Prisoners and patients as diners, and the universality of dignity

As a spinoff of the Prison Week post on Tuesday, this story stems from an email conversation I had with chef and author Jim McGrody over the last month or so. Chef McGrody is the author of What We Feed Our Patients: The Journey, the Struggle, the Culture, and How One Unrelenting Chef is Changing the Way Patients in Hospitals Eat, and was featured in a section of a GQ article titled "The Best Place to Eat Right Now," written by James Beard Award-winner Brett Martin.

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Food behind bars

Welcome to Prison Week at Irony or Mayo, where I'm celebrating my 12th anniversary of correctional librarianship with a look at my life in the clink.

If there's a topic of the prison conversation that civilians really tend to get interested in -- to say nothing of bridging my two professions -- it's the subject of food in prison. People want to know what the food is like, if I've eaten seg loaf, if prison wine'll be involved; it gets people talking.

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Why the prison D&D ban makes sense

It's been quite a week for odd Wisconsin news items. There's the woman in Appleton who plead no-contest to charges related to faking a dead-rat-in-my-food to get a payment out of a local restaurant. (Turns out the cause of death was microwave, and the restaurant doesn't own or use a microwave.) There's the truly absurd, but not unusual, prohibition on "sexual bending" at Union Grove High School's dances. (You know what they mean, and you know why they're trying to limit it, but really--this kind of Footlooseian nonsense happens all over the country.)

But the most far-reaching Wisconsin news story is one that takes place right in my wheelhouse: the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals' upholding of the Wisconsin prison system's ban on Dungeons and Dragons material (full text here). Yep, even the Paper of Record covered this one. And even they got a little shot of ridicule thrown in.

Prisons can restrict the rights of inmates to nerd out, a federal appeals court has found.

As you'd expect, this story has put on some serious Internet miles. Gamers, geeks, would-be comedians are all running wild with this story. Most of them--okay, all of them--have been negative. People see Big Brother, they see the Satanism pseudo-scare of the 1980's. What they don't see, and what almost all of them can't and will never see, is how this works from inside the fence.

First, a clarification. This policy only applies to the gaming material. All the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms/Ravenloft/whathaveyou novels are still basically allowed. This ban doesn't touch the collections of D&D artwork either. Just the Monster Manuals, the character guides, the Dungeon Masters Guides. That stuff. The stuff that promotes gameplay. And this is why it's right.

1) Essential good vs. potential bad

"If anything, Dungeons and Dragons kept me out of prison as a kid." This is a common sentiment. I'd like to counter it by pointing out that the difference in childhood upbringing between the well-fed bloggers espousing this view and the guys who are in prison right now is probably the difference between Mary Poppins and Hoarders. But I'll let that go, and stick to the essential core of this argument.

Yes, D&D can be beneficial. It can foster creative thinking, teamwork, a passion for reading, and is a hell of a lot healthier than taking up smoking to kill time at age 15. But that's out there, in a world where kids go to school, and parents check up on them, and everyone's pretty much on equal footing. In prison, that's out the window. Literally.

In prison, manipulation is the word. Gang life isn't just black drug dealers and white supremacists. It touches everyone here. Everyone is trying to get an edge on each other, and on the system that's controlling them. And for those who aren't vocal enough, or strong enough, or savvy enough, the risk of being strongarmed is very, very real. Hierarchies develop almost de novo when inmates set foot in prison, and much of the rule system in prison is designed to safeguard against those systems of inmate-against-inmate control and manipulation.

So you've got D&D. A game that has a strong potential for good, but look at it in the wrong hands. Look at how the interaction of the players can foster a dominance/submission structure. And remember: it's very likely that you've never been in a situation like prison, or in a D&D guild with the types of people that are in prison. So to say that "me and my friends never got into gangs, and we played D&D for hours every day!" is to fundamentally miss the point. That kind of social hierarchy just does not fit inside a prison.

2) Inmate-organized gatherings and the 'G' word

This is prison. No, it's not always Oz, and it's not always Shawshank. But it is still a prison, and that means that the men (and women, in their facilities) who are held here are not free to go around and do whatever they want and gather in whatever manner they want. The Bill of Rights is necessarily limited in here; if that's fundamentally untenable to you, then we've got nothing else to talk about.

The court's decision makes frequent use of the word "gang." This, of course, leads the critics to suppose that the state of Wisconsin is worried about the Paladin Guild and the Thieves Guild turning into the Crips and Bloods overnight. I think it's unfortunate that the court, and the state arguing on its own behalf, so frequently used the term "gang," because I'm not sure it's even what they mean.

"Gang" is convenient, and I'd say lazy, shorthand for what prison policyspeak refers to as "disruptive groups." Sometimes this really does mean "gang." Other times, it is meant to prevent inmate uprisings against the prison. It can mean unrecognized religious activity, too; the prison system, like the military, recognizes specific faiths, and those that are not recognized can be prevented using disruptive groups policies. This keeps charismatic manipulators from getting ordained through the mail and starting their own "Church of You Giving Me Your Honeybuns."

Part of the reason for disruptive groups policies is that inmate gatherings begin to tilt the scales against the control that prison officials need to maintain. So those gatherings have to be for a good reason, and they need to be supervisable. Alcoholics Anonymous. Muslim Jumu'ah. Wiccan prayer. Creative writing classes. High school equivalency classes. The library. Playing chess. Playing basketball. These are all inmate gatherings, but they're all supervised, and they're all totally justifiable.

This, then, goes hand-in-hand with Point Number 1: D&D is an inmate gathering that needs to be supervised, and the need or justification for the gathering must be proven and compared to the risk of the gathering. As I've stated, there is a risk to a D&D gathering in a prison setting, and there is no greater fundamental benefit to it. Inmates can't get together and play No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, even though there's certainly fun to be had there; the risk of gambling and strongarming is too great. And in the case of D&D, more prison officials than just the captains and Disruptive Groups coordinators would need to know what they're seeing to supervise properly.


It's easy to make this look ridiculous, because for a vast majority of the population, it's viewed in a vacuum. Few see all the work that goes into these policies, and the thought process that justifies them. I mentioned above that promotion of gameplay is the fundamental divider between casual D&D-related items and D&D gameplay items. Some folks have told me they could see banning gameplay, but couldn't accept denial of the books themselves. This doesn't work. First, could you imagine the reaction of the public (read: indignant beds-and-bars-only taxpayers) if corrections officers were basically going around referreeing discussions of Dungeons and Dragons, just in case a quest broke out? This is a department that won't even air condition a computer lab for fear of public outcry.

Second, and more seriously, it's a consistency issue. It wouldn't make much sense to allow materials that promote a certain activity or behavior, but then actively disallow the behavior. That would be like disallowing learning a foreign language, but having French for Dummies in the library (which we do) and Rosetta Stone on the computers in the Career Center (which we do). There is sense to these rules. Potential unwanted behavior stemming from books is one thing. Sure, a guy could read The Godfather and get grand ideas of mafioso don-hood. But The Godfather doesn't promote that behavior.

Whether or not you can accept that D&D gameplay is unwanted behavior, there is little argument that the game books promote gameplay. And that's why they're disallowed.