive a near-infinite interval of time during the teleportation. Most creatures who do so in that fashion appear to die from shock.