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How realistic is the concept of a space gulag?

So let's say you want another option outside of a stern talking too, a fine, confining to quarters, demeaning tasks, VR "re-education," beating the snot out of somebody, or showing them the door (i.e. spacing them). Maybe you need to keep them around for political reasons. Maybe they have a useful bit of knowledge that my come in handy some day. Maybe the crime falls in between beating the snot out of them and boiling their cerebral spinal fluid in an ocean of nothingness.

How realistic is a space gulag in general? How realistic is it that they end up mining whatever it is on a brutal rock isolated from everyone else with JTK? What would the conditions be like? What would keep this place running? Mining output? Payment from the original society?

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    $\begingroup$ How is this concept different from Rura Penthe? $\endgroup$ – Michael Kutz Jan 3 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ Or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 3 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ So you plan to let convicted felons operate very expensive equipment in the hope that they will suddenly find it in themselves to acquire the skillset and professional attitude, while not being paid? Remember that there is a very good reason why slavery went out of fashion: you cannot expect slaves to behave like good skilled workers... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 3 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ In western usage, a "gulag" has a very specific meaning: A labor camp for political prisoners. Not criminals, and not re-education. Mixing political prisoners with criminals tends to be a bad idea. Please ensure you are using accurate terms to describe your prison/forced-labor/hostaging/brainwashing facilities (regardless of what it's called) so your readers aren't confused. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 3 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733: Your understanding is incorrect. A gulag was most definitely a labor camp for convicts in general, some of whom were convicted for what would be criminal offenses, others for what westerners would consider political offenses. You may want to re-read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 3 at 4:51
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My answer is mostly based off recently reading Gerard K. O'Neill's The High Frontier, a book talking about the practicality of building self-sufficient space habitats. It was written back during the 1970's, but most of what it talks about holds up today.

Long story short, O'Neill lays out a plausible scenario where humanity can build habitats cheaply enough and quickly enough to accommodate a population growing from not only new births, but also from immigration from Earth. These habitats would be rotating spheres, rings, or cylinders built from aluminum mined on the moon, large enough to sustain a population of hundreds at the smaller end of the scale, and tens of millions at the larger end. If you've reached the point where you can do this, then there's not much of a jump to make that you would start building habitats expressly to take the criminal population from other habitats.

As for the habitats themselves, they can be made as brutal or comfortable as you like. In space, energy is cheap and plentiful, and atmospheric conditions can be maintained at whatever state you want. It would still be expensive to supply the prisoners with nice consumer goods, but there would be little reason to intentionally leave the ambient atmospheric conditions at anything other than pleasant, unless your intention is to punish the prisoners by making it too hot or too cold.

If you plan on working the prisoners, I would actually suggest having them do something other than mining. A habitat is an enclosed environment that doesn't require any special equipment to live in, but a barren rock requires giving the prisoners access to life support, ships, heavy equipment, and then letting them out to work. You could make it secure, but it would be a lot of work. I would recommend having the prisoners work as farmers. Habitats are ideal for this purpose, as growing conditions can be kept optimal at all times, and the environment can be kept free of pests. It doesn't require much in the way of heavy equipment, though it would be more efficient if the prisoners had access to such gear; and the prisoners can supply their own rations, with the rest going to pay for the additional costs associated with a prison.

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It's not very realistic to send a random person to mine.

It currently costs 10000 dollars to send a pound of mass to space. People want in time to reduce that to around 100 dollars a pound. But regardless, moving mass is very expensive. And you can't just move your prisoner, you need to move food, water, meds, toiletries. All this costs a lot. You're not gonna do that to some random prisoner. Mining requires complex and technical skills.

You might do it to someone with existing technical skills.

Suppose you have an existing mining industry, and someone is a spacer with certain skills that are useful for mining- computer programming, drill running, lubricant expert, astronomer, whatever. They do a crime, and they're offered an option of some horrible punishment (being sent back to earth, being spaced, being sold to slavers) or working on a mine, of their own free will. They work for x time and then their crime is paid off. They're motivated not to smash stuff up, and can bring useful skills to mining.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good points; you certainly wouldn't send criminals to space with our current technology, or even with the technology we could reasonably hope to have in the next century... on the other hand, if there is already a large population living in space, then that population will inevitably spawn criminals that will need to be handled, and sending them back to Earth would have its own issues. $\endgroup$ – FlyingLemmingSoup Jan 3 at 2:40
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I follow a guy called Isaac Arthur and he actually had some very great and fascinating insights on the subject. If you want to do any really hard Sci fi he is an excellent reference. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=s_B_CJ3yieM

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Unless you actually start to cut back on safety and life support systems there is no reason to send a person which you can no trust on an expensive mission for something you can do by robots. If at all, then I would imagine a "we populate Mars and save fuel by one-way trips" scenario more likely.

So which basically leaves this to uncritical missions which have a high likeliness of failing/death and things which can not be automated. It's important that you make it "opt-in" e.g. for people sentenced to death or lifelong prison, and that you then be someting like "you can evade death or lifelong prison if you go alone with a fleet of 100 small mining robots which you maintain to this asteroid and live there for 5 or 10 years alone, with nobody to help you in case of an emergency, radiation killing you with a chance of 50%, but then you are pardoned. (In this case the mining corporation would pay)

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