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Prisoners and Justice in Star Trek


It’s International Amnesty Day. Amnesty is another word for “forgiveness” a central theme of the Star Trek universe. Often amnesty is associated with political prisoners. And probably many reading this will think of the plot of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Or perhaps, you’ll think of Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel/ Rainn Wilson), who I’ve already written about here. But, Trek canon goes much deeper than that. Where does this focus come from? Let’s look at Prisoners and Justice in Star Trek.

In the late 1800s the „Red Cross“ formed to address medical welfare following global warfare. A faction split off to form the „Political Red Cross“ and „Anarchist Black Cross“ for political prisoners. By the 1960s „Amnesty International“ formed with an additional focus on prisoner welfare and human rights. Indigenous-rights ally Karen van Fossen has said „all prisoners are political prisoners“ when you understand the nature of their confinement.

Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren in “Imposters” Episode 305, Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Trae Patton/ Paramount+. ©2021 Viacom, International Inc. All Rights Reserved.


The Federations’s prisons and disciplinary systems centre rehabilitation. They practice both punitive confinement and compassion to varying degrees of successful redemption or rehabing.

Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) experiences both. Ensign Ro – family names first on planet Bajor – debuted in an eponymous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG). She disobeyed orders; buckled under the stress of her first assignment with the USS Wellington. Her actions killed 8 people and she submitted to Federation imprisonment. In Star Trek: Picard (ST:P), we learn that Jean Luc’s (Patrick Stewart) compassion was her redemption and led to her sacrifice. In Star Trek compassion succeeds; punishment fails.

Michael Burnam (Sonequa Martin-Green), in Star Trek Discovery’s first season as well as both both Lt./ En. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), in Star Trek: Voyager (ST:V) travel similar arcs. Both Seven’s and Michael’s liberations have been discussed before here. Paris’ journey is slightly different, because it hinges on multiple failures as seen in his demotion and confinement in the episode “30 Days”. Still, as with Seven of Nine, Cpt. Janeway’s (Kate Mulgrew) compassion is Paris’ redemption.

Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren in Star Trek: The Next Generation (Via Paramount+)

“Even Murderers?”

In Star Trek, “yes”, even ((some)) murderers experience redemption. There are still literally too many examples to count. The most prominent come to us again via ST:V which is taking up the largest majority of mentions so far. Hardly surprising as it is a show about a journey from pain and isolation to togetherness and integration.

In the ST:V episode “Repentance” The Doctor (Robert Picardo) repairs an organic defect in a Nygian prisoner’s brain that happens to lead to him developing a conscience, unbearable remorse, and kindness. Iko (the prisoner; Jeff Kober) is both actively being abused by Nygian guards that Voyager is tranporting, but also guilty of multiple homicide. The doctor, Seven and even his Nygian jailers attempt to save him, but he tragically accepts his fate and still finds joy in growing past his violent proclivities.

Similarly, Betazoid En. Lon Suder’s (Brad Dourif) neurodiversity – unlike other’s of his species he has no telepathy – combined with traumatic experiences of extreme emotional isolation lead to him becoming an impulsive serial killer in ST:V’s episode “Meld”. Biological solutions don’t work this time, instead Tuvok’s (Tim Russ) discipline and compassion do the job. Lon goes on to sacrifice himself for the entire crew in “Basics, Part I & II”.

Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris in Star Trek: Voyager (Via Paramount+

“…mere loss of liberty – has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment…rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement…There remains, therefore, a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice…”

From Discpline and Punish by M. Foucalt

Discipline, Punishment, and Torture

The most common outcome of punishment and torture are more pain not less, but it’s not always easy to see the difference between rehab and torture.

In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Dagger of The Mind” the prison reformer Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory) has invented a new therapeutic technique for violent and disturbed persons in the Tantalus Penal Colony. His method goes too far and zombifies fellow doctors and the prison population. His own “neural neutralizer” creation finally does him in.

“A Cage is a Cage Jim”

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) from “Dagger of the Mind”

Both Cdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) in ST:TNG and Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9) have had experiences similar to Tantalus. In the ST:TNG episode “Frame of Mind” Riker awakens to a nightmarish world were an invasive mind-device implants confusing memories designed to convince him of a crime he did not commit. Chief O’brien has similar experiences in the ST:DS9 episode “Hard Time” – yet, far worse as his captors implant his mind with 20 years of brutal imprisonment.

Jonathan Frakes as William T. Riker in Star Trek: Picard (Via Entertainment Weekly)

Revenge or Survival

What choices do our beloved characters have when they face a reality of injustice disguised as justice? Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) sought revenge for his people’s stranding on a doomed planet in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Vadic (Amanda Plummer) of the Changelings sought the same in ST:P’s season three. She was herself a survivor of attempted federation genocide and experimental tortures.

Vadic and Khan are of course powerful people and bear more responsibility for their actions as such, but they are also emblems of unaddressed victimisations and injustices. Can we expect good to come of suffering, without compassionate interventions? Neither of these characters survives.

“What do you see?”

Relatedly, Jean Luc Picard’s own story has seen multiple confinements and captures. The imprisonment that most stands in relation to the experiences of Khan and more specifically Vadic is portrayed in ST:TNG two-part episode “Chain of Command”. After a failed espionage attempt on the Cardassians, the Gul Madred (David Warner) violently tortures and interrogates Picard. He attempts to gaslight Picard with a method pulled from George Orwell’s book 1984.

“How many lights do you see?”, the Gul Madred asks repeatedly. He even sometimes allows his young daughter (Heather Lauren Olsen) to watch. This is an indication that like his Federation counterparts, the Gul feels righteous in his work. Each time, Picard responds ((accurately)) and painstakingly as the torturous pain is increased “THERE – ARE – FOUR – LIGHTS”. The Gul wishes to elicit submission, to break Picard, and wants Picard to lie and say he sees five lights.

Picard never gives up, yet admits to friends upon being freed that he started to believe that he saw five lights, even though he knew their were only four. Picard, unlike Khan or Vadic never seeks retribution. He opts for survival instead of annihilation and companionship instead of isolation.

No matter if we are faced with the injustice of false imprisonment or the uphill battle of redemption in the face of unhelpful pain and isolation, Star Trek paints a clear path forward. I believe that it’s the same path we should remember on Amnesty International Day. Stay strong and try to remember . . .

“There – Are – Four – Lights!”

Picard from “Chain of Command”

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