If inducing long-term comas was medically trivial and safe, and ignoring potential problems with muscle atrophy or bed sores or the like, would this come to be considered the only reasonable way to jail people? Or would "experienced imprisonment" continue to be the preferred route, even if it involved higher costs, as well as risks like violence and jailbreaking?

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    $\begingroup$ There are competing philosophies about the purpose of incarceration. To some, it is for punishment, as a deterrent or for revenge. For others, it is about rehabilitation. And for others, it is simply about separating dangerous individuals out of society, so they can do no further harm. I think a coma would only satisfy the last of these. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Feb 6, 2020 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ Clever title, by the way. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Feb 6, 2020 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ Remind me of the movie "Demolition man" where the hero and villain are put in cryo-coma or something, but they are supposed to be "reprogrammed" during the coma, during which the hero learns knitting if i remember correctly. $\endgroup$
    – hcocox
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ @cowlinator: I know right? I was coming in all prepared to defend the honor of the Oxford Comma. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ So, would everyone or no one be let out early for good behaviour? $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2020 at 14:42

11 Answers 11


Not useful, unless the sole goal is incapacitation

Punishment is said to have five objectives: deterrence, denunciation, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation. Let's take these on, one by one.


Essentially, a punishment is meant to deter the would-be criminal from committing the crime. Thus, the stronger the punishment, the more effective a deterrent, so a coma is in no way preferable when it comes to jailing people, as the only downside is coming out of the it all Rip-Van-Winkle, as opposed to having to spend that entire chunk of time doing hard work.


Essentially, a punishment is a public announcement that 'this behavior is wrong'. If people got away scot-free with stealing, or didn't get visibly punished, then it would seem acceptable to the bystanders. Again, with this kind of thing a worse punishment is objectively preferable. After all, a light slap on the wrist isn't going to convince people as much as taking the hand off at the wrist.


The coma is actually preferable here. Incapacitation is to make sure that the criminal cannot commit more crimes, and while jail is good at getting criminals to not commit crimes against the people outside of jail, it's not as good at making sure criminals don't commit crimes against other criminals. A coma would guarantee that this would be the case.


Not necessarily an 'eye for an eye' in the literal sense. Retribution is more along the lines of 'if you steal money, we take the same equivalent amount of money from you plus the money you stole'. This is more philosophical than the other ones, and is directed to right a wrong. As for this, I don't see a practical difference between imprisonment and comas, as this is usually prescribing something harmful, i.e. taking away money, killing the criminal, etc.


A punishment also serves to send the criminal back on the straight and narrow, as it were. In prison, prisoners are supposed to reflect on the wrongs they've done and seek to improve themselves. Now, while that may not necessarily be the case, the fact of the matter is that imprisonment is far more conductive to rehabilitation than knocking someone out for the entire duration of the prison sentence. This is also what the American criminal system seems to be built around.


There are five reasons for punishment, and 3:1 in favor of imprisonment over coma, except when you just care about incapacitation.

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    $\begingroup$ Minor quibble about an otherwise perfect answer: The person doesn't Rip Van Winkle into the future. Rip doesn't age while sleeping, right? Those years are truly lost for our prisoner. One could argue that, depending on the prison environment, literally just deleting those years from the person's life is a stronger punishment than letting them live them in jail. A jail that focused primarily on rehabilitation could actually be quite nice -- they could provide education and therapy services. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Feb 6, 2020 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ Retribution does have a practical difference. "Bob the Murderer spent 10 years in jail doing hard work" is a lot different than "Bob the Murderer went to sleep and woke up 10 years later". One is clearly lighter on the prisoner. $\endgroup$
    – Theik
    Feb 6, 2020 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ You probably need to learn more about European penal systems if you think American prisons are built on Rehabilitation and not Retribution. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2020 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Theik "One is clearly lighter on the prisoner." Which? Would you rather suddenly find yourself forty years older, or have to spend forty years of your life doing hard work? The latter would seem preferable to me, but it might depend on how lazy the person was. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2020 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that rehabilitation is often not the prisons priority. In an ideal world, 10 years of rehabilitation is better than 10 years of sleeping. In the real world, 10 years of sleeping may be better than 10 years of hardening in a very dangerous and unsanitary space. Lot of prisoners come out worse than they came in... Maybe what OP would be looking for is bit of both. 80% of the sentence is sleeping, aka being robbed of time at a low cost for society (as punishment) and a few years of real rehabilitation at the end, because prisons have now more funds dedicated to it. $\endgroup$
    – Jemox
    Feb 6, 2020 at 17:26

I think induced comas like this cause issues with all reasonable moral guidelines, utility and sympathy.

There. You deserved that!

Okay, while typing this, Halfthawed put forth an excellent answer, but I wanted to point out a particular issue on the rehabilitation side of things. 20 years ago, I had a 56k modem dialup connection to the internet. Phones were actually related to calling people, instead of texting them (or not even interacting with people at all!). People didn't even use their turn signals to indicate they were going to change lanes.

Okay, so 1 out of 3 didn't change. Still, just think of how hard it would be to wake up after all that has happened in the last 20 years, and learn from scratch. Prison is considered by some to already be enough of problem because its too hard to rehabilitate people... now truly advance the rest of the world 20 years without them having a chance to respond.

The only valid solution would be to fall back on a family they can rely on to take care of them while they desperately try to catch up. For many, this would be their family of crime.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether prison leads to more prison time because you can't get out of the feedback pattern. I think putting people in a coma for that time would make it far worse. Its unlikely that that particular debate would go in the favor of coma. Anyone waking from a coma would almost certainly find themselves facing a coma sentence once again.

However, I could see it reserved as a penalty for the most heinous crimes. Personally, I think of Minority Report, where basically any major future-crime resulted in you wearing a Halo, which was basically your long term coma. I can certainly say how I reacted to that particular punishment, and it would qualify as a punishment for only the harshest of cases.


Strange, but I don't see anyone addressing the elephant in the room.

This is a heck of a lot like Demolition Man.

Ok, that movie used cryo storage of inmates rather than a medically induce coma, but it served the exact same purpose. Put criminals is a position where they can't do anything at all during the sentence.

Other answers all covered the reasons for incarceration pretty well and they are right in that an induced Coma would serve no purpose other than to remove a criminal from society. But in your scenario, you don't have to be limited to that alone. It's all going to hinge on how active your inmates brains can be.

In a Sci Fi setting, I have often seen and read about using hypnotic suggestion or other handwavey stuff in order to implant information, training, and conditioning during some sort of sleep state.

So you could use that coupled with an induced coma in order to satisfy both the necessity of removing criminals from the populace AND rehabing them at the same time.

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    $\begingroup$ Similar used in the Red Dwarf tv series. Lister is placed in stasis for a few days - that becomes a few millions year because of a malfunction. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan
    Feb 6, 2020 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ The implanted conditioning angle is a good one. Ten years asleep, drifting in and out of dreams, and the whole time you're listening to the audiobook series IngSoc Model Citizen Doubleplusgood on a loop. $\endgroup$
    – Robyn
    Feb 7, 2020 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Robyn Not dreams....nightmares. You'd wake up a fruitcake $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Feb 7, 2020 at 21:54
  • Do people age with your coma technology?
    Many fictional cryosleep technologies are supposed to stop or slow aging. If that is not the case, then a sentence of "10 years coma" takes 10 years of lifespan away. So does "10 years prison," but the traditional prisoner remains aware all the time. Is coma the lesser or more severe punishment?
  • Loss of the peer group.
    If people do not age significantly, a sentence of "100 years coma" means that everybody they have known will be long dead. (Unless they were sentenced to coma as well. If so, stagger revival times.) Odds are that many marketable skills will have become worthless, so the prisoner has to work up the social/professional ladder from the bottom.
    This is very much like a sentence to permanent exile with no way to come back, ever.

There are more fundamental legal problems not mentioned by other answers. A person convicted of a crime has a right to appeal their conviction, but person that is placed by the state into a coma can't act in their own interest to appeal their case. This probably violates the convicted person's right to due process of law.

It's possible that this punishment could be applied only after all appeals are exhausted, but even in that case this could be considered a violation of the convicted person's right to bodily integrity. A convicted person has the right to refuse medical treatment and is protected from punishment that would violate that right, e.g. removal of limbs. While capital punishment is the obvious exception to this right, consider that the only punishment allowed to overcome a person's right to bodily integrity is punishment for a crime so heinous that the law allows and the judge sentences execution (and many jurisdictions have outlawed capital punishment due to their belief that it violates the condemned person's human rights). So, if this line of reasoning holds then the coma punishment would seem to only be acceptable if the prisoner agreed to it, or possibly if it were sentenced in lieu of execution. There's even a potential problem with sentencing life comas instead of execution - judges may see this punishment as less severe than capital punishment and be more willing to sentence it, even though we've just established that it should only be issued if the judge would have otherwise issued a death sentence.


I'll take a page from my answer to another prison-related question.

Prison serves three purposes:

Imprisonment. For people who pose a threat to society, imprisonment serves to protect said society. Here, putting people to sleep, to death, or in a confined environment works just about as well.

Punishment. Prison strips inmates of some of their freedoms and rights. Freedom of movement, obviously. Depending on your jurisdiction, it could also include voting rights, freedom of speech, etc. Putting inmates to sleep essentially deprives them of all their rights, much like death penalty, with the meaningful difference they regain those rights in the end. That may be a little harsh still.

Rehabilitation. A prison system that doesn't rehabilitate inmates is a system that doesn't work. And that's your problem here, you're putting people to sleep, they won't change, meanwhile time flies, society changes, and you think that returning these people to a society they won't recognise is somehow going to solve something. Basically you're giving convicted criminals the ability to time travel for some reason, when you should be trying to educate them into being functioning members of society.

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    $\begingroup$ However, with a part-coma approach, rehabilitation can be massively boosted. Because you dont steal their lifetime, you can freeze people for a tad longer, then use a part of the sentence to rehabilitate. That way when they come out, they will be removed from the bad circles that brought them there. Which would be especially good with organized crime and self-perpetuating problematic groups $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 7, 2020 at 12:04

I don't see any benefit to using induced coma as an alternative to regular imprisonment. It is essentially equivalent to execution, and really is nothing more than an indefinitely paused execution. (Part of the death sequence is to administer sodium thiopental as the coma inducing portion of lethal injection executions.)

The only benefit to incarcerational coma is that the prisoner can never escape confinement without medically knowledgeable & competent assistance. Likewise, the prisoner being lethally injected can't escape his fate either. The downsides of incarcerational coma far outweigh the only benefit. You need trained nursing & medical staff to properly set up the IVs, administer the drugs and assess and care for the prisoners 24/7. Each prisoner will have to undergo surgery to place a feeding tube, though IV feeding is also a possibility. Trained nursing assistants or care techs will be required to move the prisoners every one to two hours, take care of basic hygiene routines like daily baths and tooth brushing / oral care.

Every prison essentially becomes a 1000+ bed ICU.

The other major downside is that victims' families never get "closure". By "closure", of course, is meant that satisfying sense of vicarious retribution that civil society grants to the victim's loved ones because they can't just go and lynch the bastard themselves. The problem here: the prisoner never experiences a sense of punishment and is never allowed to ponder the grave nature of his crimes.

  • $\begingroup$ "the prisoner can never escape confinement" - correction/addendum: by themselves. Others can certainly try to break them out and wake them up early. Sure - a random mugger who got jailed, probably not. A more powerful criminal boss - probably yes. So, it gets even more complicated then, as you need security - probably less than in a normal prison now however you also need to maintain medical staff. I can really see this being a very big issue, honestly, since an attempted break out that turns violent can harm others - staff and comatose, defenceless prisoners alike. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Feb 6, 2020 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ - You are quite correct! As for security, I'd suspect that it will mostly involve some kind of gatekeepers. Guards that thoroughly screen vehicles entering the compound; no outside vehicles enter the compound; strict id checks; 24/7 prisoner monitoring (video, vitals, posey alarm, IV pump alarms, etc) most of which would be de rigeur for ICU patients anyway. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Feb 6, 2020 at 16:14

I've said it in a comment but I think it may deserve an answer :

Do a bit of both.

The punishment in prison time is because the convict is being deprived of a part of his life. Forcing him to sleep instead of living could have the same deterrent effect (it depends on people of course but I think I'd prefer to live in prison than just waking up 20 years older, I find it terrifying).

About the rehabilitation, it's rarely done efficiently unfortunately. It's not unheard of that people come out of prison with a worse mindset than they came in (I would bet it's actually the most common case). So having them sleep all along could actually be a better solution, in an absolutely utilitarian mindset.

So what I would do in the end :

People with sentences longer than a few years spend 80% of it sleeping. That's the punition. And then, you use the funds you saved to create real and efficient rehabilitation centers, where people only stay one or two years, to learn a craft, see a psychologist...


I agree with Halfthawed reply it would not make any sense as a type of sentence for convicted criminals.

But I see a gray area where some exceptions could be found. In some countries for serious crimes like murder pre-trial detention could reach up to two years. In this case an induced coma would not be considered a flawed punishment, but just a confinement period to prevent more crimes and reduce the perception of this period in case of acquittal. But actually you can't put people in coma during their trial because they could not defend themselves. The only justification could be found in a dystopian future in an overpopulated world and overwhelmed tribunals where just waiting for the trial to start could take years. The practice could be prone to abuse so it would need a lot of phoney justifications and an authoritarian government, but still it could make sense, well, sort of.

EDIT: I just realised there is another gray area. Death sentence. There could be a period of 10 to 20 years before the sentence is actually carried out. In this way should some new evidence emerge during the suspension there could be a revision of the process.

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    $\begingroup$ "You are hereby sentenced to death. You will be put in a coma for 20 years. If evidence to exonerate you is not found in 20 years, you will die without ever waking up. If you are found not guilty, or if your sentence is transmuted, you will be woken up." $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Feb 7, 2020 at 1:03

Clever clever title! Your answer lies in it, methinks. Just like a comma, i think the prisoner is getting a break in his sentence if he is fully comatose.

If you approach it from a retribution / punishment point of view, the prisoner is only suffering somewhat if he is in a conscious kind of coma, aware of his position, but not able to move or communicate or interact with his surroundings. Also, life support machines and IV drips would likely also be quite expensive, along with the hospital stay - potentially exceeding the cost of the average prison membership.

If you approach it from a rehabilitative viewpoint, coma is practically useless, and or negative. The prisoner is not learning any skills to better his life, nor any real mental development that could change his moral compass and attitude to being a fitful member of society again. Perhaps if he's semi conscious, the care of doctors and nurses might have a small bearing. Coming out of the coma, the prisoner would potentially be a further strain on the healthcare system too. The comatose state might also mess with his brain, leading to lack of employment opportunities. Which as we all know, can lead to poverty and desperation, then crime!

If you approach it from an incapacitation perspective, a coma sounds on par with or even better than imprisonment. The prisoner here can't do anything, unless he develops consciousness and his neurosurgeon accomplices develop a system to transmit his desires out to his vast criminal network xD- very unlikely. Unlike in jail, where corruption and loose system rules still leave room for committing crimes from inside, via hiring goons, contact with outside friends, bribing guards.

From a deterrence perspective, I'd say it's probably stronger than jail. For the criminals that lust for the thrilling life, being in a coma will likely be much more of a deterrent than in jail, where they can still somewhat have freedom and fun.


In a comatose state a criminal is fully incapacitated. In my opinion this would introduce more problems then solve.

First of all resources are scarce. No matter where you are and which timeline you follow resources (such as food, housing, water, air etc.) are always something to consider. A criminal put into an induced comatose state would only be consuming and will never be able to produce something that others can use or profit from. Unless you use their bodies for various purposes such as extraction of vital bodily materials such as blood, stem cells etc. You've probably seen the Matrix film series where people are used as batteries while put into a coma-like state with their minds bound to a central system that simulates an alternative virtual existence and fed with liquefied human remains as primary nutrition source. Of course in this case a moral dilemma arises namely what sort of society would use actual human beings for such purposes. In itself, unless the society follows different rules, this is a criminal act and the justice system itself should be held accountable for it.

Second reason I would rather go for "typical" jail time because, while not perfect, it does allow better use of human resources. You can use prisoners for construction work, you can use them for research purposes in order to improve society, you can educate them and - unless it's a hardcore criminal we are talking about - rehabilitation is always a possibility. Needless to say USA prison system is not a fine example when it comes to that.

Third what happens if a natural or human-related disaster occurs? A conscious person can be directed to the nearest escape route, can help others etc. If you have a vegetable, you will have to use additional resource to re-locate that person.

Last but not least you need to consider what happens AFTER the criminal wakes up and is returned to the outside world. Imagine "sleeping" for a decade or two with the world around you changing rapidly. Even in prisons nowadays information from the outside is hard to get but induced coma puts things on a whole new level. That person's mind would be completely disconnected from everything (unless you do something similar like in the Matrix) hence once set free that former criminal will be even more out of touch with society. This is very likely to increase the level of uncertainty in that person's mind thus leading to fear and anger. These two feelings are like putting out fire with gasoline.


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