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The setup: Near future (maximum 50 years in future) where "only" thing changed is, that company SpaceX together with NASA and ESA found out, how to get cargo and people to space very cheap

USA decides to build a space prison. Because - it would be nearly impossible to escape from it.

Now the question. We hand wave away economical aspects (basically, we have money):

What drawbacks would we face, if we would like to build a prison in space? What challenges need to be considered? What would be impact on society? And how long can I keep prisoners there?

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  • $\begingroup$ My main concern would be a prisoner uprising. If they get control of the space prison, retaking control would be troublesome! $\endgroup$ – FraserOfSmeg Feb 16 '15 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @FraserOfSmeg Unless you just stop bringing supplies... $\endgroup$ – Culyx Feb 17 '15 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Everyone would start committing felonies to get free tickets to space. Just like many people today chose life of crime because they get free food and shelter inside prison walls. Because, you know, space is awesome. $\endgroup$ – Darth Hunterix Feb 17 '15 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Culyx - I doubt any government would want to be the one to break UN prisoner legislation. It would be unfair to the vast majority of prisoners that might not be part of the insurection $\endgroup$ – FraserOfSmeg Feb 18 '15 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ For modern prisons, escape isn't a huge problem. I don't see the extra hassles involved with total life support, staffing, and transporting supplies being worth it to prevent a couple escapes a year, most of whom are caught pretty quickly anyways. Consider what happens if a prisoner needs emergency medical attention - now you need a full hospital on site. A 'space prison' would be most feasible in an off world colony or large station for local prisoners. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB Feb 18 '15 at 19:01
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By putting prisoners in a place where they wouldn't be able to survive on their own, you are taking on a larger burden of caretaking:

  • What if there is a mechanical or electrical failure on the station and people die?

  • How are you going to keep these distant prisoners fed and basically healthy? Do you have live-in guards and staff, or are you dropping a palette of food every week or two and letting them sort it out, prison-colony-style?

  • How quickly can you respond if there's a problem?

Even if you send only your worst criminals there, there will be some socio-political unrest if people start dying. And unlike the prison down the road, it's harder for you to keep order or bring in extra enforcement when needed. Spaceflight might now be cheap, but is it fast and widespread?

An additional factor is economic. Yes it's much more difficult for prisoners to escape, which brings some peace of mind (unless they manage to commandeer a supply ship!). But a space station is also much more expensive to build and maintain than a conventional Earth prison. How are the taxpayers going to feel about that?

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TL;DR: I don't think there would be any difference to society other than the exposure of health & safety of the people who are in space.

This is pretty broad, so I will take a stab at the ethics.

In addition to punishment by retaining privileges, prisons are correctional facilities that should (hold on: I said, "should") be places of rehabilitation so that detainees can be reinstated properly into society.

Setting the economic requirements aside, I would be concerned about the health effects for a population in space for such a long time. There are well-known health effects due to radiation that persist even after return from space. Because of the same health issues, prison staff would have to be on a rotational basis.

I can't imagine there being any other difference to your usual prison, which punishes people by isolating them from privileges, and hopefully has resources to help rehabilitate them for returning to society.

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    $\begingroup$ Also consider the health effects from zero-gravity - muscle and bone loss are prominent. Which could be good from your guard's perspective, but bad if you're trying to rehabilitate prisoners and bring them home eventually. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Feb 16 '15 at 15:38
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I think the most basic challenges would go along these lines:

  1. Out of sight, out of mind. A terran prison gets visitors and visitors ensure a basic threshold of civility. Not so with space prisons.

  2. Suicide attempts. Inmates with no hope for the future will be tempted to breach the hull or crash the station into Earth just to make an final impression

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The problems? the biggest would be now being a prison guard is a hardship tour, unless you have shifts being brought in and out every day. Even if cheap I expect it would be a couple hour commute everyday or it would be several weeks on, several weeks off. Either way, hard on families. It would also make it harder for families to see their incarcerated loved ones.

Now if it was only used for those that should be executed but we've given that up as inhumane, then it might be more likely to happen. People we have really given up on, but don't want to kill them.

Now if there were living quarters near the prison you could shorten the commute to work but then you are putting civilians in proximity to possibly very dangerous individuals and also make it easier to 'escape'.

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