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'Prison Architect' Has No Room for Political Action

'Prison Architect' models building well, but it fails to strike at a system that routinely abuses prisoners' rights.

For more on the state of prisons in America, visit VICE's series The Future of Incarceration, a collection of articles and short videos dedicated to exploring a better way forward for the criminal justice system.

This September saw the largest ever prison work strike in American history. On September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, 24,000 prisoners at 29 prisons across the country refused to go to work. They spent the fall protesting working conditions, wages, security and a plethora of other concerns.

Prison protests and strikes have a history that goes back as long as we've had prisons, so I decided to revisit Introversion's Prison Architect and see if they had addressed this phenomenon in their wildly popular prison simulator. Though it's not meant to be modeled after American prisons, as Introversion has made clear, Prison Architect could not exist without the use of imagery and language borrowed from America's grotesquely outsized prison system.

One could hardly accuse Introversion of glossing over the details in their simulation. During its 4 year development, Introversion has added weather effects, CCTV, chapels, education programs, parole boards, gangs, drug and contraband systems. Prisoners can exhibit a whole range of moods, needs and desires. There hasn't, unfortunately, been any inclusion of prison strikes or protests.

The only method that prisoners have to express themselves is by rioting – a critique also wagered by Paolo Pedercini in the critical essay he wrote two years ago for Kotaku. When Pedercini took issue with their straightforward depiction of prison labor, Introversion responded by defending the beneficial effects of prison work programs, which certainly have an allure of rehabilitation to them. After all, why shouldn't prisoners spend their time learning new skills that can help them in the outside world?

Header and all Prison Architect screens courtesy of Introversion Software

This ignores the historical relationship between prison labor and slavery in America, a subject explored heavily in Ava Duvernay's recent documentary 13th . The film's name describes the criminality clause of the 13th amendment passed to end slavery after the civil war. The clause allows for the forced labor of convicted criminals, a loophole which has been exploited by American prisons throughout history, most famously in their re-appropriation of black labor in the south to make up for an economy ruined by the end of the cheap labor provided by slavery.

The prison labor of today is rooted in this brutal and oppressive history. It is the coercive and unfair nature of the system that spurred so many prisoners to strike last month. As harshly as failure to work can be punished - privileges revoked, solitary confinement meted out - these prisoners still decided to take action. What does it say about Prison Architect that even the remote possibility of a prisoner taking political action is non-existent?

To make your prisoners go to work in Prison Architect, all you have to do is create the tools, train them, schedule hours, and assign them roles. Most of the options for simulated employment revolve around maintaining the prison itself, which is also true in the U.S. prison system, where the vast majority of prisoners work directly for the prison.

What the simulation lacks, though, is any explicit modeling of coercion and power structures. The prisoners are either 100% fine with working or they revolt and burn everything. There is no hint of the massive organizational capacity that allowed thousands of prisoners in dozens of prisons across the country to reach out, despite repressive conditions, and coordinate the time and method of a nationwide strike; no conceptual space in the simulation to show how inmates were able to overcome race, gang allegiance, and other barriers surely shocked prison administrators. In Prison Architect, inmates only rebel in ways that are self-destructive and aimless. But imagine a version of the game in which prisoners overcame their basic needs for comfort, shelter, and food to surprise you, the player, with organization, determination, and a list of demands.

But do prisoners even have a point in striking? Sure, they may have individual grievances but prison labor in general supposedly has many benefits. In their response to Pedercini, Introversion has said: 

A prison work plan is always going to be there because it's such a wonderful combination of: a method to raise funds for your prison and also a method to help reform and rehabilitate your prisoners. 

They bring up useful sounding programs, like arts & crafts that are then sold to the general public, as well as a restaurant you can go to in a prison, staffed by prisoners. But these anecdotal cases, while certainly appealing, belie a massive system with far-reaching economic effects, especially in the U.S. with its wildly out-of-proportion prison population.

Understanding the history of prison labor in the U.S. is vital to understanding the shape it takes today. One of its foundational purposes was as a response to the end of slavery and the reconstruction era. Throughout the South, recently freed black people were arrested en masse for any number of arbitrary crimes, such as loitering or failing to provide proof of employment. Prisons then leased their convicts to private companies to do the same kind of brutal labor that they had just been freed from.

Prison Architect

In more recent history, prison funding has risen alongside the prison population; while social safety nets have withered away. State and federal funding that could be going to poor communities in the form of education and drug rehabilitation, are instead being funneled into the endlessly hungry maw of prisons. 13th attributes this trend to the corporate bill mill and lobbying group, ALEC. This group, which represented private prison corporations for decades, is responsible for much of the legislation—such as mandatory minimums and 3 strikes—which have ballooned prison populations and made many of the industries tied to prisons fabulously rich, partially thanks to an expanded prison labor force.

While many prisoners—at least those hoping to be released in a few years rather than a few decades—can try and use what they've learned working at prisons to gain employment in the outside world, the larger forces that prison labor whips up wind up being far more detrimental than helpful to them. They are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act and are not considered employees. This means they can be forced to do dangerous and unhealthy forms of labor without recourse. Are some prisoners allowed to work in restaurants or to make crafts? Sure, but this doesn't mean we get to ignore the millions of other prisoners who build weapon parts, computers, and other more standard forms of factory labor, all without the hard-won rights of factory workers in the U.S.

And once they are released and returned to the communities they were once part of, they're faced with not only the struggles of being an ex-con with a criminal record, which cuts them off from things like college loans and many government jobs, but also a depressed economy which cheap prison labor has made a significant impact on. Outsourcing has long since been pointed at as a reason for lack of local unskilled or low-skilled jobs. Insourcing, the use of prison labor, gets far less attention as a reason these jobs might be disappearing, yet it also deserves attention.

Prisons tend to act like black holes. Once people go into them, they blink out of visible existence. This allows the public to make light of things like prison rape as just one of the natural consequences of being imprisoned; it allows for guards to beat and rape prisoners themselves; it allows corporations to exploit prisoners in the form of overpriced phone calls, substandard food and healthcare service, and unfair working conditions. This invisibility is what makes the very existence of a nationwide prison work strike so uncommon.

When Introversion claims it wants to simulate "a kind of ideal prison in the sky," I can't help but see this reflected in the way prisons prefer to operate. Prisons, most of them built far away from the places where people live, are as separate from society as Prison Architect is actively designed to be. Though where the developers of Prison Architect meant to present a simulation absent of cultural context or commentary, prisons in their solitary hermitage mean to function entirely apart from the society which bore them. At the same time as prisoners are used as profit generators, their isolation from the world prevents them from organizing and communicating with others. 

Prison Architect

By limiting the language of prisoners to work or riot, by making organization and communication impossible, Prison Architect inadvertently reflects these values. The only way your prisoners can rebel without rioting is to escape, to disappear forever from your closed system.

Speaking on their core aim in making Prison Architect, Chris Delay said:

We are putting you in the shoes of somebody who has to build a system that can hold hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners. And so the net result of that is that players naturally withdraw slightly from any individual prisoner's concerns and start thinking of them as a group, as a whole. I would go so far as to say that was a design aim of the game, to give you that experience of feeling distanced from the humanity of what you're trying to make.

At simulating the dehumanizing bureaucracy that is necessary in the running of prisons, Introversion did great. But the parts that were left out speak volumes. Van Jones in 13th describes humanity as the opposite of criminality. From the cold distance which you administer your prison, all you're dealing with are criminals. From the privileged remove of someone not dealing with being black or poor in America, with the long brutal history and legacy of slavery, prisons are fine as they are, and prison labor is functioning as it should.

But according to 13th and the thousands of prison strikers who yearn to have their voices heard, all is not as it should be. Legal protection is absent. Exploitation and overwork is rife. The system itself is inextricable from its historical relationship with slavery. Games like Prison Architect and other prison-related media we consume should seek to connect the fictional and simulational with real world context.

By presenting prison labor without that context, as merely another profit source to help run your prison, Prison Architect reflects the image that prison administrators themselves wish to present. By only boosting the positive aspects of prison labor such as vocational programs, the game inadvertently presents an image in line with the PR message of prison corporations. It ignores the deleterious effects of prison labor on prisoners and society. And finally, by refusing the prisoners the ability to strike and protest their treatment in a way that isn't random violence, Prison Architect misses a crucial distinction. There's a vast difference between the act of rioting and striking. But in only acknowledging the former, Prison Architect doesn't recognize the humanity in the latter.