LET'S PLAY...D&D in Prison

Elisabeth de Kleer recently launched a Kickstarter to film to fund LET'S PLAY, a documentary about the little-known stories of inmates and former inmates who go to great lengths to play table top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons behind bars. They handcraft twenty-sided dice, build their own campaigns from scratch, even wage legal battles against the United States prison system to assert their right to play. I caught up with Elisabeth to discuss why she decided to make this documentary and if prisoners should be allowed to play games in prison.

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Michael Tresca (MT): Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. What is your experience with tabletop role-playing games?
Elisabeth de Kleer (EK):
I started playing tabletop games in college. Growing up in the 90's, my parents were pretty conservative. At the time there was a huge wave of evangelical Christian backlash against roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons, specifically. So we played other games. (As a side note, I believe a lot of rules against D&D in the criminal justice system are part of the legacy of all this anti-D&D rhetoric.) When I got to college I was still painfully shy, so tabletop games were a way to connect with people in more a structured environment. My interest in the topic of D&D-behind-bars actually started when a close friend and the Dungeon Master of one of my games, Mike Grace, told me the story of his friend who was playing at a maximum security prison. Neither of us had any idea that prisoners played the game, but it sparked my interest, and I started investigating...

MT: What is your Kickstarter all about?
EK: LET'S PLAY: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS BEHIND BARS
is a film that tells the little-known stories of inmates who go to great lengths to play table top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons behind bars: handcrafting twenty-sided dice, building their own campaigns from scratch, even going up against the United States prison system. In particular, LET'S PLAY follows the story of one man who waged an eight year legal battle against his California prison – and won. Gary Gygax himself, the legendary creator of D&D, testified at his trial. This film explores the rehabilitative potential of gaming in his life and the lives of many others… and why it’s so controversial behind bars.

MT: Regarding gamers in prison, let's start with the most controversial topic: If prisons are for punishment, should prisoners have access to games?
EK:
Good question. As you might imagine, I get asked this a lot. I think the answer depends on whether you view RPGs as an escape from reality or as an opportunity to learn skills that will be applicable in real-life. After listening to dozens of inmates and former inmates talk about their games, I believe the answer is the latter. The Dungeons & Dragons table is one of the few places in prison where inmates of different races and gang affiliations sit down to do something cooperatively. In addition to bridging racial gaps, it's also creative and teaches basic life skills like problem-solving and arithmetic. Whatever your thoughts on the criminal justice system, the reality is that most inmates will at some point return to life on the outside. If we want them to return to society with more emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, and better communication, then we need to encourage activities that promote these kinds of skills - like Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike formal prison programs and activities, D&D sprung up organically and costs taxpayers nothing. It's already happening. To ban it takes time, energy, and resources, and is in no one's best interest.

MT: Prisoners are not often allowed to use dice because of its association with gambling. How do they get around this limitation?
EK:
I wrote an article all about this!

MT: Prisons are not usually open to being filmed by the public. What's your plan to film gamers in prison?
EK:
The main character I've been following in my documentary was released last year. The primary purpose of the documentary is to tell the story of his eight-year lawsuit and to track down his confiscated gaming materials. A secondary goal is to film how his legacy lives on at his old prison where D&D is now an official "cultural" activity. Over the course of my career as a true-crime producer, I've filmed in dozens of prison across the country, and while it's difficult to get in, it's not impossible. It's about knowing the rules and having the right motivations. At the same time, I'm realistic about the fact that my time behind bars may be limited, which is why I'm not relying on it for the bulk of the documentary.

MT: The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Wisconsin prison’s rule forbidding inmates to play Dungeons & Dragons or possess D&D publications and materials on the grounds that it promoted "gang activity" and was thus a threat to prison security. Did you find that to be true in your research for this documentary?
EK:
On the contrary. Players told me that the D&D table was a welcome alternative to prison yard politics. Again, it's the only place where prisoners of different races sit down together and exchange their human skins for those of their fantasy characters - dwarf, elf, halfling, etc. That said, a prison guard who has never encountered D&D before might have trouble interpreting what he or she is seeing. A large, rowdy group of inmates drawing maps and talking about weapons could spell trouble or look similar to a gang gathering from a distance. It's unfortunate, but when you're a prison guard in a horribly understaffed facility where you are massively outnumbered, I can see why a misunderstanding like this could emerge. In facilities where D&D is encouraged and dice and books allowed in, guards are far more likely to see it for what it is and leave the players at peace so they can bond, cooperate, and explore their identity in a way that has nothing to do with gang politics.

MT: Non-profits have been banned from shipping used books (and therefore, used RPGs) to prisons in Washington (they later reversed the ban). The excuse was “the lack of staff in mail rooms to determine whether or not materials sent are appropriate or whether they’re hiding contraband.” What’s prompting these renewed security concerns?
EK:
People hide contraband inside hardcover books. Unfortunately, most D&D books are hardcover, making them collateral damage so to speak. Many incarcerated gaming groups have told me they play Paizo games, since the company offers more paperback options that make it past the mailroom screening process.

MT: In Ohio, Annette M. Chambers-Smith, the newly appointed director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC), was previously the general manager of JPay Payment Services, a technology company which contracts with the ODRC for tablet services and e-books. Is this push for electronic materials influencing how prisons accept used RPGs?
EK:
You may know more about this than I do. I didn't realize that JPay was being used to share e-books with inmates! That's something I will definitely look into, especially as one of our rewards involves donating gaming materials to an incarcerated gaming group.

MT: How can role-playing help prisoners in solitary confinement?
EK:
Melvin Woolley-Bey, a former Colorado inmate I wrote about in my Vice articles, talked about playing D&D in solitary confinement. He described engaging the other inmates by yelling through the ventilation shafts. Of course, they had no books or dice or anything so it was the ultimate exercise in creativity. I would imagine that even without ventilation shafts, one could pass the time by building words or playing out different scenarios in one's head. It's sanity-through-escapism.

MT: Where can we find out more about your Kickstarter?
EK:
Let's Play: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons In Prison

MT: Anything else you'd like to add?
EK:
Just to help spread the word! Most of the guys in the group are recently released and don't have a strong social media presence, so the more noise our supporters make about the project, the better!

The Kickstarter concludes on Wednesday, August 14 2019 6:00 PM EDT.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

Hussar

Legend
Fascinating. I know that [MENTION=42043]Eric[/MENTION] Mona championed this in the pages of Dungeon for years.
 
Awesome. Suggested stretch goal (or second Kickstarter)...Elisabeth de Kleer herself heads up a design team which produces a "prison-friendly," "warden approved" OGL rpg, produced in collaboration with an actual prison warden and/or prison psychologist. Which tries to address all feasible concerns. And which reaches out to hundreds of local, state, and federal prison/jail wardens, prison guards, and prison counselors, seeking official endorsements which can be advertised. yes? :)

I've been imprisoned in three county jails (Surrey Co, North Carolina; Bernadillo County, New Mexico; and Rensselaer County, New York), and two federal prisons (Philadelphia Detention Center and Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center). But was only in a short time.

Was in county jails for being a hobo during my footloose shoestring-traveling days (for camping in unauthorized place in a State park, and for camping in a churchyard!). I wince everytime I hear gamers say the word "murderhobo"...because the aggression toward vagabonds in isolated situations can actually be dicey. Something un-beautiful can come out of people because there's some undercurrent that "no one, including police, cares about vagabonds. They're worthless humanity." I was in federal detention centers for peaceable Occupy protest.

Gamewise, I only witnessed and played Risk. Man, the guys were into it! Marathon Risk sessions...we criminals plotting to take over the world! haha
 
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Dire Bare

Adventurer
Awesome. Suggested stretch goal (or second Kickstarter)...Elisabeth de Kleer herself heads up a design team which produces a "prison-friendly," "warden approved" OGL rpg, produced in collaboration with an actual prison warden and/or prison psychologist. Which tries to address all feasible concerns. And which reaches out to hundreds of local, state, and federal prison/jail wardens, prison guards, and prison counselors, seeking official endorsements which can be advertised. yes? :)

I've been imprisoned in three county jails (Surrey Co, North Carolina; Bernadillo County, New Mexico; and Rensselaer County, New York), and two federal prisons (Philadelphia Detention Center and Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center). But was only in a short time.

Was in county jails for being a hobo during my footloose shoestring-traveling days (for camping in unauthorized place in a State park, and for camping in a churchyard!). I wince everytime I hear gamers say the word "murderhobo"...because the aggression toward vagabonds in isolated situations can actually be dicey. Something un-beautiful can come out of people because there's some undercurrent that "no one, including police, cares about vagabonds. They're worthless humanity." I was in federal detention centers for peaceable Occupy protest.

Gamewise, I only witnessed and played Risk. Man, the guys were into it! Marathon Risk sessions...we criminals plotting to take over the world! haha
It would be interesting to learn what other games are often played in prisons, other than Risk and D&D.
 

Gradine

Archivist
I'd definitely be interested in exploring the connections in the impulses to play RPGs in prisons and those same impulses among active-duty military members, whose lives can be at times similarly regimented and who famously also play D&D in large numbers (or at least larger numbers than you'd expect)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I know that a lot of this has been kicking around since at least the 1990s. Interesting to see the fight goes on.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Awesome. Suggested stretch goal (or second Kickstarter)...Elisabeth de Kleer herself heads up a design team which produces a "prison-friendly," "warden approved" OGL rpg, produced in collaboration with an actual prison warden and/or prison psychologist. Which tries to address all feasible concerns. And which reaches out to hundreds of local, state, and federal prison/jail wardens, prison guards, and prison counselors, seeking official endorsements which can be advertised. yes? :)
Print on demand softbacks might be part of the solution. Then maybe a custom card deck?
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
I'd definitely be interested in exploring the connections in the impulses to play RPGs in prisons and those same impulses among active-duty military members, whose lives can be at times similarly regimented and who famously also play D&D in large numbers (or at least larger numbers than you'd expect)
I expect its the long period of boredom and regimented life style. Being in prison and active duty military (especially deployed) aren't that different in a lot ways. RPGs are a way to get escape, without actually going anywhere.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
UK prisons tend to forbid dice entirely, because they can be used for gambling. This can apparently be got around with home-made spinners, but the Prison Service is bound to notice that doesn't make sense someday. If anyone tries to design a game for prisoners, basing the resolution system on something vaguely like rock-paper-scisors would make sense.
 

MockingBird

Explorer
This reminds me of a game we attempted to play in Air Force BMT Haha. We had numbers on small pieces of paper in place of dice. It feel apart quickly in fear of the MTI finding out.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
One way to get around both the hardcover AND dice issues would be something like the Ace of Aces/Lost Worlds combat book systems.

Search for “lost worlds fantasy combat game book” if you don’t remember them. Published by Nova, Chessex and others, these books relied on resolving combat based on which maneuvers the combatants chose.







It’s not a panacea. Combat was 1-on-1 only. Most characters’ capabilities were static. But that or a variant on it could still support a streamlined role-playing game experience.
 
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Samloyal23

Explorer
I would think that RPG sessions would build co-operation and decrease fights between inmates, help them put their differences aside. RPGs build teamwork. Prison wardens should see that...
 

ParanoydStyle

Peace Among Worlds
Everything about this is awesome. While I've never done any serious time myself (nor do I plan to), I feel like having access to D&D might improve my chances at surviving it from nil to slim. Right now, my favorite author/actor/criminal/human being is the late Edward Bunker, AKA Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs. Bunker spent almost his entire childhood and adolescence in California's juvenile detention system, effectively a trade school for crime, and when he graduated to violent crimes like armed robbery, he also wound up spending a good chunk of his adulthood in San Quentin and Folsom. Throughout it all, a friend of his, Louise Fazenda Wallis, ensured he had access to a typewriter, so that he could compose letters to potential employers while awaiting his release and also keep continuously honing his writing skills while behind bars. His first novel, which won multiple awards, was written almost entirely in prison.

D&D in prison seems to me like getting access to a lot of those typewriters for a lot of people. I love it.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I expect its the long period of boredom and regimented life style. Being in prison and active duty military (especially deployed) aren't that different in a lot ways. RPGs are a way to get escape, without actually going anywhere.
I can't speak for prison (never spent time there), but this is very true in the military. And don't underestimate the creativity. This is a photo of a deployment in Bosnia, that we came up with our own monopoly game

View attachment 107726
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
I've only recently (I'm shamed to say) thought about the fact that so many who end up in prison grow up believing that crime is the only life for them.

Anything that shows someone that that isn't true is a good thing.

I can only imagine the impact of D&D letting someone believe they can be whatever they want would have on them.
 

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