The Feasibility Of Space Prisons

The premise in the movie Lockout has to do with the hero breaking into an orbital prison facility to rescue the president’s daughter. It sounds like a winner especially for movie executives out to make a quick buck; take an existing story plot about a high-security prison and shoehorn it into a science fiction world by having it take place in space or the future, etc. “It’s Escape From Alcatraz in space or Papillon in space!” they may cry out in excitement. Space prisons have popped up in science fiction books and movies and can be fun. However, the problem is that when examined the premise doesn’t make much sense.

The heart of the problem with a space prison is that of resources. Building and maintaining an orbital prison would be such a cost prohibitive drain of resources that it probably won’t happen. Imagine the public outcry when the costs of maintaining such a prison are revealed. Many today complain when they hear that inmates get “luxury” items like cable TV. People would argue that prisoners don’t deserve to have necessities like air, food and water. Never mind if a way is found to have those necessities replenish themselves on a station.  Our civilization has to be a lot more advanced than depicted in Lockout and other films like Fortress 2: Re-entry to provide these things, let alone effective and practical security measures. Another thing to consider is the safety of the planet. During Lockout, the prisoners take control of the station. At one point, there is the danger of the prison’s orbit decaying which poses the risk of re-entry. That’s tantamount to putting a prison complex within a nuclear power plant today. That is a recipe for disaster. It just wouldn’t be done.

Now once a civilization becomes a true space-faring one, then a space prison is feasible. Take the prison facility seen in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “The Chute.” The alien society that kept the characters Tom Paris and Harry Kim captive routinely traveled between planets and most likely were able to easily produce the bare elements needed for survival in such a place. Another twist is the prison asteroid, one of which was presented in The Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely.” In that episode Jack Warden plays a prisoner held in solitary confinement and literally has the world to himself.  One caveat with the asteroid is that in the episode it looked like a desert with an atmosphere. This begs the question of using resources to construct such a place for one prisoner given that in the show, the space-faring tech wasn’t very advanced. Then there is the notion of using entire planets as a penal colony as shown in the series Earth 2. Once again, why waste an entire planet as a prison? This makes little sense since in that show Earth was dying and the characters were trying to set up a viable colony on the penal planet.

As for us, don’t expect to be reading about orbital prisons anytime this century. Probably when we have regular transport between the planets in our solar system with viable, self-sustaining colonies will this idea come to fruition. Cool-looking prison breaks and with nifty effects and explosions will remain in books and films. The bottom line is that it is way cheaper and easier to just keep prisoners down on Earth.

José Soto

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