Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dungeons, dragons, and prison bureaucrats

If asked to describe the typical Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) enthusiast, most of us would probably think of a harmless, glasses-wearing, socially awkward math genius who attends school and possibly lives in his parents’ basement.  (Think Napoleon Dynamite.)  But despite this docile stereotype, prison bureaucrats in Wisconsin don’t take any chances.  In fact, in Singer v. Raemisch, the state just spent a lot of money and five-plus years of litigation—starting in the prison grievance system and culminating in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals—to ban all things D&D among its inmates.  But why all the fuss?
Prison bureaucrats banned the popular group fantasy game, and confiscated all D&D related books and other materials, for two reasons.  First, because one of the players in a D&D game serves as the Dungeon Master—which requires giving directions to the other players, as well as narrating and refereeing the game—prison bureaucrats said that this structure mimics that of a gang, and could “lead to the actual development thereof.”

Putting aside the fact that D&D involves wizards, dragons and trolls—fictional creatures not terribly compatible with the modern gang—D&D’s Dungeon Master is actually more analogous to a prison warden than a gang leader.  In fact, prison officials even conceded (perhaps by accident) that they suffer from a bad case of Dungeon Master envy.  That is, the prison admitted its real fear is “about D&D players looking to Dungeon Masters, rather than to the prison’s own carefully constructed hierarchy of authority, for guidance and dispute resolution.”  Who knew that prison bureaucrats were so insecure?

And second, prison bureaucrats believed that playing D&D allowed the inmates a temporary escape from the reality of prison, and therefore could be bad for their rehabilitation.  Further, allowing this “dangerous escapist path” would not only be bad for the inmates, but also for the general public when the inmates are eventually released. 

But the inmate-plaintiff counterpunched with what the court of appeals called “an impressive trove” of evidence, including expert testimony, that demonstrated the following:

  • There has never been a single incident of D&D leading to violence or prison gang behavior in the past—a point conceded by the prison. 

  • The inmate-plaintiff had himself been playing D&D in this very prison for more than two years, “without incident,” before his numerous D&D books and magazines were confiscated by the Dungeon Master prison official. 

  • There is a great deal of evidence that structured, fantasy role-playing games like D&D actually deter gang formation, and have a positive effect on inmate rehabilitation.

So, with the inmate’s “impressive trove” of evidence, how did the prison manage to win this drawn-out and costly game of “Dungeons & Dragons—The Courtroom Edition”?  It turns out that the inmate’s mistake was focusing on the wrong questions.  The court conceded that he proved there was no link between D&D and gang behavior, and that D&D was actually good for inmate rehabilitation.  However, the court held that in order to win his case, the inmate had to prove that the prison’s fears—fears that D&D could possibly, in the future, lead to gang formation or be bad for inmate rehabilitation—were irrational fears.

Paradoxically, disproving these futuristic, hypothetical fears would require some fantasy game play.  D&D, anyone?


  1. Can't imagine why anyone in prison would want to engage in escapist activities. Well done Legal Watchdog! Once again you have mined another gem in the "impressive trove" of ridiculous legal decisions.

  2. Thanks for drawing attention to another depressing prisoner rights case. Arbitrary exercises of legal authority hardly seem likely to contribute to the development of respect for law among the incarcerated. The burden should be on the state to prove that its fears are rational ones.

  3. If that's their logic then the inmates should also be stripped of anything spiritual that may also deter them from the realities of retribution. No prayer, yoga, tai chi, meditation or even imaginary friends.

  4. Anonymous above is very correct. If the prison heirarchy is so important, we wouldn't want the prisoners turning to a priest or a guru for help arbitrating decisions, in place of the incredibly benevolent and wise prison wardens.

    But you know, logic doesn't work on the prison system, because Americans are suddenly excused to be sadists where it involves the prison system.