Skip to content

Prisons & Punishment

Conceptions of Justice in SFF

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

8 min read.
Eastern State Penitentiary Nicolas Raymond
“Infernal Prison Corridor” by Nicolas Raymond

In trying to come up with a fictional example of prison, I was reminded of a discussion I had with one of my professors in college. The topic was determinism and fault. To oversimplify a bit, the idea was that in a deterministic system, if you can’t attribute fault to someone – if bad actions aren’t someone’s “fault” – then you can’t punish them.

This, to me, is madness. The point of punishment isn’t to look back on someone’s bad actions and take vengeance on them to feel better – or shouldn’t be. Punishment, like fines and prison time (both of which are stupid, ineffective methods of punishment, in my opinion) should be about assigning consequences to bad acts to prevent them from being repeated, either by the original offender or others in the society, whether that society is a household or a broader community.

In 1975, Foucault pointed out that prisons are a relatively new phenomenon.

Socrates died rather than face exile, but exile used to be a really common form of punishment for community offenses, and honestly, as the cultural consciousness led by advice columnists like Captain Awkward and Allison Green of Ask A Manager and away from more authoritarian modes of childrearing, I see moves toward boundary-setting and the idea that it’s not worthwhile to continue relationships with harmful people.

The difference between authoritarian policing (which relies on fines and prison time), and community policing (which relies on punishments like exile, shaming, restitution) are stark.

These 5 Science Fiction & Fantasy novels each offer a fictional example of prison in the modern age and their fundamental failings.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

The prisons that appear in A Song of Ice and Fire are excellent examples of what I think of as a baseline fantasy prison. Ironically, a lot of prisons consider Game of Thrones contraband… because it has maps.

From the Middle Ages up to the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment in its own right, and prisons were mainly to hold those awaiting trial and convicts awaiting punishment. The sort of prisons that fantasy novels have codified in trope never really existed in the “knights and castles” era of medieval history. Castles had “prisons” for noble captives and political prisoners, but it was more of a house arrest situation than a “punishment dungeon”situation.  The sorts of prisons that show up in A Song of Ice and Fire, like the multi-storey horror of King’s Landing, owe more to exaggerations for tourists than anything that happened often in history.

It wasn’t really until Bridewell House of Corrections, located at Bridewell Palace in London, which resulted in the building of other houses of correction. These houses held mostly petty offenders, vagrants, and the disorderly local poor. In these facilities the inmates were given “prison labour” jobs that were anticipated to shape them into hardworking individuals and prepare them for the real world. By the end of the 17th century, houses of correction were absorbed into local prison facilities under the control of the local justice of the peace.

Yet despite this, many fantasy novels with a medieval European feel will involve characters rotting away in prison, or needing to escape from prison, or rescuing characters from prison… and they are rarely prisoners of war awaiting ransom. Books that show prison complexes like A Song of Ice and Fire Poison Study, for example — do modern readers a disservice by making us think that modern prisons are somehow enlightened compared to ancient punishments.

Whenever I discuss Hammurabi’s Code during the Mesopotamia unit, students are horrified by the punishments involved and think that instead, bad actors should “just be sent to prison.” It’s the “just” of this that bothers me. There’s nothing “just” about prison. The phrasing implies that prison is always, ipso facto, a kinder, gentler, more fair fate than retaliatory justice like lex talionis.

Spoiler: modern prisons are pretty terrible.

Echoes of Honor by David Weber

In Echoes of Honor, Honor Harrington is secretly taken to the prison planet Hades by the People’s Republic of Haven. Though she is a prisoner of war, many of the other prisoners are political prisoners and citizens of Haven. The only edible native plant on the planet causes brain damage, which allows the prison guards — the de facto local government — to punish rebellion by cutting off the food supply.

The book reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment & BBC’s Prison Experiment, which addressed some of the criticisms of the Stanford experiment and explicitly dealt with food shortages as well.

This fictional example of prison guards showcases the ease with which prison guards can come to represent evil. Supplies come from the farms on Styx island, which was terraformed to allow the growth of human-safe food. Farming was done by prisoners, supervised by the prison staff. Prison staff force prisoners into sexual and plantation-style slavery. Almost all of the prison staff in the administrative center are brutally killed the second prisoners are able to get free, because they are so brutal and hated. The guards are shown to be venal, lazy, and cruel.

Dred Chronicles by Ann Aguirre

The Dred Chronicles are explicitly billed as “Prison Breakin space.” They represent a fictional example of prison gangs. The plot, paraphrased from the publisher’s website, is:

The prison ship Perdition, a floating city where the Conglomerate’s most dangerous criminals are confined for life, orbits endlessly around a barren asteroid.

Life inside is even more bleak. Hailed as the Dread Queen, inmate Dresdemona “Dred” Devos controls one of Perdition’s six territories, bordered on both sides by gang leaders eager to challenge her control. Keeping them at bay requires constant vigilance, as well as a steady influx of new recruits to replace the fallen. Survival is a constant battle, and death is the only escape.

Of the newest convicts, only one is worth Dred’s attention. The mercenary Jael, with his deadly gaze and attitude, may be the most dangerous criminal onboard. His combat skill could give her the edge she needs, if he doesn’t betray her first. Unfortunately, that’s what he does best. Winning Jael’s allegiance will be a challenge, but failure could be worse than death…

Many high-profile gangs began as prison gangs. The Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group, was started in 1967 in California’s San Quentin prison by white inmates. The Aryan Brotherhood also has strong chapters on the streets, which allows criminal conduct inside and outside prisons to support each other.

Incidentally, do you think nostalgia or racism is responsible for a society that vilifies Black and Latino gangs while going gaga over the Irish mob and Italian mafia? Also: Lucky Number Slevin is one of the few movies that features a Jewish mobster, but I’m not sure I would call it a “mob movie” the way Goodfellas was.

Regardless, the nature of modern, American prisons is such that, rather than rehabilitating people, the omnipresent threat of prison violence often forces nonviolent offenders into a life of violent crime. This phenomenon was known as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s time, when the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons attempted prison reform by lobbying for the creation of Eastern State Penitentiary. In an attempt to keep prisoners from falling further into criminal behavior, guards isolated the prisoners into individual cells. Hoping to keep prisoners from ruining their reputations in broader society, prisoners were kept anonymous.

They meant well. The building had running water and central heat before the White House. Exercise was encouraged. Unfortunately, it turns out that calling people by number-identifiers is horribly dehumanizing, and solitary confinement can drive people insane.

Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Speaking of solitary confinement, the protagonist of Inferno spends untold millenia contemplating his navel alone in a genie bottle before he’s rescued. If I could chose one piece of Science Fiction to donate to prison libraries, this would be it. It should be required reading in criminal justice courses. Every legislator who has ever had a hand in determining whether the purpose of prison is punishment or reform should be given a copy. Though it’s a fictional example of prison, it offers up an alternate perspective on Hell that I found very powerful.

On its surface, Inferno (1976) is just a fun, science-fiction spin on Dante’s classic. Yet the book makes a point of the fact it is sinners’ continuing denial of their sins that keeps many of the condemned in Hell. Carpentier is also frequently outraged about the outsized, everlasting punishments for relatively small crimes. There are no noble people in this version of Hell, unlike Dante’s. The protagonist, Allen Carpentier, dies ignobly at a Science Fiction convention and wakes up in Hell, where a Guide in the style of Dante’s Virgil — Benny (actually Benito Mussolini) — offers to help him escape. The kicker is that the only way “out” is “through” and to escape, one risks becoming trapped deeper in. Norman Spinrad explains in the introduction that you escape Hell by accepting moral responsibility not merely for your past actions but even for the fate of your fellows in a manifestly unjust universe.

If real-life human prisons worked that like this fictional example of prison, the gratuitous sadism might not seem so pointless.

The Black Jewels by Anne Bishop

By contrast, there is no fictional example of prison in Kaeleer. Punishments are meted out by the strongest of the Blood, with poetic vengeance taken against the irredeemable. In climactic moments, people who can’t be salvaged are simply purged. The villains of the piece engage in horrible acts angled toward self-gratification; the closest thing to a prison is an “insane asylum” for “high-strung girls” who are then abused, their pleas for help dismissed as delusion.

One of the interesting things about the series is the bold-faced acknowledgment in this story that might makes right. Psychic power comes from a mix of genetics and what is implied to be a sort of unflinching acceptance of self combined with sheer strength of will. Unlike the Heralds of Valdemar, there’s absolutely nothing correlating power with goodness. TV Tropes points out that in any other series, the protagonists would be the villains of the piece; at one point in the series, the beloved father-figure literally commits genocide because a corrupt Ambassador conspired with his wife to kill their child — but “honor” forces him to leave the wife alive.

In most of the spinoff stories, though, which establish the what the Blood society is supposed to be like, crime in the Black Jewels universe is handled in other, ultimately more satisfying, ways. Some characters are exiled and given a “second chance” to start over somewhere their reputation hasn’t tarnished their ability to function in the community. Others are punished in a “poetic justice” sort of way that is designed to evoke empathy for the people they’ve hurt. Yet others are forced into a turning-point position where they must confront the wrongs they’ve done and are given an opportunity to “do better next time” and fix their mistakes.

Lois McMaster Bujold offers another example of Restorative Justice when Rush is found trapped in a warhorse’s stall with gear he stole from his sister’s fiance. The fiance, Dag, is a patroller. He “punishes” Rush by explaining all of the ways Rush had hurt people with his actions that he might not have realized. Most importantly, he makes Rush to clean up the mess he made.

For my personal favorite examples of justice in the Realms of the Blood, check out The Shadow Queen and its sequel, Shalador’s Lady.

The Role of Speculative Fiction

Science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction have an important role in shaping our cultural sense of what is normal and appropriate, but also what is true. The books above do important work by offering perspective on prison and justice in the West. I’d love to discuss other examples in the comments!

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

Check out one of these related posts
Members Public
📚 Reading Roundup: Chill Fiction Edition

Mini reviews of books that don't mess with my postpartum emotions. Think overpowered protagonists, slice of life stories, & underpants jokes.

image of brown-haired woman reading in a hammock via MidjourneyAI
Members Public
💰 Some stuff I'm surprisingly happy I bought

A bunch of stuff nobody is paying me to tell you I liked.

💰 Some stuff I'm surprisingly happy I bought
Members Public
📚 Review: The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz

Lessons in persistence from food porn science fiction

a chef wearing a neon hat