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Instead of the death penalty, let’s put dangerous criminals in a coma

Prison is an unreliable method of punishment. Let’s do better.
Credit: Kiryl Lis / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Punishment is, in the main, about retribution. It’s about giving a criminal a degree of harm that’s proportionate to the harm caused.
  • Prison, capital punishment, and corporal punishment are unsuitable or unreliable methods of punishment. It might be time to consider alternatives.
  • One alternative is to induce a deep, reversible coma and we treat “years lost” as an equal, measurable unit of punishment.

You’re on a stroll, minding your own business, when I jump out of the bushes with a gun in my hand. With a mugger’s snarl, I demand you hand over your wallet, phone, and that shiny watch you have. Days later, the police find me, spending like a sailor and bragging about my score. But in the courtroom, a peculiar thing happens: The judge turns to you and asks, “What punishment do you want to give?”

What would your answer be? Put aside all the laws and expectations you’ve grown up with — what would you say to the judge? A lot of us would assume I deserve some kind of punishment. “Justice” must be served. But what does justice mean, and what’s the reasoning behind the type of punishments we dole out? In other words, to what extent does a certain punishment satisfy its aims?

Many people born into liberal democracies find corporal or capital punishment distasteful. We live in an age which says there are only three humane, acceptable ways to punish someone: give them a fine, force them to do “community service,” or lock them up. But why do we need to accept such a small, restrictive range of options? Perhaps, as Christopher Belshaw argues in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, it’s time to consider some radical alternatives.

A good punishment

To punish someone is to do them harm, and sometimes, great harm indeed. As Belshaw writes, it’s to “harm them in such a way that they understand harm is being done in return for what, at least allegedly, they did.” Justice assumes some kind of connection between a crime and the punishment, or between the victim and the criminal. This makes punishment, in the main, retributive — a kind of payback for a wrong that someone has committed.

Rehabilitation (trying to reform a criminal’s character) and deterrence (preventing others from doing similar crimes) do serve a role within the judicial system, but they are not the defining element of punishment. They are no doubt worthy and moral aims in themselves, but when it comes to the justice system, they are “nice to haves” rather than essentials. Justice means just deserts. A good punishment is that which restores some kind of balance sheet.

What’s wrong with prison?

Belshaw’s article hinges on the idea that the prison system is not fit for purpose.

First, there’s the question of whether prison actually harms a criminal in the way we want. In some cases, it might succeed only in “rendering them for a period inoperative.” This will obviously depend on how liberal a prison regime is. For instance, few would confuse certain Russian prisons for holiday camps.

Second, and on the other hand, a bad prison sentence might cause more harm than is strictly proportional. A convict might suffer unforeseen abuse at the hands of guards or other inmates. They might suffer irreparable psychological damage, and an utter dissolution of an outside family life. For some, this might be seen as “fitting the crime,” but for others, we might think it far too cruel.

In both cases, prison is far too inconsistent to be a fit punishment.

Third, and especially concerning decades-long sentences, there’s a question about who prison is punishing. Think back to how far you have changed over the last five, 10, or 20 years. Think about the kind of person you were then and are now. When we punish an old, memory-addled person convicted 40 years previously, are we really punishing the same person? If not, in what sense is that “justice”?

A radical alternative

If, as a society, we deem the objections to capital and corporal punishment too great, then what alternatives are there?

Well, one option is to put criminals into a deep and reversible coma. One of the biggest problems with capital punishment is that it is irreversible. So long as there’s even a single case of a mistaken conviction, wrongfully killing someone is an egregious miscarriage of justice. But what if the criminal could always be brought back to consciousness? Immediately the issue is resolved. While forfeiting 10 or 15 years of life is obviously a great injustice, it’s (at least in principle) open to compensation — a compensation denied to the wrongly executed person.

Putting someone in a coma essentially “freezes” a person’s identity. They wake up with much the same mental life as they did when they went into a coma. As such, it avoids the issues of punishing a changing person, decades later. A convict will wake up, years off their life, but can still appreciate the connection between the punishment and the crime they committed.

But the biggest advantage a reversible coma has over prison, is that it’s standardized form of punishment. It’s a clear measurement of harm (i.e. a denial of x amount of years from your life) and is not open to the variables of greater and lesser harm in a prison environment. Essentially, putting prisoners in a coma establishes “years of life” as an acceptable and measurable payment for a wrong done.

Too squeamish by far

One of the biggest reasons Belshaw gives for why we do not entertain the ideas of corporal and capital punishment is because of our very modern, very delicate sensibilities. As he writes, “Our tendency strongly to favor imprisonment over forms of punishment that much more directly involve harms to the body is, at bottom, very likely a result more of squeamishness than anything else.”

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Belshaw predicts that many will find the idea of induced comas for a punishment as being abhorrent in some way. It’s as if our squeamishness will extend to any kind of punishment that isn’t locking someone in a room for most of the day. But prison is not meant to be a Disney cruise or exotic getaway. It’s meant to cause harm, to punish. As Belshaw puts it, if we can “legitimately lock someone away for decades then there is a coma of some length which, equally legitimately, we might impose as an alternative.”

Even if you find the idea of induced comas as unspeakably horrible, Belshaw does at least leave us with a good question. Why do we assume that only one kind of punishment is the best? With science, technology, and societal values moving on all the time, might it be time to reconsider and re-examine how we ensure justice?

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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