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Could Mind-Jail and Psychoactive Drugs Fix Overcrowded Prisons?

Redefining cruel and unusual in the age of the mind.

A team of scholars at Oxford, led by philosopher Rebecca Roache, recently proposed the concept of using psychoactive drugs and futuristic technologies like mind-transfer to trick a prisoner’s brain into thinking they’ve been in prison for 1,000 years, even if it’s really only been a few hours.

After the initial shock that this may even be possible, the idea raises an interesting question: Could this be a way to get people in and out of prison quicker, in essence solving the overcrowding problem in today’s prisons?


When I posed the question to criminal justice expert David B. Muhlausen, he was reticent to go that far. “I think we should have caution with that approach,” he told me. “There’s going to be no silver bullet in solving how many people we have in prison.”

There are currently about 2.4 million people behind bars in the US, more than any other country in the world. Since the onset of the “War on Drugs,” the prison population has risen 700 percent. Housing and feeding convicts costs taxpayers $51 billion a year for drug-related offenses alone. It’s a problem begging for a solution.

“There are a lot of people in prison, low-level drug offenders, that probably don’t need to be in prison, who would probably be better served through another type of personal treatment,” Muhlhausen said.

So could using medical technology to rethink punishment be the solution? In an interview with Aeon Magazine, Roache said that certain psychoactive drugs could make “someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence.” She also talked about artificial life extension.

Many psychoactive drugs, even well-known ones like acid and mushrooms, cause time dilation. Time is relative, and these drugs can affect the way your neurons are interacting in a way that makes time feel like it’s going much slower. Furthermore, some not yet developed psychoactive drugs could cause you to go into a multi-day hallucinatory experience, like a dream, where you’re living out uninterrupted weeks of living in your mind.


Roache also proposed the concept of uploading your brain. If you could upload a prisoners brain to a computer, by matching the ways the neurons and other aspects of the brain operate, the person could live indefinitely. Someone that lives indefinitely could be punished indefinitely. A virtual reality game that you can’t get out of no matter how much you want to.

Theoretically, then, we could punish people quickly in a made up world that they’re only in for a day or two, but Muhlhausen said it’s not as simple as that.  One of the major benefits of incarceration is taking violent people off the streets, he said.

As for nonviolent offenders—people that are primarily hurting themselves—they probably shouldn’t end up there at all, he went on. “Prisons are a scarce resource and we need to incarcerate the worst first.”

The other obvious problem with medicating criminals is that it’s never been done before, and so we’re unaware of the long-term effects. “Are there side effects we don’t know about? How long would it take us to know if there are side effects?” asked Muhlhausen.

Roache claims that tinkering with the mind to alter the prison system is only a scary idea because it’s new. But I’d argue it’s just scary, period. Imagine the streets seething with half-lobotomized ex-cons that we decided to do some experiments on. Could we even imprison them at that point? Who could blame them for their actions after having their minds fooled into thinking they were locked up for 1,000 years?

Speaking of lobotomies, it’s a good reminder that toying with the mind to solve problems doesn’t have the best track record. The US performed more lobotomies than any other country, roughly 40,000, before giving up that practice when the nation's mental health establishment realized it was killing people and ruining the lives of those that survived.

Even solitary confinement, which is still heavily used today, has serious psychological ramifications, found a 2006 study published in the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy. “The individual becomes increasingly incapable of processing external stimuli, and often becomes ‘hyperresponsive’ to such stimulation,” the study states. Imagine how solitary confinement of the mind might turn out.

As for simulating ridiculously lengthy prison as a form of extreme punishment for criminals that have done really terrible “supercrimes,” as has been suggested, that too has its drawbacks. “We could do that,” Muhlhausen said. He explained that we could put someone on death row and let them wallow in 1,000 years of torment for brutally killing a dozen people, or what have you, but a life in prison is already pretty bad. Anyone who has ever spent time in a jail cell knows how claustrophobic and terrible it can be for only a day or two. Imagine what kind of transformations a mind goes through after living for years in its own world.