Let's say that you have a society where imprisonment was either impossible (no room, or maybe if one person was locked away, the entire society would collapse because everyone had a designated role which could not be changed, and there are no roles for "prisoners" or "guards"), ineffectual (there was no practical way to contain individuals without them agreeing to stay put and they simply wouldn't as no one wants to be imprisoned), and/or so abhorrent to the members within it that there was simply no laws allowing it to take place. What types of things would society do to compensate for lack of ability to quarantine people due to criminal activity?

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    $\begingroup$ I think this would be a much better question if you selected a specific reason and stuck with it, since those different causes would have different side-effects. (The "everyone had a designated role", for example, would also rule out capital punishment, whereas the others would not.) $\endgroup$
    – ruakh
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ruakh would it? Suppose they had roles for "executor", just not "prisoner" or "guard"... $\endgroup$
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ @jimsug The problem isn't the lack of an executioner. The problem is that there is no one to take over whatever role the criminal had. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Brythan possibly. But I imagine the society would have some way of dealing with this, accidents, death from illness, etc, would all be things that would require a replacement for any given role. $\endgroup$
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ Consider reading "Coventry" by Heinlein. They evict people to a place outside the society, but only when offenders refuse rehabilitation psychotherapy. If there's no outside, perhaps rehabilitative therapy is an option for you. Regarding the inability to incarcerate due to designated roles, what do you plan to do about sick days, child care, etc? The closest analogy I can think of there is a military vessel, but even they have a brig. $\endgroup$
    – Eric
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 11:41

15 Answers 15


General aims of punishment

There are some aims of punishment that imprisonment shares with other kinds of punishment such as fines, execution, etc.


General deterrence - deterring the community at large from committing the crime - and specific deterrence - deterring the offender from reoffending - are both considerations, and apply in most cases where acts are criminalised.


Ensuring that justice is done prevents/reduces vigilantism - it also brings some finality to the victims (if any) of the crime.

Enforcement of community standards

Punishing those who violate community norms helps to foster a more peaceful and compliant society through deterrence as well as the public condemnation of unacceptable behaviour.

Unique aims of imprisonment

There are a few aims of imprisonment as it is usually enacted at the moment which distinguish it from other forms of punishment (where deterrence or justice may be aims).


Imprisonment aims to protect both the community from the offending individual, as well as the individual from any members of who might otherwise want to inflict their own punishment on them.


This isn't really required, but it's usually an aim because incarceration is expensive, so reducing recidivism is a good idea in many cases.

Removing imprisonment as an option

The only purpose of punishment unique to imprisonment (and even then, only partially unique as I explain below), then, is protection.

Execution would be a viable option where it is deemed that society must be protected from the individual (which is, in most cases, the only concern).

However, the aim of a criminal system is to reduce crime, not just repeat offenders, and so if the crime is so abhorrent that people might seek their own justice outside of or in addition to the criminal system, other options might need to be explored.

Depending on what imprisonment means to this society and its other moral norms, here are some suggestions for alternate punishments, in roughly ascending severity based on my assessment of current community norms here in Australia:

  1. Private reprimand
  2. Public reprimand - branding/mutilation is also an option but might be more severe
  3. Monetary fines/annexure of land or property by the state
  4. Restrictions/conditions on employment and/or association
  5. Restrictions/conditions on travel/movement - this could be effected through tracking device
  6. Infliction of physical pain (torture, though I hesitate to use the loaded term)
  7. Execution

The general effect, however, of removing incarceration - which would probably be inserted at (6) above if it were included - would be that crimes that might be punished in that way would need to be decided to be either severe enough to warrant torture or execution, or minor enough to be satisfied by restrictions on travel/movement/employment/association or a lesser punishment. Combinations of punishments might be appropriate in some cases, just as you can be imprisoned and fined for some offences in most parts of the world. The appropriate punishment would probably need to be decided by reference to the community's values, but this is actually the easy part of the problem.

What about those situations where the offender's incarceration is just as much to protect them as it is to protect the community?

You could consider an Offenders Relocation Program where those who have offended, but are no longer considered a threat to society - whether they have served their sentence, or for some other reason - but they are in danger due to the nature of the crimes they have committed, are given new identities, locations, and assistance finding work within society. If this is a protective measure - then the offender could be sentenced to both a relocation as well as one of the other punishments.

It's been mentioned in another answer that banishment might be an option - this could be possible, but it would depend on how similar to present-day Earth the society is. The more like today it is, the less likely that statelessness would be acceptable.


One of the main issues is that the victim(s) of the crime feel as though justice has been done. A society that doesn't imprison offenders might evolve to accept these other measures as just, or the government might need to provide a report of how these offenders are being punished: the total revenue collected from fines, the total cost of relocation and torture, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not make punishments based on physical pain a public occurrence? Media are free to call it torture, as long as they acknowledge it isn't the official term. If you're really bold, you can sell the tickets. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ There is also stuff like iflicting permanent injuries and/or labels (cutting of the hand for theft, nose for participation in certain religious movements, branding for the same thing). It's somewhere between 6 and 7 on your list, but neither have connotation of "has to bear that mark for the rest of their life" $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt I think mutilation and branding should be added to the list. Becoming a eunuch is a really fit punishment for some crimes. $\endgroup$
    – Necessity
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ In more primitive times outlaw was a precise legal concept: a person outside the protection of the law. A court could declare a person outlaw. This meant that any other person in that community could do anything to him and it would not be a crime. It was a fairly effective way of exiling a person from the community and making sure he stayed gone. Or if he did not leave, that he had genuinely repented and behaved very well thereafter, because killing him would not be a crime. Quite an effective last warning, short of execution. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Nolo High reoffence rate does non mean that deterrence does not work, you would need offence rate in general for that. Reoffence rate shows reoffences in people who were caught. If some country has a reoffence rate that differs a lot from others then either people there can be divided into 2 categories - latent offenders who are likely to offend in general and others; or that going through the system places person in a situation where he's likely to commit another crime. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 10:17

Imprisonment as punishment is a relatively recent innovation (last few centuries of so), so just do some real life historical research. What did we do in Classical Roman/Greek, or more recent medieval times?

In general, it was a fine of money or property, disfigurement, loss of citizenship/enslavement, banishment or death, depending on the nature of the offence, the time, the place and your social standing.

Find a real life time/place that matches your setting and Google (or a library) will be your friend.

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    $\begingroup$ Or, for crimes which were not severe enough to warrant death, exile or branding, it was common to give a beating (for example, a number of lashes determined by the type of the crime) and then release them. Prisons existed, but only for holding the suspect temporarily until the jury got together, and not as a form of punishment itself. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Yup; I meant branding to be included in "disfigurement", but might have better phrased that as "corporal punishment" to include non-multilative punishments, such as whipping. You are spot on about prison as a holding cell, generally until the circuit court came by, or the next assizes was convened. $\endgroup$
    – Mawg
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 22:15

Removing the ability to imprison people affects four categories:

  • Removing the criminal from society
  • Punishing the criminal (Justice)
  • Discourage future criminals
  • Enable controlled rehabilitation

...The last being a moral icing on the cake, and isn't technically required.

So we'll need solutions that can address at least the first three.

Fortunately, society already has used solutions for the first three, so we don't need to invent!

  • Fines
  • Public humiliation
  • Banishment
  • Execution

And thus your society will move on. Generally this will mean they need to take a harsher approach to criminals since one of the more mild punishments (falling somewhere between public humiliation and banishment) have been removed off the table.

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    $\begingroup$ You've missed a punishment in your list: Removal of limb(s) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 8:53
  • $\begingroup$ A plutocratic society for example could do just fine with a combination of monetary punishment (fines or restrictions on economic rights or otherwise limited rights) and banishment if unable to pay or unwilling to accept restrictions. You are absolutely right that lacking one specific form of punishment is not abig deal, whatever causes the lack is lot more interesting. I mean imprisonment is not really that good a solution really... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't banishment/execution also be off the table? From the OP's question it sounded like they are absolutely vital to the continuation of the societ (otherwise why not just imprison them if you are going to kill them anyway?) $\endgroup$
    – yitzih
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @yitzih Well I thought about that, but upon the third (or forth) time rereading the asker's question they end the possibilities with an "and/or." If they simply find the way of locking somebody away for years at a time immoral and thus can't do it (maybe it hints back at a history of slavery that they'd rather forget), they might not find banishment or execution as objectionable. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:33

Hammurabi doesn't appear to have believed in incarceration.

There is also a bestseller that offers some advice about dealing with wrongdoers, and while there is plenty of room for interpretation, jail seems to be mentioned more as a method of doing wrong than as a way good people should respond.

It might be interesting to look at how current organizations without access to jails work. I mean political parties, religions in the west, communes and such.

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    $\begingroup$ That bestseller defines a Hell where people are sent for eternity with no chance of parole for their crimes. That's a pretty strong advocation for the effectiveness of jail. Matthew 25:41 "Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ I read that not not so much as advice to the reader but as a threat of consequences for not following it. That probably is too a fine distinction. I'll consider and probably edit it. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Could you add a little more about what Hammurabi did instead and what ideas that novel brings? It doesn't have to be long, but we really do prefer that the answer contain the answer and not just pointers to the answer. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 2:47

Star Trek TNG had an episode ("Justice") where the only punishment for any crime was the death penalty. You might take a look at that episode for inspiration. http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Justice_(episode)

And Twilight Zone has people who are declared "invisible" which means people just ignore them no matter what they do. The effect of social ostracization is enormous. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_See_the_Invisible_Man

The first episode of K9, the TV show spin off of Dr. Who, a boy is "imprisoned" by having his senses locked into a virtual reality simulation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regeneration_(K-9)

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    $\begingroup$ "To See the Invisible Man" is a short story by Robert Silverberg. The Twilight Zone adapted it. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 12:56

I suggest you look for inspiration in historical societies that did not use imprisonment. As a matter of fact, imprisonment is a rather recent invention, and the other answers already give details of how people were kept in line before long-term jail became popular.

Specifically, I'd recommend that you look at the Royal Navy in the age of sail. Ships were at sea for months and years, and everyone on board has a specific role to fill. Imprisonment simply was not an option. Nevertheless, wrongdoers were kept in line. Official and unofficial sanctions and punishments included:

  • Flogging, with various numbers of lashes, basically at the discretion of the captain. Interestingly enough, there was little opposition to this practice from the seamen, who mostly agreed that it was an effective practice to keep a warship running (see Rodger)
  • Hanging by the neck until you are dead for more serious offenses, like mutiny or sexual offenses according to the mores of the times
  • Stopping certain privileges, like stopping your grog, especially as a punishment for drunkenness
  • Stopping your pay, or in extreme cases expelling you from the ship in the next port
  • Social shunning by your messmates, i.e., the other seamen that you ate with (e.g., one of the Aubrey-Maturin series details what happens when a ship's company becomes convinced that one seaman carries bad luck)

The Aubrey-Maturin series is a wonderful series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars, and N. A. M. Rodger's books offer a more scholarly treatment.


It could be argued that imprisonment has three roles: punishment, rehabilitation, and protection of society. Like you said, most people don't enjoy being in prison, so it can be an effective deterrent (though I suppose the guillotine or iron maiden might be more effective deterrents). Therefore, there needs to be some way to inflict punishment on someone for a time without greatly impeding their everyday life - just making it miserable, to various degrees. I have quite a few ideas:

  • Periodic injections of drugs to cause brief but intense targeted or widespread pain - which would then go away by the time working hours came. Portable intravenous devices might be handy, so long as they're impossible for the victim to detach.
  • One-time removal of non-vital organs/body parts. People don't necessarily need five toes and fingers on each hand and foot, right? Likewise, tongues can be overrated - think about the Avoxes from The Hunger Games. Ears, eyebrows, noses, and other more visible body parts can be removed, causing pain and potential social ostracization. (By the way, I hope this doesn't land me on any watch list!)
  • Taking the secondary ostracization a step further, let's brand certain criminals so distinctly that they can be easily recognized. That will quickly lead to social estrangement, even though it likely won't impede work in some jobs that require minimal human interaction.

Rehabilitation is harder, because rehabilitation and reintroduction to society takes time, which it seems like the individuals cannot spare. I would, however, assume that workers have some free time in their lives, so it might be possible to take away that time and use it to teach them how to abide by the laws and live happy and productive lives, if at all possible. Additionally, the knowledge that their free time is being taken away will likely sadden the offender even more.

Finally, we get to the hardest part: protecting people from the criminals, if it appears that they will continue to be a danger to others. The main solution I can think of is to greatly restrict their movements and what things they have access to. For instance, it could be illegal for a criminal who's committed a crime of level X to own a weapon of type Y. The United States already does this with felons. Constant monitoring would be necessary, though, but if criminals are easily identifiable (e.g. via branding - see above), it might be easy to see them. Tracking devices, though, implanted deep inside the torso (to prevent it from being easily removed), could make it simple for the police to track a criminal's movements.

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    $\begingroup$ You seem to be conflating two of the four roles of imprisonment: deterrence and retribution. Deterrence is to prevent people from committing crimes, as they want to avoid the punishment. Retribution is to prevent extra-legal punishment, as people allow the state to impose punishment rather than imposing one of their own. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan I had been trying to ignore retribution altogether, actually. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:31

For inspiration, this might be relevant/interesting.

In the late 80s/early 90s I read a series of post apocalyptic kids books in dutch that had this in it's designed world, where criminals received a non-permanent brand that would fade over time depending on the severity of their crime. The society would essentially shun them and cast them out but not interact with them violently. Once it faded they were accepted in society again.

You may need a translator plugin to check the wiki page as there's no english version( Thule, by T. Beckman)


Imprisonment is merely a single, punitive way of dealing with a crime.

Considering how ossified such a culture would be, many of the solutions that come to mind are military in nature.

Its probably worth considering some alternatives. In the military there's something similar to, but not entirely unlike imprisonment called 'stoppage of leave' Its essentially a form of house arrest within the context of the military where you're not allowed to leave the camp over the weekend.

Likewise, another form of punishment in place is extra duties where you'd spend time you'd rather be doing other things, covering things like guard duties, office-sitting and such.

We might also consider religious or scolastic context. Make the criminal do a bart simpson

enter image description here

Or some other form of penance in their spare time.

At some point though, there's some crimes that need more serious punishment. Murder for example.

  • $\begingroup$ ROFLMAO! No matter how many times Bart had to write, he never learned (and EVERY episode [at least at one point, I don't know now]) had a different wrong thing he did! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 12:37

Since this is about worldbuilding, and most of the answers, though excellent, are looking backwards, I thought I might postulate one alternative, typified by Iain Banks' Culture novels.

Most crime boils down to (a) crimes against the person, (b) crimes against property, and (c) crimes against culture (that is, violation of some arbitrary social norm). In a post-scarcity culture, crimes against property basically don't exist (Someone steals your bike? Compile a new one). Given that a post-scarcity culture implies a high level of technological, and thus medical, achievement, crimes against the person are mostly irrelevant (Someone cuts your arm off? Nanobots grow you a new one). And crimes against the culture are irrelevant once people get past judging each other (Blefuscans open their eggs at the forbidden large end? Sounds fun, let's try it).

Death is still a possibility, so improperly causing another person's death can still happen. Banks deals with this situation explicitly in his novel The Player Of Games:

Gurgeh attempted to explain there were no written laws, but almost no crime anyway. [...] It was difficult to get away with anything ... but there were very few motives left, too.

'But what if someone kills somebody else?'

Gurgeh shrugged. 'They're slap-droned'.

'Ah! This sounds more like it. What does this drone do?'

'Follows you around and makes sure you never do it again.'

'Is that all?'

'What more do you want? Social death, Hamin; you don't get invited to too many parties.'

In brief, in a post-scarcity world, nearly all of what we call crime turns out to be just lifestyle choices. At that point, you don't need prisons, and nearly the only punishment of any significance is the voluntary disapproval of one's fellow citizens.

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    $\begingroup$ While I like your answer - and give you a +1 - I have to point out that even in a post-scarcity society, crimes against the person can still exist. A sliced off arm might be replaced, but death or rape are a lot harder to "make go away" with technology. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! That said, death I explicitly acknowledge and address above. Rape is a lot harder to do if you can't drug or meaningfully physically threaten your victim, if surveillance open to all is ubiquitous, and if the victim (as everyone else) has near-instantaneous access to the rest of society (I cut Banks' comment about people taking their data terminals with them everywhere from the passage I quote above, but I direct you to the novel for the full passage - it's an amazing novel, if you haven't read it). $\endgroup$
    – MadHatter
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ You did mention death; I was merely trying to show it was a "harder" technological problem. I have not read Banks' novel: I'll add it to my (ever growing) list of books to get to... I must admit, I am adamantly against a 1984-style ubiquitous surveillance on general principal... but I cede your point. Any way you slice it, I really like your answer. :) $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Ghotir -- You might be against ubiquitous surveillance, but there seems to me to be a common thread in sci-fi -- "freedom, security, privacy: pick only two." Of those, privacy has always struck me as the least egregious, if we do it right (i.e. everyone gets to see what everyone is doing, not power concentrated somehow). $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM It's a common topic, not only in SciFi but in current politics. Personally, I value freedom > privacy > security - but they're all sliding scales, and opinions vary (widely) on the "correct" placing. I do know that when I vote, I vote for the first two over the third every single time... partly because I feel (opinion!) history indicates that's the "best" priority. Your mileage definitely may vary. One could write books on the subject. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 14:12

I wanted to put forward my thoughts on @MadHatter 's answer but unfortunately don't have the reputation to comment yet, so I'll stick it here instead. Iain Banks introduces an interesting concept, but like so much of Banks' world is heavily influenced by the overall societal pressures. The Culture is a post-scarcity society where material wealth means absolutely nothing, as anyone can have anything they want. In this environment being known, being 'someone', is not based on how much money you have but basically relies on your reputation in the society. There is little motivation remaining to commit a crime in the first place, if you consider the lack of importance of wealth and also that relationships are lax to say the least, with the traditional monogamy of humanity long since discarded (if it existed at all among the species that make up the Culture). If someone does commit a crime then what point is there in locking them away when the worst punishment you can enact is to force them to live a shadow of their life, shunned by all circles of society?

However, I find it hard to imagine something like this working in a materialistic society like ours where the competitive drive still exists, to climb above others and increase your own personal wealth. If I recall correctly in many of Banks' other civilisations which have achieved interplanetary travel, punishments have in fact become more extreme as the technological advances drive larger and larger divides between societal classes and I think this represents the fundamental issue. Punishment, and in fact rehabilitation, involves denying the standard privileges of physical and mental freedom as a way to discourage further crimes (or in extreme cases remove someone from society for good to prevent them having the opportunity to commit further crimes). In our world, freedom is basically what we value and strive for, but in other cultures I think you would have to look at "what do they value most?".


What about information-based life-forms?

Instead of humans (discrete organic life forms), an AI species might have several relatively autonomous units, although they are all attached to the same information network. Perhaps challenges of bandwidth and data storage over a long distances necessitate the existence of individual bodies, although the data platforms could upload themselves into the network and into a new body as far away as the data can transmit, or maybe they just chill in the network for a while. Fans of Mass Effect may draw parallels to the Geth.

In this case, a punishment analogous to prison (but lacking in any prison structure) might be to prevent the AI unit from leaving the body (physical platform), or establishing direct links to the rest of the network. It could still interface with physical signals as humans do, like talking or sign language, but it would be inefficient compared to direct digital signaling.

I imagine it would also feel quite isolating for an information-based being. In some of our own human societies, convicts of certain crimes (like online sex predators or "Black Widows") are banned from owning computers or using the internet without direct supervision. A few decades ago it would not have mattered to most people, but nowadays we are so dependent on the internet that the effects must be blinding.

Or, on the flip-side, the offending AI unit might be restricted to the virtual network, but may not be allowed to download itself onto a physical platform. This is similar to our contemporary idea of house arrest, where an offender is forced to wear an ankle bracelet transmitting their location to the authorities at all times. I don't know about you, but even with the internet and dinner-on-demand, spending mere days at a time entirely within my own home can make me pretty stir-crazy.

For more serious crimes, the AI unit could be restricted from components of the network, such as external visual inputs. They could still communicate with other platforms in the network, or AI units downloaded to physical platforms connected to the network, but they could not "see" what is going on in the outside world.

Therefore, an AI-based life-form would probably have very little use for a physical prison. Restricting an information-based being from access to parts of a vast network would be quite isolating and the punishment would be quite clear. Likewise, confining an AI unit to a physical platform could be a prison of sorts, but with no warden, no guards, no walls, no fences - just your skin.

  • $\begingroup$ That depends on how smart the AI is. Agreeing on some code of conduct and maintaining service that punishes misbehaviour is a well-tested and working solution for tragedy of the commons. However, if AIs are not confined with our tradition, they have a lot of options for punishment, I suppose some forms of commitment trade that are incomprehensible to human observer can take place. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt The crime might not be specific to the AI society itself. Perhaps the AI society knows it is not trusted by most organic life by default, and their physical platforms are very life-like. Any actions that reveal their existence or organic mimicry could be dangerous to the AI species. For that reason, it would make sense to upload the platform to the network and make use of its information but prevent it from disclosing sensitive information to other species again. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:45

From what i remeber from history classes, imprisonment was provided as an alternative to execution (I believe it had something to do with france and the guillotine) in order to offer the offender the idea of a chance of redemption. Thus reducing the acts of desperation of criminals when in a tight spot. After all if you know you'll be excecuted when captured theres not much stopping you from committing more serious crimes and attempting to kill whoever might be a danger to your freedom.

This means that imprisonment works by offering the offender a way out. After all imprisonment is in essence nothing more than saying if you agree to stay put for this amount of time, we won't kill you. There's not much keeping prisoners where they are but the idea of (a chance of) going back to a normal life if they put up with their sentence and a high chance of getting killed when they don't.

This concept would, I think, still make imprisonment a viable option for those that can't be physically restrained.

The only way I can think of for imprisonment not to exist is for noone to have considered the concept. This leaves execution, torture, mutilation or some form of penance.

Excecution as the main form of punishment will likely see less total crime but whatever crime exists will likely be more violent and prone to spiral out of control. If you are looking for a story arc here you might have these outlaws band together in remote locations such as mountain forts in an effort to protect eachother from the law, or maybe even on the run on boats, picking on honest merchants and drinking rum.

Torture and mutilation as the main forms of punishment would work much like imprisonment in the "I go through this ordeal and I will be allowed to live a life" sense. For me this would be more of a no-no when someone is trying to arrest me, so sould likely see more resistance to arrest and be somewhere in the middle of imprisonment and excecution in its effects.

Penance Penance might come in multiple forms, every single one of them would require a greater threat (such as death) in order to be effective, some examples and possible story elements are:

  • A period of servitude to the victims (essentially a form of slavery), this might make it economically attractive to be a victim often and might lead to some serious cases of corruption.
  • Fines, if there is no other punishment fines vs crimes esentially become a transaction. This would make some crimes very lucrative for those that can afford the fines. This might be interesting for a plutocracy.
  • Exile, the exiled need to go somewhere, so maybe the main city or country is somewhat like a garden of authorative eden and anyone not falling in line is exiled into the wasteland/wild/put on a boat, this would likely see a number of colonies of exiled.
  • The arena, the guilty could win back their freedom by surviving a number of rounds in gladiator-style fights in an arena. If this is also used as a form of entertainment this might lead to the glorifying of certain criminals who keep surviving the fight. Or might even lead to career criminals when they fancy their chances in the arena.

As an alternative to punishment you might also consider trial by combat, wich would make any suspect either innocent or dead, removing the need for long-term imprisonment altogether.


How about a "eye-for-eye" justice system? As the idea of justice is fairness, would this not be the ultimate way to guarantee equality? I.E if rob someone, the money is refunded to him plus the amount of money you took, or if you assault somebody, resulting in 2 ribs broken, a broken nose, and minor concussion... bring out the boxers. As imprisoning somebody is, needless to say, a pretty unusual crime (plus unlawful imprisonment is usually done with some alternate intent, whether it be ransom or rape, etc.) In that case, some alternative would be reached, like, perhaps, requiring the perpetrator to pay the family the ransom he demanded, or some ransom determined by a judge.


The Mosaic Law given to the Hebrews after the Exodus had only two types of punishment:

  • Reparations
  • Execution

The punishment for adultery and other types of sexual behavior that were prohibited by the law was execution. Notably, execution was implemented via stoning by the congregation. If you read the entire Old Testament, you will notice a pattern: One generation will follow the law and the next generation will fall away from the law.

It is my personal theory that over time, requiring everyone to participate in the stoning lead to reluctance to enforce the law.

Imagine that once a month you have to join together with your neighbors, gather stones, and kill one of your neighbors. Would you start looking for a way to avoid participation? I believe many people would. If over time, participation fell below a certain threshold, there would be no enforcement of the law.

These periods of lawlessness are described in the Old Testament in this way:

In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

Now imagine that you live in a lawless society. You and your neighbors have to take extra precautions to protect your life and property. These extra precautions are time consuming and costly. Would you start longing for the "good ole days" when the law was enforced? I think many people would. If a leader arose who could galvanize the people, the society could return to a state where the law is enforced.

So to answer your first question:

What impact would a society that had no imprisonment have on the people in it?

The people would experience alternating periods of law enforcement and lawlessness.

  • $\begingroup$ Even though the bible may be a valid source for some questions, in this case, I don't think it's appropriate. Neither do I think that those are the only two cases available. What about a society realizing an equilibrium of sorts where they simply don't need such things to stop people from committing crimes? Or maybe a society that's a lot less strict about certain forms of property and since they don't care, they don't punish those who commit certain classes of crimes? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 0:55

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