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Enhanced punishment: can technology make life sentences longer?

by Rebecca Roache

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Edit 26th March 2014: It’s been pointed out to me by various people that this blog post does not make adequately clear that I don’t advocate the punishment methods described here. For a clarification of my views on the subject, please go here. For a Q&A, see here.

Today, the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka each received a life sentence for his murder. Daniel was four when he died in March last year. In the last few months of his short life, he was beaten, starved, held under water until he lost consciousness so that his mother could enjoy some ‘quiet time’, denied medical treatment, locked in a tiny room containing only a mattress on which he was expected both to sleep and defecate, humiliated and denied affection, and subjected to grotesquely creative abuse such as being force-fed salt when he asked for a drink of water. His young sibling, who secretly tried to feed and comfort Daniel, was forced to witness much of this; and neighbours reported hearing Daniel’s screams at night.

Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, and stepfather, Mariusz Krezolek, will each serve a minimum of thirty years in prison. This is the most severe punishment available in the current UK legal system. Even so, in a case like this, it seems almost laughably inadequate. The conditions in which Luczak and Krezolek will spend the next thirty years must, by law, meet certain standards. They will, for example, be fed and watered, housed in clean cells, allowed access to a toilet and washing facilities, allowed out of their cells for exercise and recreation, allowed access to medical treatment, and allowed access to a complaints procedure through which they can seek justice if those responsible for their care treat them cruelly or sadistically or fail to meet the basic needs to which they are entitled. All of these things were denied to Daniel. Further, after thirty years—when Luczak is 57 and Krezolek 64—they will have their freedom returned to them. Compared to the brutality they inflicted on vulnerable and defenceless Daniel, this all seems like a walk in the park. What can be done about this? How can we ensure that those who commit crimes of this magnitude are sufficiently punished?

In cases like this, people sometimes express the opinion that the death penalty should be reintroduced—indeed, some have responded to Daniel’s case with this suggestion. I am not sympathetic to this idea, and I will not discuss it here; the arguments against it are well-rehearsed in many other places. Alternatively, some argue that retributive punishment (reactionary punishment, such as imprisonment) should be replaced where possible with a forward-looking approach such as restorative justice. I imagine, however, that even opponents of retributive justice would shrink from suggesting that Daniel’s mother and stepfather should escape unpunished. Therefore, I assume—in line with the mainstream view of punishment in the UK legal system and in every other culture I can think of—that retributive punishment is appropriate in this case.

We might turn to technology for ways to increase the severity of Luczak and Krezolek’s punishment without making drastic changes to the current UK legal system. Here are some possibilities.

Lifespan enhancement:  Within the transhumanist movement, the belief that science will soon be able to halt the ageing process and enable humans to remain healthy indefinitely is widespread. Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of the anti-ageing Sens research foundation, believes that the first person to live to 1,000 years has already been born. The benefits of such radical lifespan enhancement are obvious—but it could also be harnessed to increase the severity of punishments. In cases where a thirty-year life sentence is judged too lenient, convicted criminals could be sentenced to receive a life sentence in conjunction with lifespan enhancement. As a result, life imprisonment could mean several hundred years rather than a few decades. It would, of course, be more expensive for society to support such sentences. However, if lifespan enhancement were widely available, this cost could be offset by the increased contributions of a longer-lived workforce.

Mind uploading:  As the technology required to scan and map human brain processes improves, some believe it will one day be possible to upload human minds on to computers. With sufficient computer power, it would be possible to speed up the rate at which an uploaded mind runs. Professor Nick Bostrom, head of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, calls a vastly faster version of human-level intelligence ‘speed superintelligence’. He observes that a speed superintelligence operating at ten thousand times that of a biological brain ‘would be able to read a book in a few seconds and write a PhD thesis in an afternoon. If the speed‑up were instead a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours’.1 Similarly, uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time. Further, the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation. Between sunrise and sunset, then, the vilest criminals could serve a millennium of hard labour and return fully rehabilitated either to the real world (if technology facilitates transferring them back to a biological substrate) or, perhaps, to exile in a computer simulated world. For this to be a realistic punishment option, however, some important issues in the philosophy of mind and personal identity would need to be addressed. We would need to be sure, for example, that scanning a person’s brain and simulating its functions on a computer would be equivalent to literally transferring that person from his or her body onto a computer—as opposed to it being equivalent to killing him or her (if destroying the brain is necessary for the scanning process), or just copying his or her brain activity. Personally, I have serious doubts that such theoretical issues are ever likely to be resolved to the extent where mind uploading could be practicable as a form of punishment.

Altering perception of duration:  Various factors can cause people to perceive time as passing more slowly. Science can explain some of these factors, and we can expect understanding in this area to continue to progress. Our emotional state can influence our perception of how quickly time passes: one recent study revealed that time seems to pass more slowly when people are experiencing fear than when experiencing sadness or a neutral state.2 Another study demonstrated that our perception of other people’s emotions—read through their facial expressions—affects our experience of duration: time seems to pass more slowly when faced with a person expressing anger, fear, joy, or sadness.3 In addition, our experience of duration changes throughout life, with time seeming to pass more slowly for children than for adults. Exactly why is not fully understood, but some believe that it relates to attention and the way in which information is processed.4 Time also appears to pass more slowly for people taking psychoactive drugs,5 engaging in mindfulness meditation,6 and when the body temperature is lowered. 7 This research on subjective experience of duration could inform the design and management of prisons, with the worst criminals being sent to special institutions designed to ensure their sentences pass as slowly and monotonously as possible.

Robot prison officers:  The extent to which prison can be made unpleasant for prisoners is limited by considerations of the welfare of the prison staff who must deal with prisoners on a day-to-day basis. It is in the interests of these staff to keep prisoners relatively content to ensure that they can be managed safely and calmly. If human staff could one day be replaced by robots, this limiting factor would be removed. Robotics technology has already produced self-driving cars and various other impressive machines, which places robot prison officers within the bounds of possibility.

Technology, then, offers (or will one day offer) untapped possibilities to make punishment for the worst criminals more severe without resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system. What constitutes humane treatment in the context of the suggestions I have made is, of course, debatable. But I believe it is an issue worth debating.



1 Bostrom, N. 2010: ‘Intelligence explosion: groundwork for a strategic analysis’. Unpublished manuscript.

2 Droit-Volet, S., Fayolle, S.L. and Gil, S. 2011: ‘Emotion and time perception: effects of film-induced mood’, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 5: 33.

3 Gil, S. and Droit-Volet, S. 2011: ‘How do emotional facial expressions influence our perception of time?’, in Masmoudi, S., Yan Dai, D. and Naceur, A. (eds.) Attention, Representation, and Human Performance: Integration of Cognition, Emotion and Motivation (London: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis).

4 Gruber, R.P., Wagner, L.F. and Block, R.A. 2000: ‘Subjective time versus proper (clock) time’, in Saniga, M., Buccheri, R. and Di Gesù, V. (eds.) Studies on the Structure of Time: From Physics to Psycho(patho)logy (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers).

5 Wittmann, M., Carter, O., Hasler, F., Cahn, B.R., Grimberg, U., Spring, P., Hell, D., Flohr, H. and Vollenweider, F.X. 2007: ‘Effects of psilocybin on time perception and temporal control of behaviour in humans’, Journal of Psychopharmacology 21/1: 50–64.

6 Kramer, R.S., Weger, U.W. and Sharma, D. 2013: ‘The effect of mindfulness meditation on time perception’, Consciousness and Cognition 22/3: 846–52.

7 Wearden, J.H. and Penton-Voak, I.S. 1995: ‘Feeling the heat: body temperature and the rate of subjective time, revisited’, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section B: Comparative and Physiological Psychology 48/2: 129–41.

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15 Comment on this post

  1. These are interesting proposals – but, I wonder whether they can simultaneously be truly retributive while not running afoul of (presumed) prohibitions on torture. In the lifespan enhancement case, most clearly, it’s hard to see this as (for most criminals) a punishment at all. Life in prison is hard, but the great majority of criminals seem to value it over death – evidenced, e.g., by the vigorousness with which most convicts will try to avoid the death penalty even when the alternative is life in prison, and the fact that most serving life sentences aren’t constantly trying to kill themselves. Maybe the story will change after 1,000 years, but it seems too risky that we might unintentionally benefit those very individuals we are trying to punish.

    Mind-uploading or perception manipulation are more plausibly punitive, as someone’s experiences can be manipulated in such cases so the added ‘years’ are quite unpleasant and even not worth living (which I *think* is necessary for the intervention to count as a harm rather than a benefit). But then, this would seem to be a case of psychological torture – intentionally causing severe mental distress and anguish, which is generally not condoned in liberal states. Some may well think the present case is horrendous enough to justify such torture – but if that’s the case, we may as well resort to much more mundane means (isolation, beatings, degrading environment, etc.) that are readily available now, and at likely much less cost.

    1. Owen, thank you very much for these great comments. You identify some of the important background issues that would need to be thoroughly addressed before my proposals receive serious consideration.
      What constitutes ‘humane treatment’ is—as I mention in the concluding paragraph that I edited since you made your comment—debatable. What counts as humane treatment for unenhanced people may be different to what is humane for people expected to live for hundreds of years. The boundary between severe but permissible punishment and torture needs an examination that I have not conducted here. This issue is not particularly new, though: US prisons serve misbehaving prisoners Nutraloaf, a food designed to be as boring as possible without actually being painful, and have faced legal challenges as a result.
      I do not condone making life for prisoners unpleasant to the point of not being worth living. My reasons for not condoning this are similar to some of my reasons for not condoning the death penalty: Daniel’s parents deserve punishment for making his life so bad as to not be worth living, but our legal system ought to be able to achieve its aims without sinking to the sort of treatment meted out by sadistic child abusers. Even so—if we seriously want a fitting retributive punishment for these sorts of criminals—the benefit to them of living their lives in prison should not be significantly greater than death. Working out how to achieve that in practice is, of course, a difficult problem (and one that I’m planning to have a go at addressing in a longer treatment of this topic).

  2. For the next thirty years, why the tax payers should be paying for their imprisonment? They committed such a horrible crime; they must work and pay for their expenses. The government should send them to a remote island, of course a prison, where they should be producing, just like everyone else.

  3. If we can extend the life span of prisoners then we can extend the lifespan of anyone. The situation will be one of the following.

    1. There is a scare resource which facilitates the extension of life.
    2. There is a limited resource which facilitates the extension of life.
    3. There is an unlimited resource which facilitates the extensions of life.

    In case 1 dedicating a scare resource to retributive punishment would seem unlikely.
    In case 2 allocating an in demand resource to prisoners for the purpose of retributive punishment would also seem unlikely.
    In case 3 it would seem more likely that withholding the life-extending resource would be the more punitive course of action.

    However, in case 3, I expect one could argue that withholding a life extending resource commonly used by all would be tantamount to torture or ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ as our American colleague like to say.

    1. Thanks Nathan. I disagree that your case 2 – using a limited resource for extending the life of prisoners – is unworkable. Our current system uses a limited resource (public money) to punish prisoners, so case 2 differs from the current situation, if at all, in degree rather than in kind. As for the idea of withholding widely-available life-extending treatment from prisoners as a punishment – this is an interesting idea! However, I agree with your evaluation of it as likely inhumane. It would effectively mean denying prisoners medical treatment.

  4. Life extension is likely to be developed for other reasons than punishment, but might actually make some punishments worse. There are people sentenced to very long but finite sentences which are essentially just life sentences. If life extension arrives it is likely that access to it might eventually be regarded as a human right rather than a luxury (and the transition might take just a generation, judging by some past technologies like the Internet). So now the actual severity of those sentences will become larger than intended when the criminal was sentenced.

    A retributivist might argue that when a sentence is 1000 years it is intended to be 1000 years – the fact that prisoners evade it by dying early is nothing they can do anything about. So life extension might make things more just. But it seems that no law or court can actually adjust sentences with the fidelity needed to make their badness exactly fit the crime: whether prison is hell or heaven depends on the mental state of the prisoner, and future events are likely to change the badness of the prison situation. So there is a pretty big error range there. If escaping 970 years of sentence due to early death is within the acceptable error range, then changed conditions might also count for equally big changes in sentence lengths.

    1. Thanks Anders – I’ve emailed you about this topic, but for the benefit of those reading the discussion, I completely agree that the likely effects of enhancement on the experience of punishment is an important issue to address in order to try to ensure that punishments do not end up being more or less severe than intended.

  5. Kind of veering off the subject here, but WHY in the hell didn’t the neighbors call the police? They heard the child screaming at night and did nothing…? Obviously they aren’t culpable in the same way that Daniel’s parents are, but God knows that if *I* heard someone screaming next door, particularly regularly, I would do something about it.

  6. The science proposed in this article is sophisticated and possibly could be put to another use. Lets not forget the criminals are (well maybe) human beings and with science at the proposed levels they could be reprogrammed and put to work, after all a life is an useful society’s asset. If this is not possible well, they can be harvested for organs, filling another social need

  7. “Further, after thirty years—when Luczak is 57 and Krezolek 64—they will have their freedom returned to them.”

    This is not quite accurate. After 30 years they are eligible for parole. They may not receive it. In other words, the 30 years is a floor, not a ceiling.

    1. Thank you – someone else has already pointed out to me that my claims about the legal aspects are not quite correct. In particular, it is not true that Luczak and Krezolek received the maximum sentence possible in the UK: it is possible to sentence a murderer to a ‘whole life order’, i.e. life with no chance of parole.

  8. The reasoning here seems to be: a 30-year prison term, under the conditions of modern UK justice, involves a level of suffering very low compared to the suffering of the victims, so we need to find a way to drastically increase the unpleasantness of the punishment.

    But that could be easily done without any recourse to high technology. Whips and racks and branding irons, oubliettes and shackles and starvation diets, are all well-developed and mature technologies, and all were extensively used in the past as punishments and continue to be in some parts of the world. We don’t use them in the UK because we think that it’s morally wrong for the state to inflict these very high levels of suffering on anyone, even if they themselves have inflicted comparable levels of suffering on others. That means that we are already committed to rejecting the idea that the punishment needs to inflict comparable levels of suffering to the crime. Even on a retributive concept of justice, the retribution has to be a very severe penalty in absolute terms (and I take it that deprivation of liberty for thirty years is pretty damn severe!) without any expectation that it matches or comes close to the original level of suffering inflicted in the crime.

    One could reject that, of course, and hold onto the eye-for-an-eye notion of parity of suffering. But if so, there’s no real need for speculative new technology, since the old cruelties are still available – and if not, then that technology seems beside the point.

    (As an aside, the idea that levels of unpleasantness in the prison system are controlled by staff welfare issues doesn’t match my understanding of the fairly high levels of cruelty present in many parts of the penal system both in the past and in various parts of the world at present.)

    1. Thank you David. I don’t advocate an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, nor to I advocate torture or inhumane treatment. I start from the assumption that it is possible to make the currently severest sentences more unpleasant for criminals without immediately entering the realm of torture or inhumane treatment. Technology, then, might offer ways of inhabiting this ‘humanity gap’. As I say at the end of the blog, it is debatable what constitutes humane treatment in relation to such technologies: perhaps it will turn out that, on reflection, some of the techniques I have suggested are inhumane, in which case I do not advocate their implementation. (But I do advocate the debate about them.)

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