Future Tense

How Technology Could Make “Life in Prison” a Much Longer, Tougher Sentence

Ariel Castro listens as Judge Michael Russo reads his sentence.

Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

On Aug. 2, the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka each received a life sentence for his murder. Daniel was 4 when he died in March last year. In the last few months of his short life, he was beaten, starved, held under water until he lost consciousness so that his mother could enjoy some “quiet time,” denied medical treatment, locked in a tiny room containing only a mattress on which he was expected both to sleep and defecate, humiliated and denied affection, and subjected to grotesquely creative abuse such as being force-fed salt when he asked for a drink of water. His young sibling, who secretly tried to feed and comfort Daniel, was forced to witness much of this, and neighbors reported hearing Daniel’s screams at night.

Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, and stepfather, Mariusz Krezolek, will each serve a minimum of 30 years in prison. This is the most severe punishment available in the current U.K. legal system. Even so, in a case like this, it seems almost laughably inadequate. The conditions in which Luczak and Krezolek will spend the next 30 years must, by law, meet certain standards. They will, for example, be fed and watered, housed in clean cells, allowed access to a toilet and washing facilities, allowed out of their cells for exercise and recreation, allowed access to medical treatment, and allowed access to a complaints procedure through which they can seek justice if those responsible for their care treat them cruelly or sadistically or fail to meet the basic needs to which they are entitled. All of these things were denied to Daniel. Further, after 30 years—when Luczak is 57 and Krezolek 64—they will have their freedom returned to them. Compared to the brutality they inflicted on vulnerable and defenseless Daniel, this all seems like a walk in the park. Meanwhile, in the United States, Ariel Castro, who held three women hostage and tortured them for years, was sentenced to “life plus 1,000 years” after a plea deal took the death penalty off the table. The addition of 1,000 years to a life sentence is, of course, merely a rhetorical flourish.

What can be done about this? How can we ensure that those who commit crimes of this magnitude are sufficiently punished?

When cases like this occur in the United Kingdom, people sometimes express the opinion that the death penalty should be reintroduced—indeed, some have responded to Daniel’s case with this suggestion. I am not sympathetic to this idea, and I will not discuss it here; the arguments against it are well-rehearsed in many other places. Alternatively, some argue that retributive punishment (reactionary punishment, such as imprisonment) should be replaced where possible with a forward-looking approach such as restorative justice. I imagine, however, that even opponents of retributive justice would shrink from suggesting that Daniel’s mother and stepfather should escape unpunished. Therefore, I assume—in line with the mainstream view of punishment in the U.K. legal system and in every other culture I can think of—that retributive punishment is appropriate in this case.

We might turn to technology for ways to increase the severity of Luczak and Krezolek’s punishment without making drastic changes to the current U.K. legal system. Here are some possibilities.

Lifespan enhancement: Within the transhumanist movement, the belief that science will soon be able to halt the ageing process and enable humans to remain healthy indefinitely is widespread. Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of the anti-ageing SENS research foundation, believes that the first person to live to 1,000 years has already been born. The benefits of such radical lifespan enhancement are obvious—but it could also be harnessed to increase the severity of punishments. In cases where a 30-year life sentence is judged too lenient, convicted criminals could be sentenced to receive a life sentence in conjunction with lifespan enhancement. As a result, life imprisonment could mean several hundred years rather than a few decades. Those sentenced, like Ariel Castro, to “life plus 1,000 years” could realistically be expected to serve it. It would, of course, be more expensive for society to support such sentences. However, if lifespan enhancement were widely available, this cost could be offset by the increased contributions of a longer-lived workforce.

Mind uploading: As the technology required to scan and map human brain processes improves, some believe it will one day be possible to upload human minds on to computers. With sufficient computer power, it would be possible to speed up the rate at which an uploaded mind runs. Professor Nick Bostrom, head of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, calls a vastly faster version of human-level intelligence ”speed superintelligence.” He observes that a speed superintelligence operating at 10,000 times that of a biological brain “would be able to read a book in a few seconds and write a PhD thesis in an afternoon. If the speed‑up were instead a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours.” Similarly, uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000-year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time. Further, the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation. Between sunrise and sunset, then, the vilest criminals could serve a millennium of hard labor and return fully rehabilitated either to the real world (if technology facilitates transferring them back to a biological substrate) or, perhaps, to exile in a computer-simulated world.

For this to be a realistic punishment option, however, some important issues in the philosophy of mind and personal identity would need to be addressed. We would need to be sure, for example, that scanning a person’s brain and simulating its functions on a computer would be equivalent to literally transferring that person from his or her body onto a computer—as opposed to it being equivalent to killing him or her (if destroying the brain is necessary for the scanning process), or just copying his or her brain activity. Personally, I have serious doubts that such theoretical issues are ever likely to be resolved to the extent where mind uploading could be practicable as a form of punishment.

Altering perception of duration: Various factors can cause people to perceive time as passing more slowly. Science can explain some of these factors, and we can expect understanding in this area to continue to progress. Our emotional state can influence our perception of how quickly time passes: One recent study revealed that time seems to pass more slowly when people are experiencing fear than when experiencing sadness or a neutral state. Another study demonstrated that our perception of other people’s emotions—read through their facial expressions—affects our experience of duration: Time seems to pass more slowly when faced with a person expressing anger, fear, joy, or sadness. In addition, our experience of duration changes throughout life, with time seeming to pass more slowly for children than for adults. Exactly why is not fully understood, but some believe that it relates to attention and the way in which information is processed. Time also appears to pass more slowly for people taking psychoactive drugs or engaging in mindfulness meditation, and when the body temperature is lowered. This research on subjective experience of duration could inform the design and management of prisons, with the worst criminals being sent to special institutions designed to ensure their sentences pass as slowly and monotonously as possible.

Robot prison officers: The extent to which prison can be made unpleasant for prisoners is limited by considerations of the welfare of the prison staff who must deal with prisoners on a day-to-day basis. It is in the interests of these staff to keep prisoners relatively content to ensure that they can be managed safely and calmly. If human staff could one day be replaced by robots, this limiting factor would be removed. Robotics technology has already produced self-driving cars and various other impressive machines, which places robot prison officers within the bounds of possibility.

Technology, then, offers (or will one day offer) untapped possibilities to make punishment for the worst criminals more severe without resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current U.K. legal system. What constitutes humane treatment in the context of the suggestions I have made is, of course, debatable. But I believe it is an issue worth debating.

A version of this post originally appeared on the University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog.