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Sometimes an idea comes to you and resonates for what it represents and how it shapes the story rather than how logical or technologically inevitable it might seem. That's the current status of the nature of prison in the world that I'm working on.

This is a future world, one that has endured climate change and technological catastrophes (the result of trying to address climate change) — the result is a future NYC that isn't too different socially from this city today. History is deeper and more layered. Parts of the old city are buried, parts of the new city have moved to vast underground caverns. And like New York today this city has a prison.

The prison isn't a single building, rather there are "prison appliances" distributed all over the city. Each self-cleaning, self-feeding, sound and RF insulated, unit holds from 1 to 30 prisoners. Beds and exercise units fold out from the walls, medical stations provide basic if inadequate care, food dispensers produce flavored mushy meals, water and waste are connected to the city systems — these pods can be placed in any unused space in the city, solving the problem of real estate costs. The near total automation minimizes prisoner-guard contact vastly reducing costs even more. Escapes are unheard of since prisoners do not know where in the system they have been stashed. (They are sedated before being placed in the pods then moved to the location where they will serve their time.)

Some prison units include "opportunities" for prisoners to work. This could be work done on a computer for those with such skills, or small-scale handmade manufacturing for products that charge a premium for "that human touch".

The prisons are tucked in unused nooks of space all over the city, from basements, to gaps hidden in subway tunnels. There could be a prison in the apartment next door and you would probably never know (unless you monitored the coming and going of prison corporation employees who refill the feeders and otherwise service the units). The locations of prison units is secret, although some have inevitably been noticed. The names of which prisoner is in which pod are a more serious secret — protected fiercely by the corporation that runs the system.

Of course, living in this kind of prison, a tiny cramped space without windows, under constant surveillance, with lights that might stay on or go out for days due to malfunctions, with a constant nagging fear that the air circulation system might break — living like this tends to drive people a little insane. Everyone fears prison, and the ultra compact solitary pods are feared most.

That said, I'm not interested in having the people who run the prison corp come off as cartoonishly evil. They really think they are doing something good. For example, they have secured an entire suite of educational software that prisoners can run. There are opportunities for video conferences with family (for a fee) — and with "life coaches" and religious teachers to improve prisoner morality.

I'm looking for some little technological touches to make this feel more plausible. So that you feel like you should hide the story since it might give certain kinds of people ideas.

What are the biggest problems with a system like this being cost effective?

Are there any technological hurdles that require more explanation or support?

What kind of construction techniques can make the pod impenetrable from the inside given that prisoners will only ever have objects allowed by the system?

Should the prisoners effectively have no objects to be on the safe side? Or might they have blankets and plastic fork (for example) without much risk of self harm, tampering, etc.?

Are steel seamless walls with opening too small for a person's head sufficient? (So that all appliances that conduct feeding or information transfer must taper to such a gap.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    May 2, 2023 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Whilst your premise is interesting, this sort of brainstorming-type prompt ("enumerate all the problems with X") is often a poor fit for stack exchange sites due to the difficulty in establishing what is a "correct" answer. More importantly though, you're asking multiple questions which is more strongly discouraged. Rewrite to ask only about the most important things you care about, eg, cost effectiveness. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2023 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like every prisoner is in solitary confinement? That alone would make this extremely inhumane. Also, escapes would be more likely since the prisons are out where anyone could break into them from outside. You think that could be solved by keeping prisoner names secret but data breaches happen, and the prisoners can yell or pound on the walls or do other things to identify who they are to someone who could break them out. "But soundproofing" soundproofing isn't perfect and their pals can listen with microphones more sensitive than human ears. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    May 2, 2023 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like a great basis of a dystopia setting. I believe there was a movie with this premise, where the entire thing takes place in a tiny cell, and they are trying to extract information from his mind. Unfortunately, it's territory to be explored, not elucidated upon. This makes it a poor match for this forum. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2023 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ If you think no knowing where they are will stop prisoners from trying to escape you vastly underestimate the ingenuity and desperation of humans. Also if your goal is not make the owners cartoonishly evil your entire concept fails, solitary imprisonment makes it extremely inhumame, under modern rules it would qualify as torture. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 2, 2023 at 20:17

4 Answers 4

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Have fewer actual prisoners

Before the mid-1800s, the idea of prisons barely existed. An entire town might have a single jail cell which they only used for short-term holding while someone awaited judgement. If someone was found guilty, they were typically punished by fine, forced labor, confiscated property or rights, physical harm, or death. Practically no one was incarcerated as a long-term solution to crime.

The only reason we have giant industrial scale prisons in the United States at all is not because imprisonment works better, or because there are that many bad people in the world, or because it is more humane. We do it because there is an economic incentive to have large, industrialized prisons. The current legal system work like this: a prison makes money for each inmate it has. So, they build bigger and bigger prisons and lobby legislators and judges to pass and enforce stricter and stricter laws with longer and longer sentences until before you know it you have millions of prisoners taking up millions of cells all across the country.

Before the 1970s, the United States had a very similar prisoner per capita rate as modern day Western Europe, but between 1971 and 1982, the prison population started to see a slight increase as the "War on Drugs" was instituted as a way of oppressing a growing Hispanic immigrant population. Then in 1982 when the private prison system was adopted, prison rates skyrocketed. By 2001, the total prison population of the US had increased by somewhere between 500-700%

To reduce the size of prisons, you need to make a few changes to the way your civilization handles imprisonment.

  1. De-Privatize Your Prison system: Without the economic incentives of the modern prisons system your per-capita imprisonment rate should drop as the incentive to incarcerate disappears. This along should cause a significant reduction in prison populations, but more importantly, it will be necessary for pushing through the following polices.
  2. Decriminalize Drugs: 85% of the US prison population are drug offenders; however, there is actually very little evidence that illegalizing drugs actually provides any benefit to society. In the 1970s, America's drug laws and their enforcement policies were rewritten as a way of bringing back the Black Code era where "just being someone unliked" could be easily turned into a crime. In most of Europe, only ~20% of prisoners are drug offenders which also speaks largely to a lot of overlap with the private prison system problem being used to target drug use to swell it's cashflow.
  3. Take prison off the table for non-violent crimes: Of the remaining prison population, about 50% are non-violent offenders. Many of these laws that don't directly harm anyone (like prostitution) can also be decriminalized, and those that make since to keep can be punished through fines, property seizures, and denial of rights with far fewer of the unintended consequences you get when you pack a bunch of minor offenders in the same prison as violent criminals and the mentally ill. This allows you to further reduce the total prison population by a total of 92.5%.
  4. Take prison off the table for individual crimes of passion: There is no real reason to imprison a person for violence that they did not plan out unless they show a pattern of violence, since such acts don't actually indicate any future likelihood that that person will commit violence. Like non-violent criminals, these people can be punish via fines, property seizures, denial of rights, and/or bodily harm. Adding this will reduce the total prison population by a total of 96.25%.
  5. Increase the rate of the death penalty: The people who fall into the remaining category are mostly people who are eligible for the death penalty, but very very rarely get it. Instead these people spend an average of 20 years to life in jail with only a very tiny minority being actually executed, and even those guys usually sit around through 10 years of appeals first. If you sentence more of these people to death, and force a quicker appeal process, you could easily get a total prison population reduction of 98-99% without actually loosing any real and meaningful sense of law, order, and justice.

So by just changing how you enforce your laws, you could reduce the total prison population of modern day New York state from about 43,500 to somewhere in the 400-800 range.

Now that you have so few prisoners, there is no longer a reason to build lots of giant industrial jails, but to try to find some system that makes sense for detaining so few people in one place. After all, you need security personnel to guard a jail no matter how much you automate, because a person with enough time and determination can eventually break out of any jail cell if left unsupervised for too long. They can use the salt in their food to rust open a steel lock. They can pick away at hardened concreate with enough left over plastic spoons. They can simply shake the bars for months on end until something weakens if no one is there to make them cut it out. So, yes, you NEED someone to guard them, and its a lot more efficient to guard 400-800 people in one place than in a lot of places... that is, unless you already have well guarded places around the city you can attach these prisons too.

Make each micro-prison part of a police station

New York State has 514 police stations with 77 inside of New York city itself. If you assume that each police station already has a couple of holding cells, then you already have enough prison facilities evenly distributed around to meet your needs. Each police station might at any given time hold 0-10 convicted criminals plus who ever else is being held for trial.

This means that each "jail" will be properly guarded by trained law enforcement personal who already have to be there doing their jobs.

Even if these 500ish jail cells are all knowable locations, you can still obscure a convicts identity and randomly assign them such that your goal of people's location being unknown is still pretty well met.

But What about this?

The prisons are tucked in unused nooks of space all over the city, from basements, to gaps hidden in subway tunnels. There could be a prison in the apartment next door and you would probably never know.

All these other places you are talking about stuffed into subway stations, apartment's complexes, etc. are actually not jails, but halfway houses. If you want to actually rehabilitate those other 40,000 junkies and idiots, they need a support system in place to keep them from falling back into patterns of severe desperation or bad relationships. These people are removed from their friends and families, given new jobs, new environments, and have new chances to live a meaningful life... not to mention, they've had all of their possessions seized by the state, and they can't be legally hired or open a bank account anywhere other than at an appointed employer until they complete their out-house procedures; so, its really not in their interest to go anywhere else.

Because these are state homes and not prisons, they don't really need guards or locks or any of that: basic house arrest/probation rules would generally be enough. Some people will run away, but they will generally just starve in the street for a few days until they have not choice but to come back. They can't make a good living doing anything easy and illegal like prostitution or drug dealing, because those things are legal, and they can't get a license for it. They can't beg because there would be a huge stigma now around beggars being out-house runners. Since, decriminalization actually makes it harder to survive as an escaped criminal, most people will just serve their time in their outhouse, get back on their feet, and go on to live more productive lives... and those that don't risk becoming repeat offenders and ending up on a very short death row sentence.

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    $\begingroup$ "a prison makes money for each inmate it has" - not true. Well, it maybe in some uncivilised ultra-capitalist countries, but it would create both hellhole conditions for the inmates (by incentivising corporations to cram as many people as possible into a confined space) and problems for the whole society (by encouraging the legal system to convict as many people as possible). Let's take a random EU country, like Slovakia - an inmate costs the state about 16000 €/year, and there are about 8000 inmates, which makes the expenses not negligible, but perhaps justified by protecting the society $\endgroup$ May 3, 2023 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ Additional bonus to reducing the criminal population: Establish a working, sufficient and easy-to-access welfare system and provide adequate mental healthcare. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 3, 2023 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RadovanGarabík yes, but those countries do not have the current problems that US states have (for this exact reason). OP asked about NYC so we have to work with the inhumane mess that is the current-reality US. Their baseline prison population is 3.6 times (whole US) or 1.8 times (NY state) of Slovakia $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 3, 2023 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ @RadovanGarabík Yes, it DOES create hellhole conditions for the inmates and society as a whole... and that is how the American prison system works. It's been a topic of hot debate in the USA for the past decade or two, but has not really changed much since too many people with too much wealth and influence are so invested in it. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 3, 2023 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ The politics doesn't much belong in the answer. Even politics that I may happen to agree with. Prisons were implemented (and big) long before they were anything other than a cost center. The actual explanation is much more nuanced than "evil capitalists have privatized prisons"... that's just a bad direct-to-dvd movie plot. Starring Christopher Lambert, or maybe a tax-arears-era Bruce Willis. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    May 3, 2023 at 15:48
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This is a bit fishing for story ideas, but since you are a new poster I'll write an answer rather than cast a close vote. :-)

  • Human beings require human interaction. To keep the secret, your corp will have to limit that to interaction with other inmates. What if some inmates do not deal well with others? Putting them into solitary pods will make them deteriorate even faster, putting them with the others will hurt those.
  • They will of course have to stop lawyers from seeing their clients, and they will also have to limit inspectors. Depending on which treaties a country signed, there may be international delegations with the right to visit any place of detention at short notice, from prisons to closed mental health facilities.
  • Not knowing where one is might not stop escape attempts. Just getting out is the first step, they'll play it by ear from there.
  • There is an entire industry in the US to supply prisons e.g. with anti-suicide smocks and prison furniture (just google for pictures). Living under such conditions might well lead to deteriorating mental health.
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    $\begingroup$ Ooooohhh... lawyers. I'd forgotten about those folks. +1. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 2, 2023 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, the international inspectors are much less common, but they may come with more rights if a country wants to display their adherence to the rule of law. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    May 2, 2023 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @o.m. This is the USA - it doesn't even pretend to follow international law. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2023 at 23:20
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As a new user we give leniency when it comes to the rules you'll find in the Tour and the Help Center. Please note for future reference, you are allowed to ask one and only one question per post. Brainstorming is discouraged, especially when it's fundamentally open-ended and unconstrained as this is. Asking if things are "feasible" is a challenge on this site because, by definition, on your imaginary world all things are feasible, realistic, probable, and plausible. If you hold us to specifics, then by definition the idea is implausible because it doesn't exist. It's worth carefully reading the Tour and the Help Center.

"Do You Like My Idea?" disclaimer

All ideas can be made to work in a story. You, the author, simply need to write the story to embrace the idea. As with all ideas, this one has its pros and cons. Inevitably, the cons would keep it from ever happening in real life. But that's really irrelevant! The world is full of fabulous fiction involving ideas that couldn't possibly come true, but we ignore that because the story is wonderful and the world both creative and imaginative. Pick any blockbuster Sci-Fi or Fantasy book or movie and we can trivially point out the ridiculous nature of its fundamental ideas — none of which matters because the author is rolling around on a mountain of money while we complain about the implausibility of the idea. Simply put, take what we have to offer for what it's worth: ideas about your idea that may or may not be used to improve or better use your idea. Ignore everything else.

The Good

The idea is imaginative! Every city has unused, abandoned, or blighted property they'd like to put to productive use. I remember driving through Dallas, Texas and seeing open fields in the middle of a city of over one million and wondering how on earth that can even happen. As described, your idea should avoid many of the problems associated with prisons and is given a boost in believability due to everyone recognizing that cities have these areas in want of productive use.

The Bad

Not in my backyard! Prisons, half-way houses, indeed anything associated with the penal system is deemed a negative by neighbors and for property values. I understand what you mean when you say, "Escapes are unheard of since prisoners do not know where in the system they have been stashed," but the reality is that where a prisoner is located has nothing at all to do with efforts to or success of escape. So long as there's a door allowing access to the building or a pipe large enough for someone to wiggle through (let's call that a "ventilation shaft"), it's theoretically possible to escape. Books (including non-fiction, real-life examples of escape from prisons believed to be inescapable) and movies (e.g., Escape Plan) about escaping from inescapable prisons abound. And never forget that inside help overcomes almost all security.

But that's not a bad thing! It means you have options when it comes to telling stories. But the point I'm making is that no matter how escape-proof you, the author, believes the prison to be, the psychology of the character-neighbors of the prison will never fully believe it. Thus, "not in my backyard." Distributing prison resources like this will substantially increase the dissatisfaction of the NYC population and it will have an impact on property values, which means it impacts taxes, which means the City government will care a LOT where these things are placed.

The Ugly

Finally, there's a reason why warehousing (and that's what you're doing, warehousing people) isn't distributed — the maintenance requirements for the solution skyrocket. People live in cities because everything they want is close by. People generally live in single buildings (no matter how large) because four exterior walls are cheaper to maintain than eight, or eighty. Focused manufacturing is all under one roof because moving materials and services between stations is cheaper. Generally, the only reason multiple buildings come into play (and that's usually on the same property) is because of expansion.

Simply put, this level of distribution, no matter how complicated, would be a financial disaster. The cost of...

  • Connecting each unit to city utilities
  • Property acquisition
  • Taxes
  • Security
  • Food distribution
  • Maintenance & repair
  • Neighbor placation
  • Transportation
  • Etc.

... would be debilitating. But, the wonder and beauty of stories is that all of this can be ignored and only the most anal of readers (a vanashingly small percentage of your readers) will care.

Conclusion

It's a fun idea. Run with it.

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    $\begingroup$ Or run with it and make the problems show up. Some prisoners have nothing to do all day but plot their escape. They won't stop unless the prison staff engages them in a different activity (like that manufacturing). But the activity gives fresh opportunities for plots. Imagine a ball pen, assembled by prison worker, with a scrap of paper. "$1,000 if you tell whoever where you bought this." A real offer? A joke? $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    May 2, 2023 at 18:40
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In this system, crime will evolve. Prisons as they currently exist still allow the criminals human contact, except that the humans they are in contact with are much more, shall we say, like-minded. Being imprisoned is definitely a hindrance, but also a decent network-buliding opportunity if you intend to make crime your career. Solitary confinement removes it. But career criminals would still want their career to progress, and will seek ways to make it possible; and those who find a way to avoid imprisonment will have an even bigger advantage than today.

So I would expect crime to become more organised, and law enforcement to become more corrupt. A well-connected criminal may not be quite solitary in his confinement, should it ever come to that; if he has favors to call, the monitoring systems in his pod may turn out to be rather unreliable. Police and politicians alike would be bought off and/or blackmailed; laws may also change and make previously criminal activity legal. This of course happens today as well, and the harshness of potential solitary confinement would only make it a more important consideration.

I posit that this will be more impactful than any technological touches. Technology may make such a penal system cheaper than modern alternatives, while at the same time pushing even greater costs onto the wider society to everyone's loss.

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