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How Inmates Play Tabletop RPGs in Prisons Where Dice Are Contraband (vice.com)
422 points by kibwen on Feb 28, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 242 comments

For a semester, I taught in a state prison for a prisoner educational program. Every time I went in, I was struck by how punitively petty so many of the rules and corrections officers were. The environment is carefully crafted to suck out all joy and hope from the inmates. Azkaban with its dementor guards is a pretty good illustration of an American prison.

Guards are as likely to confiscate gaming materials (and punish inmates) for breaking the rules as they are to do the same because they stubbed their toe or someone looked at them funny.

Thankfully we do have some more progressive correctional programs making a little headway like the one I taught for, but nothing about this article surprised me.

edit: I accidentally a word.

This is really a thing in the USA and other 2nd-world countries. In most European countries this is very different.

The term "second-world" refers to former Communist states. It's not a ranking system.

Oh haha, TIL. My bad.

Nordic countries maybe, French, British, German not to mention former Commie block countries prisons aren't what you think...

French prisons have currently a big problem of a number of inmates way above the stated capacity, radicalisation issues and a lack of financing. The problem were grave enough that the guards did a long strike last year, blocking the access to the prisons.

I'm just giving anecdata here so I'm curious to see if you agree with me. Having known two people that went to prison, my opinion on the system is that I think people usually go to prison for the legally correct reason. That being said, a lot of people I meet seem to associate going to prison with deserving to live in a hellhole. No one considers the social exclusion itself a hellhole as evidenced by the ubiquitousness of rape jokes about prison. The reason I mentioned that the point about the prisoners deserving it from a legal perspective is because I think this is the point where most people lose sympathy for the prisoner population, it's the moment when they just sort've assume that anything that comes after being found guilty is just more of a reason not to commit a crime in the first place which is a horrific outlook in my opinion.

> I think people usually go to prison for the legally correct reason

Or not, if most of the incriminating information was eyewitness testimony, the #1 cause of wrongful convictions:


MY opinion of the US criminal justice system is that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackstone%27s_formulation is almost definitely not being followed, with the bias far into the false-positive conviction camp.

Come to think of it, why is the criminal justice system not "tested"? In other words, set up a mock situation where you know in advance who is innocent and who is not (because it's a setup), and run a mock trial by all the rules using actual jurors, and compare the outcome of the trial to the actual innocence or guilt of the actor?

The vast majority of convictions arise from plea bargaining.

Prosecutors and law enforcement stack charges so that it appears to be a 'good deal' to just accept a plea deal rather than risk trial and spending decades behind bars on the slight chance you will be falsely convicted.

IMO this is the single biggest problem with our system.

Plea bargaining and prosecutorial discretion makes a mockery of due process.

Overloaded public defenders and the lack of competent and affordable defense attorneys shifts most of this problem to the lower income brackets.

There is not a lot wrong with plea bargaining if an innocent suspect can except a fair trail, it trades a more lenient sentence for criminals for a more efficient, speedier and cheaper system.

The problem in the US is that poor innocent suspects have heavily stacked odds in a trail: multiple biases in judges and juries and no good lawyer with enough time for their defense. So an innocent must take the plea bargain because trail isn't a reasonable option.

So, there's a lot wrong about plea bargaining.

No...I think the parent was arguing that the problems are around plea-bargaining, not plea-bargaining itself. I personally think the biggest problem is the inbalance between prosecutor's ability to threatening absurdly large sentences. That distorts the expected value of the risk analysis in the favor of prosecution. But if the worst-case penalties were more reasonable, then plea-bargaing could be a reasonable way to reduce risk.

> Come to think of it, why is the criminal justice system not "tested"? In other words, set up a mock situation where you know in advance who is innocent and who is not (because it's a setup), and run a mock trial by all the rules using actual jurors, and compare the outcome of the trial to the actual innocence or guilt of the actor?

Probably for the same reason most things are or aren't done - some form of status-quo bias. I mean, someone has to think of the idea, push it, administer it, etc. It's a lot of work. And no one really has an incentive to do that work right now.

Btw, your statement isn't really accurate: >> I think people usually go to prison for the legally correct reason >Or not, if most of the incriminating information was eyewitness testimony, the #1 cause of wrongful convictions:

The fact that eyewitness testimony is the #1 cause of wrongful convictions doesn't tell us anything about the rate at which wrong convictions occur. It's possible for eyewitness testimony to be the #1 cause of wrongful convictions, but for there to be only e.g. 3 wrong convictions a year out of 100k trials. Which would probably be pretty "acceptable".

(I say this because it sounded like you were making the common probability mistake of flipping two things: knowledge of how often a wrongful conviction is caused by eyewitness testimony, and knowledge of how often eyewitness testimony causes a wrongful conviction. Knowing the former doesn't mean we know the latter. Not sure if you're actually claiming this, but wanted to clarify what it sounded like to me).

>It's possible for eyewitness testimony to be the #1 cause of wrongful convictions, but for there to be only e.g. 3 wrong convictions a year out of 100k trials. Which would probably be pretty "acceptable".

"It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer." Three innocent people being punished is a travesty and in no way acceptable.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackstone%27s_formulation actually says that it is better that 10, not 100, guilty go free.

And sadly, in a world of imperfect information, it is arguable that 3 wrongly convicted innocents out of 100,000 trials is "acceptable," because you're never going to get to 100% precision/accuracy.

Benjamin Franklin's paraphrase of the principle says 100, which is my direct quote ;D

I don't disagree that it's unrealistic to achieve 100% accuracy, but it should never be accepted - we should never, ever stop striving for improvement in this arena, and to err on the side of letting people go free if it can't be conclusively and impartially proven they are guilty.

Let's take this to an extreme. Let's get rid of incarceration and legal consequence entirely. Then you're to never wrongly convict someone, right? All other ways could and likely will end up with false positives.

Also, just to answer your actual hypothetical of "testing" the criminal justice system:

I'm not sure how you would test it. You can run a "mock" trial, although I'm not sure it's so easy - to be realistic, I think you need to create a scenario which can plausibly go in either direction (innocent or guilty). But what would that tell you? I mean, "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a pretty high standard and all, but if you make it seem pretty clear that someone is guilty when they're "really" innocent, that doesn't mean much, because this is fiction - you made up a tricky case, and people got it wrong. So what? The question is how often does real life cause a tricky scenario to manifest.

You can go the other way and set up a situation that's pretty clear, but I'm not sure that will be very insightful.

That's not to say we can't think of some way to test the system which does work - I'm sure smarter and more knowledgeable people than me can think of something. But that brings us to problem number 2 - now what? Let's say people got it wrong. What do you do? It's not like you can just change the way trials work - you need laws for that.

The most you can reasonably do is use trial tests as a basis for potentially changing the law, but that's before any politics gets involved. Realistically, I'm not sure you can do much more than gets done now - once in a while an article gets written about a specific bad practice, it causes a public stir, and the law maybe gets changed. I'm not sure systematizing any of the testing steps really changes anything else in this picture.

And we might as well ask about easier things, why don't we test them. I.e. why not test economic policies by building "test cities" which have different economic policies, and seeing which ones work? The States kind-of does this with different laws in different States. So there is kind of a natural experiment of the effect of different laws on economics, on justice, etc. This does affect some things, but I'm not sure the effect is very large (but then again, I'm not an American, so I'm not that up to date on the politics there. It's certainly an idea that a lot of lip-service is paid to, but maybe it's more than that).

> I.e. why not test economic policies by building "test cities" which have different economic policies, and seeing which ones work?

I would be exactly behind this. See: the old definition of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technocracy

Part of the point of a jury is to have multiple disinterested individuals ruling on the defendant's guilt. That in itself forms a partial test of the process.

You could run a trial with multiple independent juries, or record a trial and play it back to a set of juries and judges to see if they come up with the same verdict and sentence. This would help determine whether a given jury has a particularly forceful and prejudiced member, or if a hanging judge is handing out unfair sentences.

I'd be surprised if that sort of thing doesn't already happen occasionally. However, all this does is indicate where a problem might be, rather than validate a potential solution.

A/B testing of potential enhancements would be very difficult and limited. There are too many confounding factors. Judge and jury would have to be different each time. Witness testimony may seem unconvincingly rehearsed, or more convincingly thorough, the nth time they give it. Defendants will be able to avoid incriminating traps the prosecuting barrister set in previous iterations of the trial.

Given the intese scrutiny the litigating side give to jury selection, I'd say that it is well understood that trials may go this way or that based on a particular jury and regardless of the facts

"3 wrong convictions a year out of 100k trials. Which would probably be pretty "acceptable"."

Not if you're one of the 3.

Another test which I think has been done on rare occasions is measuring the inter-rater reliability between different juries (which could be done by having several juries hear the same trial and then deliberating independently). (It's harder to do this with judges if the judges are also overseeing the trial and ruling on evidentiary and procedural matters.)

Wrongful convictions are a serious issue, but at the same time, I don't think that we could say, even if it were solved tomorrow, that everything else about the correctional system is fine.

> Come to think of it, why is the criminal justice system not "tested"?

I can think of a few.

1. That costs time and money. Even if it would help, I see it being very difficult to justify, essentially, "secret shoppers" for the court system. I think it also kind of underestimates how much time, money, and effort goes into trials. It's not like a quick batch of unit tests. It involves lawyers, judges, jury selection (if it's a jury trial), etc. And juries themselves are made up of people who have to take time off work, miss important events, etc. You can't just (somehow while avoiding detection) fake a trial, and then go "surprise, this was just a test!" At the very least it would just piss a lot of people off.

That's not to say that there's no way to make sure our legal system is functioning properly, it's just I don't think mock trials are the right approach. Currently, I believe, the rest of the court system is relied upon to police itself, with the help of the legislative branch. Different levels of courts, ostensibly, keep each other in check (e.g. if you disagree with a lower court ruling, you can appeal to a higher court, which then makes a decision, and if you don't like that, you can appeal to the Supreme Court, etc.) Congress also has the power to do things like create federal judgeships, so presumably they have other powers to regulate and manage the federal judiciary (state judiciaries are, I imagine, left to the individual states to oversee.)

2. Cynically, there are certain vested interests that want the legal system to function the way it does (e.g. people who own private prisons and people who profit off of minor drug offenders being put away for life). There's also good old fashioned racism and classism, helping keep the overwhelmingly poor, black prison population stuck where they are.

3. I don't think it would actually tell you much; there are too many variables: different lawyers, different judges, different jurors, different facts, etc. Even if you ran the same trial with the exact same people and circumstances, but on a different day or something, you could get wildly different results. The court system is not deterministic, not by a long shot.

The court system also doesn't deal in absolutes like that. It's not "is this person definitely guilty of a crime?", it's "are we sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this person committed a crime (based on all of the evidence)?" Because it's impossible to know the entire truth. Sometimes it's impossible to know much of anything at all, at least with certainty. Did OJ commit those murders? We'll never /know/ know in the sense that when I flip a coin I can see that it lands on heads, or in the sense that I know the earth is a spheroid (i.e. it's something that happened in the past and we're trying to determine exactly the series of events given limited information).

#1 is not important. Everything costs money, including appeals and cleanups when long-term corruption is uncovered. Adding 1% or 0.1% for integrity testing is trivially justifiable.

#2 and #3 are saying the same thing: The powers that be know the system is broken, and don't want to fix it, and therefore want to suppress evidence that shows the brokenness.

#1 is absolutely important. You can't just take valuable time and money from people to do "testing" that, in my opinion, wouldn't tell you anything anyway. It's insulting to all of the professionals involved, especially when they have a backlog of /real/ cases to get to.

But let's entertain the idea and say that you get the trial to happen, and your innocent person was found guilty, or vice versa. What do you do with this information? It doesn't help you because you know the outcome already, but in real trials, you don't know, a priori, exactly what happened (unless you were a witness to something, but even then). So a court messed up. What do you do? Real cases don't operate on some outside observer knowing, in advance, what's going to happen. It's why trials are, at best, a good faith attempt at figuring out what happened and dispensing justice appropriately. Everyone just tries, to the best of their ability (ostensibly; I'm ignoring things like biases and such), to piece together the truth, and render an appropriate judgement.

> 1. That costs time and money.

False convictions have a gargantuan cost in time, money, and human suffering.

Justice is incredibly important. We need to get it right.

I think almost everyone agrees with your generic statement above. I'm not sure this means anyone will agree on where the actual line is.

(Not that I think that money is the reason this doesn't get done).

> #1 is absolutely important. You can't just take valuable time and money from people to do "testing" that, in my opinion, wouldn't tell you anything anyway.

If you used this argument against something like TDD (in which a 15% extra upfront cost is more than paid for by a 60-90% reduction in produced bugs, according to the Nagappan paper), it would fall flat.

If you do it enough times you will get a picture of precision and recall, which IMHO would be an important determinant of effectiveness. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_and_recall

You want to do double blind, randomized, strictly controlled testing?

> elipsoid earth theory

Do you actually know this is true? Have you tested this?

You don’t have to bite the donut to know it’s sweet.

I agree. That being said, the reason I tried to choose my words carefully is that, in this instance, I think your point mainly functions as a distraction. I agree that things like witness testimony are sub-par as numerous studies have shown, but that's also an issue wholly separate from the point I was trying to make and I felt like mentioning it would be more of a distraction than a boon with regard to highlighting that there is a difference between being guilty and deserving to be imprisoned and purposely making life needlessly hellish for the inmates.

People seem to be incredibly judgemental and lacking in compassion for people in different circumstances.

There are a lot of people out there who haven't been exposed to drugs who believe that people who take drugs actually deserve to die. Recently in New Zealand several people ended up in hospital after taking dodgy "MDMA", the sheer number of comments on Facebook about how they had it coming, or they deserved it, or how they shouldn't have been admitted into hospital were disgusting.

Regardless of whether they did was right or wrong, these are still human beings, they still have friends and families. Just the other day I walked past a dead heroin addict being wheeled into an ambulance. They had it coming to them, but I didn't feel like they deserved it. Nobody deserves to die on a street corner from an overdose.

It's the same thing with prison. Out of sight, out of mind. If people have never met someone who has gone to prison, then to them it's an abstract concept. They can't imagine the pain or suffering. I've met a couple of people who've served time for drug related charges. Neither of them wanted to commit the crimes they did, but they hit rock bottom. When you're addicted to methamphetamine, you don't exactly think clearly or logically.

But people don't see this. They see the world through the lens of their own reality and their own circumstances. It's the same thing that causes wealthy people to say that poor people just need to get better jobs. They have no concept of the world that these people live in.

I think the lack of sympathy for addicts doesn't come from the assumption that they can just stop being addicts or have a rational behavior once they became addicts, but from the thinking that they became addicted of their own free will when they started taking hard drugs. It's not like the dangers and consequences of drug addiction aren't widely known. Actually I can only think of a handful of Hollywood movies where hard drug consumption isn't associated with becoming a junky. People take bad decisions, it's a free world, let them live, but they own the consequences down the line.

Addicts are people and deserve help, sure. Most of the hate towards them comes from their bad behavior and how that affects other people. Deathwishes are just one way to cope with the inability to actually do anything about, say, noisy or violent drug addicts or criminals who don't care about other people.

I haven't seen one "noisy violent drug addict" in my life. I am not saying they don't exist, but the vast majority of drug users or even addicts are not discernible as such. Anyway, that is my European perspective.

Mine is a european perspective, too. And most of these people really have nothing left to lose apart from taxpayer paid welfare -> ordinary civility is absent, disputes are unnegotiable. (Unless you want to have your property / home / loved ones sabotaged.). Personality disorders are rampant. You not looking close enough is not a solution to the drug problem.

You don't have a "European" perspective. You have a wherever-you-are-from perspective, and potentially a whatever-you-choose-to-see one too. I'm from Ireland, we have noisy violent junkies, amongst others less noisy and less violent.

Adjusting that to match what I know:

If people have never met someone who has LOST A CHILD TO MURDER, then to them it's an abstract concept. They can't imagine the pain or suffering. I've met a couple of people who've LOST THEIR CHILD.

That daughter can never be replaced. The father just about bankrupted himself traveling 1500 miles each way to be at the court for every hearing. It's been over a dozen years, largely fighting over the issue of being fit for trial. There has been a conviction-turned-mistrial related to the killer having a disagreement with his court-assigned lawyer over his plea. The killer refuses to take medication and may be of questionable sanity. He is likely to go free soon. The father still shows up to court, older and poorer every time, dedicating his life to keeping the killer locked up by keeping the prosecutor and judge aware that somebody cares.

You're lacking in compassion for people like that broken forever-grieving father when you argue for less punishment.

One is not lacking in compassion for the father by also wishing to improve the situation of the murderer.

Compassion is not a zero-sum game.

Being deprived of your freedom is punishment enough. That should be easy to accept for any libertarian and even many conservatives (the ones with libertarian tendencies).

Anything beyond that is just adding insult to injury and only serves to reflect badly on the correctional system itself. For instance, I don't understand under what logic prisoners absolutely need to have their stuff chucked out on a regular basis. It serves to do what, besides further humiliate people who are already driven into the ground?

You fuck up once and then your whole life goes in the shitter? What sense does that make? Whom does it benefit?

It benefits nobody, that is what makes it evil.

Isn't the question why voters are so cruel? Why do American Christians only make headlines when they preach hatred against the LBQT community?

It benefits the people in power. It benefits corporations who need cheap exploitable labor, or directly profit from the operation of the prison industry. It forces people into low paying menial jobs that keep large companies profitable. It serves a political purpose by scapegoating and marginalizing minorities. It fills the pockets of politicians who help to expand the system and cater to the military-industrial complex that perversely feeds on inequality. I don't think there is a system of oppression or economic control in existence that doesn't benefit somebody, directly or indirectly.

> It benefits nobody, that is what makes it evil.

I heard you like to manufacture jeans and number plates. How about I pay you to house some workers you hardly have to pay to do the work?

Yes, I would say that for many people, breaking laws carries a moral charge. Therefore prisoners are necessarily bad people, and deserve bad things (of course, people rarely extend this judgement to their own law-breaking, like speeding, jay-walking, etc.) And all of this when you could ask them where laws come from, if they can be changed or repealed and they'd agree they are just provisional. I think this attitude is mostly a developmental stage that has to be moved beyond - we are taught from an early age to follow rules, and only in adulthood do we potentially understand that sometimes it's better not to, or even morally necessary not to.

I mean, the very idea that prison rape jokes are widespread is illustrative of a certain barbarism in our collective thinking.

If we afren't looking to rehabilitate then we should focus on reducing the cost of capital punishment & begin executing inmates

The reason we don't execute inmates isn't because Americans want rehabilitation, but because they recognise that the Law isn't infallible, and sometimes Innocent people go to jail, and to that end, you can't really have take-backs for an execution.

But you're right about cost reduction. I think it costs somewhere around $40k per year to incarcerate an inmate, so how about we just pay them? We can literally put them in a flatshare, feed them and water them, and it'll still be cheaper than putting them in jail.

The plural of anecdote is anecdotes. Anecdatum does not exist.

They're in jail - not a vacation.

And? People realize they are in prison by the sheer lack of freedom of self. Does that somehow mean that we need to punish them for years and years after their sentence? Do we need to give folks psychological disorders or make them suffer physically as well?

Who would you rather have as your neighbor: A person in a human prison that has had the help they need, including a push towards becoming a good neighbor - or someone that has been mistreated, tortured, and/or made to be a slave (prison labor) for what could be years, and then punished so severely when they get out that they have trouble meeting their parole duties without resorting to illegal activities?

I don't know about you, but I'd rather live next to the first. Most prisoners are future neighbors. Most are someone's family member. Wouldn't it be prudent to do what we can to make the person an upstanding member of society?

“But the former might stay your neighbor, whereas the latter will be back in soon, no worries"

I fully agree with you, just filling in for the crazy side.

Do you think petty cruelty towards prisoners makes society safer and reduces recidivism?

I think for many people (not sure about the OP in particular) that's beside the point, because the goal is pure punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Sure and restricting prisoners' freedom is distinction enough such that no one would confuse the two. If prison is meant to have a correctional role, to rehabilitate people and prepare them to reenter society successfully, it needs to be more than a building to house people organized around capricious rules that infantilize the population.

I would be in support of their treatment if it actually reduced recidivism, but punitive measures only work up to a certain point. Then recidivism starts going back up. Of course it also doesn't help how poorly we treat ex-prisoners once they've paid their debt to society.

We need to dump our gut feelings on the subject of incarceration and craft policy based on evidence and effectiveness instead.

At the prison I was in (northern Indiana), dice were banned as "tools for gambling" -- yet playing cards were OK. Yea, it didn't make sense to any of the staff either.

We carved our own out of bars of "state soap" (the cheap Barker brand inmate soap that gets distributed in just about every institution). We carved out the little divots on each side for the numbers and used Kool-Aid to stain them. Some of the older guys who had been incarcerated for a long time were so good at making them[1] that they were damn near indistinguishable from the real thing until you felt them of course (they were made out of soap after all). They actually rolled fairly true as well.


1: they could also carve out some very intricate chess pieces. I mean these were damn near works of art. You couldn't use state soap for those though, it's far too thin and brittle. You needed the good Ivory-brand stuff from the commissary.

What did they carve with?

I can only speak for what I saw done first-hand. Some guys used their own shanks/shivs/whatever you want to call it, basically any old piece of metal. This was obviously done in their cells on their own. Much more frequently [and out in the open] though was guys using the plastic butter "knives" that came in the dinner trays (think KFC, individually wrapped sets of 1 plastic spork, 1 wetnap, and 1 plastic butter knife with a kinda serrated edge - though still dull as all hell). For doing the divots we used the end-tip of the long piece on the cap of a typical old-school style Bic pen - this worked extremely well and quick.

you had bics? like these?


at school we used those as dices directly, notches on each of their six sides, making them roll in a bunch was random enough.

Close, but they were more the "older" style Bic pens from WAY back in the days. These:


The end of the piece that sticks out from the cap worked just like a tiny plastic shovel

We carved our own knives out of bars of "state soap" .

Who carved the first soap knife and what tool did they use?

It's bars of soap all the way down.



I guess I can understand the dice ban (sort of?) but the fact that some prisons have apparently have banned games like D&D altogether is bizarre to me. It seems like a healthy, relatively peaceful way to pass time and do something creative. I can't see it having a negative effect that other prison activities don't already make possible.

D&D and similar have a really negative reputation in some circles, including religious groups.

I was a gamer in my teens. One younger member of the group was probably being given a hard time by his religious family for being a gamer. He was often absent from gaming sessions.

The weekends he was absent consistently included stories like a drunken car wreck, and now he has a broken leg, or a wild party where some gal says he is the daddy and he has no idea if he even slept with her.

I never could fathom why his family didn't just tell him to go gaming every weekend. We fed him free food, used no drugs or alcohol and drove him home safe.

But we were Satan worshippers, I guess, because we gamed. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Do you think this is a representative sample or a bizarre situational experience?

There was a widespread moral panic over D&D back in the 1980s. A lot of Christians sincerely believed that D&D was a recruitment tool for satanism. Well into the 1990s, many evangelical groups were producing materials warning that D&D inevitably leads to witchcraft, murder and suicide.



Damn I really wish I could title the book, it is on the tip of my tongue but I read the same thing.

What I found abhorrent is that the people interviewed in that book, ended up being prescribed meds by good professional Christian Doctors using all means to change their paths from evil. To avoid D&D as it was the devils work.

I would say that those parent's were mentally ill and/or uneducated and that the doctor's were mentally ill and/or uneducated.

Alas, religion.

You are probably thinking of


Yes, this was in the 80s. I'm old.

Thank you.

I think I read that the makers of D&D removed/renamed things like demons and devils as a result.

They pulled them out of AD&D second edition for this reason [1]. In third edition they brought the words "demon" and "devil" back though, and they're still there in the latest edition.

[1] https://archive.org/stream/DragonMagazine260_201801/DragonMa...

I remember it being pushed by the 700 club. And the problem was that nobody knew what it really was.

Beware. "sincerely" is generally a term used to give irrational religious beliefs undeserved weight over (s-called) "mere" rational choices.

Interesting observation.

There's no functional difference between "sincerely" believing something that isn't true, and just plain old normal "insincere" believing something that isn't true.

Ever hear of the Jehovah's Witnesses? Ever hear how people who managed to pull themselves out of that looney bin talk about the way they view the outside world and especially games like DnD?

It's more common than you think.

Nothing in that comment surprised me and made me wonder if that kid was raised in a JW household before finally getting out of the house and turning hard into the party life. It's way too common of a story, kids raised under the thumb of the Watchtower Bible and Tract society going off to college, not having the church on their backs constantly, and practically cannonball into the party lifestyle that they'd been sheltered and repressed from their entire teenage years.

I know because I was one of those kids.

I don't know if it was a JW household. Poverty stricken single mother, iirc.

This was in Georgia, deep in The Bible Belt. Hellfire and Brimstone types seem to vastly outnumber the Christians who read the parts of the Bible about love thy neighbor and judge not lest ye be judged.

I've known sincere Christians that I respected. I have known a lot more that make me think of the passage about someone telling Jesus "Someday, people will do things in your name" and he replies "And I will say I never knew them."

What passage was that one?

Matthew 7:21-23

> Ever hear of the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Yes, known some even.

> Ever hear how people who managed to pull themselves out of that looney bin talk about the way they view the outside world and especially games like DnD?

I've seen mixed reactions, from participating, to seeing it as time wasting, to seeing it as prohibited because of the use of dice (some JWs view the gambling prohibition to extend to all dice), to seeing it as undesirable because of content (specifically fantasy occultism), to stronger negative reactions based on the same kind of myths that originated and were, AFAICT, more popular in fundamentalist / evangelical mainstream American Christianity.

When I briefly attended church in Germany while hosting games at home for my husband who still played, one gamer consistently got up on very little sleep to go to church on Sunday morning. Where I would then listen to the preachers talk about what evil pieces of shit we were.

Meanwhile, every single gamer who left Germany came to my apartment to tearfully say goodbye because gaming at my apartment was an escape from eating at the mess hall and getting drunk at bars. It was the only thing that kept them sane and not an alcoholic.

I don't know about most gaming groups, but where I have been, it's a bastion of civilization in an otherwise cold, cruel world.

I cannot relate to any of this, but the clergyman’s approach / perspective definitely seems bizarre.

Gaming has much to offer, as does the social scene at a bar. Where I’ve been these two aren’t at odds. I wonder why they have been in your experiences - maybe it’s the military scene (referencing where you said mess hall).

My ex was a soldier. These guys were soldiers stationed in a foreign country.

In the US, soldiers are mostly not locals and spouses have a hard time getting a job because everyone knows you will move again in two or three years. But they want your money.

At our first duty station, the landlords were raising rent every three months until a General threatened to build enough on base housing to kill the local rental market. Suddenly, they had an agreement with the local landlords and the active gouging stopped.

Another story I heard: They paid all the soldiers in cash in two dollar bills, then had a meeting with local merchants and suggested they count what percentage in their tills was in two dollar bills and rethink their approach to some things or get blacklisted by the base.

In a foreign country, the degree to which a soldier is met with open animosity while everyone wants their money is typically more bald faced than in the US, where it is bad enough. These guys could not trust that local women were really interested in dating them for any reason other than their money or a green card. Going to a bar was not a very good means to establish social contacts.

Or so I gather from what I was told.

> These guys could not trust that local women were really interested in dating them for any reason other than their money or a green card.

Local German women interested in a green card? Sounds unlikely.

There was a time when a green card was definitely something desirable. For some people it still is.

Marrying a soldier was a fast and surefire way to get one, so I can quite well imagine that.

> In a foreign country, the degree to which a soldier is met with open animosity while everyone wants their money is typically more bald faced than in the US, where it is bad enough.

Where in the US are soldiers met with open animosity? The military and soldiers are glorified to an extreme, in my experience.

Groups of young men who live in isolation are rarely given a particularly high default trust rating.

> the landlords were raising rent every three months

That's illegal. Maybe it wasn't back then, since I have no idea what timeframe you're talking about, but it has been for some time.

That context makes sense.

People believe all sorts of things.

One devout partner implored me to stop meditating (during my Zen & Buddha kick) because she didn't want me to succumb to Satan. Another believer partner educated me about ghosts (tl;dr: they're every where). A coworker told me my cancer was caused by negative thoughts and that germ theory was a conspiracy.

Whaddya gonna do?

My fear is that I'm unknowingly harboring some wildly irrational beliefs.

My ex- told me that I had to stop believing in gravity because it's just (her) God pushing down on us. That's why mountains don't pull you towards them. (She cried when I told her about the experiment where just this thing was tested and it was found to be untrue, said something about Satan.)

A friend once told me that meditation allows demons to take over your mind and make you crazy. This guy has a physics PhD, and not only believes this but also that global warming is an evil communist conspiracy designed to steal our freedoms. Not precisely his words, but close enough.

A good friend was told by his girlfriend that she couldn't marry him unless he converted and joined her church. Another of my friends was a member of that church, and won't talk about his time there (he's really messed up, and if you touch him accidentally he almost loses it) but tells me that it's all about control and power.

> My fear is that I'm unknowingly harboring some wildly irrational beliefs.

I have very much the same fear. I know I have held stupid beliefs ("depression isn't real, harden up!" was particularly ironic, as I was depressed, didn't know it, and that attitude was a result).

> My fear is that I'm unknowingly harboring some wildly irrational beliefs.

The beauty is, that makes you uniquely able to identify and eradicate them.

I've said some bullshit things before, people have called me out on them. I usually defend them for way too long. That's called being human.

When people keep calling me out, with facts, I don't always immediately concede but I do think about it, and sometimes I realize I'm being an idiot.

It would be nice if I was constantly afraid my beliefs were stupid. Conviction requires additional convincing.

There’s some weak evidence that stress is linked to cancer. It might not be true, but the idea isn’t ridiculous on its face.

True. But I needed more than positive thoughts to put my disease into remission.

U.S. jails/prisons are designed specifically to make the inmate's life as miserable as they are allowed to by law. Trust me, if jails/prisons could ban books or commissary, they would. What you describe is what the Swedish prison system is all about. https://mic.com/articles/109138/sweden-has-done-for-its-pris.... This is a system designed to make people not only pay for their crimes but to help them rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. Pretty much the polar opposite of the US system of mass incarceration with a revolving door attached to the end.

>if jails/prisons could ban books...

They sorta have. If you want to send a book to an inmate, it must be paperback, must be brand new, and shipped from the retailer.

The books cannot have "controversial" material. I've heard of some tech books getting rejected because of "hacking".

I know all of this because I have participated in my local Anarchist Black Cross events which is a prison abolition group. Often times, we would hear about some of the prisoners we wrote to having to undergo solitary confinement for some amount of time for minor rule violations.

The US prison system as a form of rehabilitation is a cruel joke. Prisoners are treated as scum the moment they enter with no rights. Worse, when prisoners leave, they expect the inmates to adjust back to life normally while employers can discriminate against the former inmates, and the government still treats them like scum. Often times, former inmates can't even rent housing anymore and political/social elites act so surprised that homelessness is on the rise.

The US prison system is largely a loophole to recreate slavery without violating the letter of the 13th Amendment. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/gilmoreprisonslavery...

Despite black Americans being incarcerated at greater rates than white Americans, there are far more white Americans incarcerated than there are black Americans.

So if the objective was to re-create slavery, they did a very poor job out of it.

No, our prison system hurts all races: white, black, Asian, native, etc. And sadly -- because of the racism prevalent in US society -- if we want true prison reform, we have to educate people that prison affects all communities, and not just communities of color.

Because there will never be reform as long as around 30% of America's white population believes that prison mainly hurts black people.

Just like it took heroin to finally wake white Americans up to the fact that the drug war is hurting us all, so we must find a way to wake people up to the fact that the prison system is terrible burden to us all. Repeating the false claim that prison is primarily a black problem only prolongs the problem.

OP never said anything about race or incarceration statistics -- he just said the prison system is a mechanism to recreate slavery. To Americans, the word "slave" has a very, very particular meaning -- revolving around the nature and history of black people in our country.

But it should not, and can not, not be divorced from the abstract concept of what slavery is. Slavery is about power, and slaves come in many forms and fashions. And if you forget that, you'll be made a slave yourself. You don't have to be in chains to be one. This is what OP is referring to -- not that prisons and their systems seek to reintroduce "black american slavery", but to reintroduce, and normalize, the abstract concept of 'slavery' in society, all on its own. That's much more dangerous.

You see it in a lot of places where people talk about the lives prisoners lived, during and after release -- go check the comments on any news article. You'll see how many people think it is "just" that said convict has their entire being and life crushed. That it's good, good that they're a slave, in return for the crimes they committed.

This isn't really very different from what you're saying, in a sense -- that everyone is set back when we lose track of these things. But the difference between "slave" meaning "black american slaves" and "slave as a concept" is an important distinction to draw. There's an important ontological gap, there.

Frederick Douglass took note of this well over 150 years ago:

> The power of the antebellum slaveholding class, after all, resided not only in its direct domination of black slaves, but in its ability to divide and exploit an even larger multiracial working class. Douglass knew how well this system worked from bitter personal experience: As a hired slave in Baltimore, he was assaulted by white dockworkers with bricks and handspikes. Yet he remained clearheaded about who benefited from this racial violence. As he wrote in 1855: “The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself…. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.”


> OP never said anything about race or incarceration statistics -- he just said the prison system is a mechanism to recreate slavery.

He used the term "recreate slavery", which in this context would mean to re-establish the chattel slavery of people of African ancestry that existed previously in US. And the article he referenced very specifically discussed African-American slavery. So that's what I responded to.

As an aside, Americans of Scotch-Irish [1] ancestry (which includes my own background) are a very vengeful people. This culture, which also has some positive traits (bravery, loyalty, etc), had a huge impact on the general culture United States and its attitudes toward criminal justice.

But if you've never been around rural people of Scotch-Irish ancestry, you'd probably find their beliefs on justice fairly shocking. These are the people who often believe that if someone who goes to prison for a relatively minor, non-violent offense, and is raped in prison -- even if they're a family member! -- that this person "had it coming" or "deserved it". Prison is for suffering, not redemption.

Ironically, these same people are frequently very overt Christians, often evangelicals (they converted en masse from Calvinism--typically Presbyterianism--to Baptist during the great awakenings of the 19th century). But they're definitely Old Testament Christians, with not much use for most of the New Testament (except perhaps Revelations).

Anyway, combine that kind of culture with some of the other factors you describe, and you end up with the prison culture we have today in the United States.

1. And no, for us it's not "Scots-Irish". "Scotch-Irish" was in common usage when they immigrated to the US in the 18th century, and that's what's been passed down over the years (and it's how my grandparents described our ancestry, which after careful genealogical study was indeed Ulster Scots with a bit of German thrown in): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch-Irish_Americans

Slavery isn't entirely synonymous with racism. Just mostly so.

The elite need their lower class.

Yep, racism came later. Racism developed to justify slavery. Slavery didn't come into being due to racism.

I wouldn't be so definitive, but if anyone wants to see an excellent documentary on the subject, watch 13th (after the 13th Amendment):


I'll add a couple of common arguments that at least get you thinking, even if they aren't as powerful as evidence.

First, note that mass incarceration began after segregation and other civil rights abuses were outlawed. One ramped down and the other ramped up. Many believe that one tool of oppression merely replaced another.

Second, the legal and prison system have always been used, since the Civil War, to oppress black Americans. Mass incarceration wasn't a new tool, but an expansion of an old one. And it extends into today, as has been well-publicized recently. Or I'm sure everyone has heard the phrase, 'driving while black'. I've personally witnessed that kind of abuse.

In addition to the general prohibitions, Texas have an explicit list of banned books. Reproductions of it have appeared in the media but there is no way of knowing the current up to date list. And many states claim that book deliveries are a source of contraband and impose restrictions on them (max 2 books at a time etc)

If you don't lock criminals away in miserable conditions, victims and their family members turn toward private punishment. People will get revenge. It can be official, with a proper trial and all, or it can be unofficial, with the victim's family dishing out whatever sort of justice they prefer. The whole reason for a criminal justice system is to satisfy people who would otherwise take matters into their own hands.

There are a heck of a lot of people who would do it, and nearly every potential victim has a family member who would insist on doing the dirty work.

Most US prisoners are there because of victimless drug crimes.

Some fundamentalist Christians are convinced that D&D is occult, a gateway to Satanism and demonic possession, a cause of suicide, etc. I wonder if any prison administrators share that belief system, which might contribute to a decision to ban D&D.

I think it's more a matter of people using their authority over prisoners to satisfy their sadistic power fantasies.

...Which they could probably satisfy less destructively with role-playing. The irony is extra ferrous.

As illustrated in the well known documentary "Mazes and Monsters" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpcL-fQNPfQ

There's a memorable chick tract on the same theme as well.

The girl in it casts the Mind Bondage spell on her Dad to make him buy $200 worth of D&D stuff.

I was rather incredulous at the time because

a) they thought it was the case that spells in D&D work in our reality


b) there didn't appear to be a Mind Bondage spell.....unless perhaps they meant Charm Person?

What's their take on Stranger Things?

I've heard similar stories of people thinking the Harry Potter books taught kids how to use real magic.

They do; they contain role models that suggests kids should think for themselves...

As far as pastimes go it seems pretty innocent, but I guess one could argue that because jail is supposed to be punishment time passing actives aren't a priority (not saying I do or do not agree with that stance).

That’s probably the problem. Jail/prison should primarily be for reform, not pusnishment. If I punish without helping you change, I’m only telling you to not get caught next time.

But how will the corporate prisons earn future profits if prisoners reform in jail?

Prison and wealth inequality are similarly socially inefficient. Human capital is our most valuable resource, and we systematically waste it by depriving people of the opportunity to improve themselves.

Hire them?

Way easier to pay them like $0.15/hour in prison than the federally-mandated minimum wage. (That number might be hyperbole, but prison wages, if they even exist where you are, are abysmally, illegally low. I believe some of them are indeed sub-dollar.)

20 years ago in Ohio, the average was $18 per month. But you could make (a little) more if you made clothes for the prison industry. And all that was spent on soap, toothpaste, and other necessities that the state didn't provide.

Slavery is protected by law under the 13th Amendment.

Yes, it doesn't apply in prison:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

I meant after they served their sentence...

The Reveal podcast did an excellent bit where an undercover reporter worked as a prison guard: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.revealnews.org/episodes/the...

One of the things that really struck me is that when the prison stopped offering programs to occupy the inmates time, they tended to fill it themselves. By getting into fights. So aside from the punishment aspect, there seems to be real value to the system to have pastimes that keep a lid on things, be they work programs, classes, or a cheap board game.

Your point is valid, but I disagree about the primary purpose of prison. The primary purpose is to protect broader society by removing bad actors. If you can also reform the prisoner, then that's a bonus.

That would be inefficient unless you plan on removing bad actors permanently. That would mean life-long sentence for all, even minor, infractions. This is obviously not sustainable. The goal is to remove bad actors by re-educating them to no longer be bad actors. It's the only viable alternative. The other goal is to punish bad actors, thus bringing justice back into balance.

I didn't intend for it to be either/or. If removing bad actors from the general population wasn't the first priority, then there wouldn't be prisons at all. There would only be fines, etc.

Criminal justice is for reforming but also deterring criminals.

If it were only for the former reason, capital punishment wouldn't exist.

Whether prisons are effective for deterrence is an empirical question.

As it turns out, they're not particularly effective. The people who go and hold up a convenience store aren't doing it because of a reasoned cost-benefit analysis based on risk of capture, differential value of prison vs freedom, and future discount rates. They're doing it because they don't do those things.

That leaves three real reasons: 1) Reform 2) Reducing society's exposure to criminal elements 3) Punishment as a moral good in itself, as a way to rectify injustice.

> The people who go and hold up a convenience store aren't doing it because of a reasoned cost-benefit analysis based on risk of capture, differential value of prison vs freedom, and future discount rates. They're doing it because they don't do those things.

Conversely, at least some percentage of the people who don't have made that cost-benefit analysis.

Plus some part of the people who go and commit felonies, mainly the young and naive, have made at least some basic cost-benefit analysis; they mistakenly think they'll be the leaders/tough ones in prison and it'll be okay.

I'm not a fan of the punitive prison model, but fear of consequences is a good deterrent.

(I sound like an uptight prick, but I'm speaking from experience. Then again, I've never been in a US prison, so I can't say much about them and I don't like what little I know)

...and the point is that the elasticity of crime with respect to punishment is minimal. You're saying those people exist, which is true and undisputed, but they're relatively rare and statistically insignificant, and not a useful angle for thinking about policy.

To add to this is a simple truism, "people commit crimes because they don't think they'll be caught". Sure, it's not always true, but it encapsulates a lot of the mindset.

>As it turns out, they're not particularly effective.

..In the US.[0]

Everything you say after that needs to be filtered through the same lens. You seem to be making a global statement about why people commit crimes without a lot of support for it.


I’m mostly in column 3) which is why I support severe punishment (eg death penalty for almost all murders) but also more focus on guilt assessment (all capital punishments require a second independent trial with higher burden of proof and greater restrictions on prosecution)

And yet, power blackouts, police strikes and natural disasters usually lead to outbreaks of looting and vandalism.

At least some proportion of the population are deterred by the possibility of being caught and punished.

The main question isn't "Is the prospect of jail a deterrent", but "Is the prospect of 10 yrs in jail more of a deterrent than the prospect of 1 year in jail". The USA has absurdly long sentences for crimes.

That was not the question I was responding to, which made no reference to the length of sentences. It argued that prisons were not an effective deterrent (i.e.: at all), moreover there seems to be a school of thought that we should never punish crime, at all.

I said nothing about adding ten years to sentence lengths. I don’t know, and don’t claim to know what the optimal length of sentence (or other punishment) is, except that it is not zero.

Of being caught. Police presence is the deterrent, not the potential punishment.

This seems weird to you because it's not how your mind works, but it's what the data indicates.

Exactly. People do not commit crimes with the expectation of being caught; it’s why the death penalty is terrible deterrence.

Capitol punishment is however a complete solution to recidivism for violent crime, undeniably.

Challenge accepted: I'll deny it.

It's only a "complete" solution if you actually have the right person.

Challenge defeated:

The term recidivism means "the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend."

Thus it only applies to the already convicted. If they weren't caught and convicted, and they reoffend, it's not recidivism.


This argument ignores the incredibly vocal anti-death penalty movement and the incredibly steep isolation of the United States in this regard compared to the rest of the world. We're having trouble implementing the death penalty in states that have it because other countries that make the drugs we use have sanctioned exports out of humanitarian concern. The United States is an international pariah.

Whether it works for deterrence is an empirical question, but the purpose and emphasis of the criminal justice system is changing constantly and is determined by the pressure of movements.

In any case, virtually every jurisdiction on earth has practiced capital punishment, now or formerly.

Characterizing rehabilitation as the overwhelming objective of human justice ignores very significant other objectives.

Capital punishment shouldn't exist.

I think that was the point. Capital punishment shouldn't exist (and doesn't in most first world countries).

I think that's a cynical view on their reasoning -- if anything prisoners not being bored is in their best interest in terms of keeping guards safe.

My guess is that a lot of problems stem from gambling debts -- you can allow cards and stem gambling a bit by preventing chips from being introduced (in whatever form). With DnD tracking across the game is important so it's not as easy to prevent a ledger from forming.

If we were solely concerned with punishment it would probably be far cheaper to sentence them to 20 lashes and send them on their way.

In high school we had one guy who was a bit of a sore loser, so I can see the guards not being remotely interested in getting in the middle of any gaming disputes. As the corrections officer quoted in the article stated mentioned, DnD is good for almost all people. What we have here is an abstraction of the gun control argument, if its good or harmless for 99% of the population, then we must ban DnD because one nutcase will flip the table and shank someone, probably the DM/GM. Back to my high school, the sore loser kid actually did punch the DM in the nose when they were both high school juniors, after the DM TPK'd the party because one of the other guys flirted with his girlfriend and the sore loser guy was indignant about being punished for it, yet people wonder why I didn't play DnD in high school with those guys...

As May wrote in the article, DnD was banned much as gambling was banned on premises at my high school, but as long as nothing bad happened and the participants were good people the ban was not enforced. The situation they're trying to avoid is inmate A shanks inmate B because B stole his heroin, and in the investigation, he's not dumb enough to mention H but is smart enough to ramble about B's chaotic evil necromancer screwing over the team (and what would you expect, anyway?). Likewise I grew up before Columbine when it was "normal" to build levels in FPS matching your school blueprint because, hey, we all know our school layout and there ARE some good camping points, and this is number 311613 on the list of fun things to do when I was young that would get you swatted or at least arrested today, back then if you weren't a screw up they complimented your obvious skill at possibly getting into CAD drafting. Anyway in a similar manner if players run the Rise of the Runelords campaign they're almost certainly in the clear, but if they make something up where the characters kill the wife or kid of castle guard X and then gloat about it and have a big laugh, then real world corrections officer coincidentally also named X is inevitably going to flip the table when he finds out regardless if its permitted or not and a documented policy that RPGs is prohibited is just the usual thin blue line stuff.

Pariahdog119's advice about simply play any RPG except the famous DnD, was also helpful in 80s public school. The more rules lawyerly kids who signed a pledge at church to never play DnD to prevent the devil from stealing their soul or whatever, were chill about the zillions of almost-clones of DnD that existed. The only name I remember from that era was "Castle Perilous" and it had a yellow cover with a pretty amazing ink drawing on the cover. And via the magic of google I found a link to a picture. I probably haven't seen that book in 35 years or so. Pretty wild. Oddly enough I don't remember any of my public school textbooks but I remember "Castle Perilous" LOL. In that book there is a dungeon raid and I DMed it with some friends and my now long since deceased grandfather, insisted on playing with us to make sure I wasn't up to anything inappropriate as he had heard of the DnD controversy, and he ended up enjoying the RPG experience greatly, and in retrospect I wish I had invited him to other RPG games. That was probably about 1982 or so.


I ran D&D games as a DM for the entire time I was in prison. Socially challenged inmates tend to gravitate towards those games, and I welcomed them into the group. D&D was a great way to help them learn to interact and work with others.

We used a cardboard spinner with a push tack for the pivot.

If people want to gamble they'll find a way. It's not like you can prevent random events from occurring.

Disappointing to hear that some prisons are cracking down on D&D, like the Idaho State Correctional Instutition whose rules are quoted ITA. It seems like a productive outlet to me. Locking someone up for a few years with nothing interesting to do sounds like a good way to make someone come out the other end worse than they were before.

> Locking someone up for a few years with nothing interesting to do sounds like a good way to make someone come out the other end worse than they were before.

Given the (growing) number of private, for-profit prisons - that would be seen as a feature, not a bug. Because if they leave worse off, they'll likely be returning - thus generating a steady income stream courtesy of taxpayers.

Cynical, yes - but likely true.

Things like this don't even have to be someone's concious evil plan. The system simply selects prisons that do this over the long term because they will tend to be more profitable and more likely to survive and be able to build more jails and lobby more politicians for contracts.

Private prisons with the right incentives would be the way to go. If instead of only being paid for each prisoner they housed they were paid for each prisoner that did not come back then they would be a lot more interested in rehabilitation and reform. Private prisons would do things like set up job programs for prisoners and lobby for law changes that made it hard to send ex-prisonsers back to jail for trivial infractions.

Private systems in general are more responsive to incentives than public systems and less likely to be captured by vested interests (e.g. prison guard unions). If used wisely (i.e. with appropriate incentives) they can be a huge force for good.

Of course the actual incentives used are terrible so end result is an amplification of all the bad aspects of the prison system :(

Do you have any info on the growing aspect of private prisons.

The last time I looked they were statistically insignificant. Even then I don't agree with the concept but if my hazy memory is correct it was close to 5 percent

> Broken down to prison type, 19.1% of the federal prison population in the United States is housed in private prisons and 6.8% of the U.S. state prison population is housed in private prisons.

> the overall trend over the past decade has been a slow increase

> In the past two decades CCA has seen its profits increase by more than 500 percent.[22] The prison industry as a whole took in over $5 billion in revenue in 2011.[23]

> A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice asserts that privately operated federal facilities are less safe, less secure and more punitive than other federal prisons


Gotta say, reading that made me more disappointed in my state than I already am. I honestly have no idea why such activities would be banned, can't even make the private prison argument since it's run by the Idaho Department of Corrections.

I have fond memories of playing D&D in the barracks with my fellow "volunteers" during US Army basic training. For those not aware, the conditions for enlistees are very similar to prison. We made a d20 out of wadded up toilet paper and a sharpie that had to be kept hidden until late at night. Our "rulebook" consisted of the hazy memory of our DM who had memorized most of 5E (He also had a separate project going at the time of writing down word for word the entire script of LOTR: Return of the King in a notebook, from memory, to pass the time.). It's one of the few things that kept me sane during that time.

This reminds me of the semi-relevant story about the first translation of "The Hobbit" to Hebrew: four fighter pilots who were POWs in Egypt from 1970 to 1973 decided to translate the book so that their non-English-speaking friends could enjoy it too. It took them 4 months, and filled 7 notebooks. Even though their translation was not a professional one, it got published in 1977 and became pretty popular.

I was waiting for the article to mention using those 6 sided pencil stubs in the first image as dice. Seems like a good way to disguise a die.

We used these at school. We punched indentations in the sides using a compass point. Obviously that isn't going to work in prison, but you could make marks with a fingernail easily enough. (Of interest, note how the pencil is short in the photo - makes it harder to use as a shank.)

Surprised that prisons ban dice but not cards which can be used to substitute for dice.

Interestingly some of the early board games used spinners as dice where seen as sinful, normally by the more hard core protestants.

Well obviously dice are sinful, because they're made from platonic solids and that Plato guy was a pagan. Maybe those cylindrical ones are ok, though.

This brought to mind the fact that in Japan, cards were considered to be the more pernicious influence on gambling, which eventually led to a card deck that was pessimized for gambling[0]. Of course, people can gamble on anything they can play, so it didn't exactly work.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanafuda

Apparently puritains and others of that ilk regarded dice as instruments of the devil

Which is interesting because in the Old Testament, "casting lots" was considered an appropriate way to divine God's will [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleromancy#In_Judeo-Christian_...

This fits with the recent serie of articles about ancient dice probabilities.


In summary, even if the old dice were not fair, it was not an issue because they were a manifestation of the divine.

I'm ready to take the hit for asking a very stupid question: why are dice considered contraband?

Wouldn't it make more sense to allow inmates access to dice and real spinners? They're human beings with brains. Wouldn't correction officers prefer that they spent their time playing games instead of thinking of ways to escape or "cause trouble"?

The prisons want to ban gambling and currency counters (coins, chips, etc) in order to disrupt the rise of debt-based gang activity.

"The house always wins" turns a prison into an organized structure of debtors and owners fairly rapidly, I'd imagine. And you can't fault the far fewer security guards from wanting to avoid a face-off with a unified enemy.

> The prisons want to ban gambling and currency counters (coins, chips, etc) in order to disrupt the rise of debt-based gang activity.

Well, also because in most states gambling is itself (entirely or, at least, without a whole lot of bureaucratic compliance stuff) illegal, and it would be very odd to reverse that prohibition in prisons.

Well, there's no house in non-casino gambling; it's just in the nature of gambling that some people will lose and some people will win, and some people will borrow money to continue to play when they shouldn't. The only mechanism to force repayment of loans without government is violence or monopoly.

The only mechanism to force repayment of loans without government is violence or monopoly.

Nonsense. First, while this is phrased to position government as an alternative to violence, forcing repayment of loans with government involves both violence and a monopoly—a monopoly on "legitimate" violence being the main factor which all governments have in common. Second, government cannot be relied upon to force repayment of loans (e.g. they allow debts to be discharged in bankruptcy). Third, social pressure can effectively force people to repay their loans without resorting to violence. As things stand today, the main factor that keeps people from skipping out on loans is not the threat that the government might get involved, or a more general fear of violence, but rather the impact it would have on their credit score—in other words, the risk of acquiring a reputation as someone who does not repay their debts, and consequently losing access to future credit.

I was in both two large corporations and the Army all of which sometimes are disturbingly similar to prison.

The way the world works is someone does something stupid or incomprehensible where the most minor detail includes topic X. The report of the foolishness goes up the infinite hierarchy of micromanagers to someone who wants to make a statement to his superior of his great leadership skills by permanently "solving" the problem by banning whatever topic X is. Then months or years later the individual event of stupidity is long forgotten but the weird written order against topic X will remain for all eternity...

And cynically this is how a bill becomes a law forever

I can't find the relevant video clip, but it's from a school house rock parody

I think it was Stallman who described the basic politicians syllogism.

Something must be done

I am doing something

Therefore something is being done

Because craps and other dice games swing quickly and cause problems. Also the plastic can be sharpened into a point.

Because gambling is a moral failing, and prison is supposed to give inmates time to reflect on their moral failings.

Not sure my "scary" great great uncle who was an off course book maker in brumigum pre ww2 would agree with you

Then again not every one has quite the same take on peaky Blinders as I do ;-)

Well, they can't ban 1-bit random number generators (e.g. coins) and with a bit of time, you can simulate any of dice used in RPGs.

"With a thunderous roar, the colossal red dragon envelops the party in a cruel wave of fire! You each take 24d10 damage, but while I'm sitting here flipping this coin six hundred times please do let me know if you make your reflex save for half..."

If you converted the rules to be powers of 2, each coin representing a binary digit, it shouldn't be too bad

24d10 becomes 0-240, so change it to 0-256 and you've got 8 flips (8d2?)

Distribution won't be correct but hey, 8 flips

I didn't know the central limit theorem when I played D&D, but it's interesting how massively different those two distributions are -- 24d10 versus a uniform 24-240 distribution.

24d10 is 24 independently rolled d10's, that means we convolute the uniform distribution with itself 24 times and the result will be nearly indistinguishable from a scaled bell curve.

Edit: Click the “Graph” button here to visualize: http://anydice.com/program/4ddf

I'd like to just add a shoutout for the word "convolve" as the verb referring to this particular action of convolution.

Ah that's nice. I took the relevant course in Swedish, where we use the German loan word "Faltung" (turns to faltning in Swedish) for this operation.

Four flips can get you 16 outcomes of course, rerolling values out of bounds means you need 4*16/10 = 6.4 amortized flips to generate a d10, or ~154 total to get 24d10.

For large dice counts like that, it's probably better to just use a manual table for a bell curve based on ~8-10 flips. No human player is going to care about result fidelity beyond a thousand possible results anyway.

Actually I'm realizing a much more efficient (but still simple enough to be practical) way to generate d10 results is to do them in pairs. Do seven flips to generate a binary number to be interpreted as a "percentile" result in the range 00-99, rerolling on 100-127, then treat the two digits independently.

That gets you to 4.48 amortized flips per d10.

Why stop there? If you switch to triples (10 flips, reroll on 1000-1023) then you can get an amortized cost of about 3.4 flips per d10. That's very close to the ideal outcome of log2(10) ~= 3.32 flips.

Above 3d10 the rate of re-rolls increases; 20 flips for 6d10 gives a worse amortized cost than two sets of three.

Now if you just had a bit more time on your hands to work on this problem...

Well, you can re-flip on >240, with an expected number of flips to receive a number in the range being around 1/(1-15/256) ~ 1.062, so pretty close to just one 8-coin-flip (with some low probability of having to re-flip, which vanishes exponentially as the number of re-flips).

This has the guaranteed correct distribution ('correct' being 'uniform'), too!

EDIT: I guess, to be more clear about the algorithm: flip 8 coins and convert this result to binary. If the result is greater than 240, flip the eight coins again. The number of total 8-coin-flips that need to be done on average is something like 1.062, and the likelihood that you need to perform n 8-coin-flips to receive a result ≤ 240 vanishes exponentially as (15/256)^(-n).

24d10 has a normal-ish distribution. The scheme you suggest will produce a uniform distribution.

Oh, interesting, did not know that! I guess I only now just realized that 24d10 is 10 dice with 24 values (I just read the GGP and thought, oh 240 uniform is easy to make)... there's probably some nice way to emulate that with 1-bit RNGs in expected finite (ideally small!) time.

EDIT: I screwed up again, 24d10 is 24 dice with 10 values. Oops. Point is still roughly the same!

At most 8 flips. In many cases you'll be able to use less if you flip the most significant bits of your 8 bit number first. E.g., if you have 45 HP and the first flip is 1, you can probably stop flipping at that point.

24d10 would be miserable, even with dice. I takes approximately 4 coin flips to approximate a d10 (need to ignore values [10,15] and add one. This works out to ~100 rolls.

For the more common case of a d20, you could do 5 coin flips, but doing 6 instead gives you much more wiggle room. In that case, you only have to ignore values [60,63] so you only have a 1/16 chance of needing to redo the coin flips. It would be tedious but doable (particularly if you had some system where you could prepare rolls while waiting for your turn).

d4 = 2 flips guaranteed, definitely not bad. d6 = 3 flips expected. d8 = 3 flips guaranteed. d10 = 4 flips. d12 = 4 flips.

For something more typical but still nasty, a Fireball with 8d6 would take ~24 coin flips. Also, if I were a prison DM in this situation, I would probably take the time to homebrew the system so it only uses power of 2 rolls, i.e. d2, d4, d8, d16, and maybe d32. I would probably do d16 instead of d20 since d32 would be rolling 5 rolls quite often and a d16 is closer to a d20.

Overall, the difficulty would not be the coin flips but doing the math to keep track of everything.

Even if they restrict you from doing that, another option would be to do some sort of manual pseudo-rng. That option would probably be faster if you have access to a scientific calculator.

You can flip 600 coins once instead.

Slips of paper, write 1-20 (or whatever the die faces are) on them, shuffle them up, have people pick one. There's your randomness.

You could even insure an even distribution and have like 1-6 in there 4 or 5 times (if it's a d6), and don't return the slips back to the pile until the pile is depleted.

Or you can do what I've done for testing pen and paper game designs where a die wasn't handy, and do the above and write the series of results down in a list on a separate paper, and then refer to the next number in the list when you're playing.

I even did it where I put the numbers into several 4 by 4 square grids, and would simulate different games by picking the next number by from the grid but going from different directions (left, right, up, down, etc).

You have to put the slips of paper back if you want to simulate dice.

Yes, I didn't mention it but that's what you'd do in the first one. There are people that prefer dice get rolled more predictably (an even amount of 1s, 2s, 3s, etc), so you can just have a few sets of repeats and don't have them return the slips if you wanted that.

Some people get really mad with true randomness and think the system is rigged. Something I've learned when designing video games. Settlers of Catan have Dice Cards they sell for people who hate that "the 4 alwaaaaays gets rolled and my 8 didn't get rolled once, that's bullshit!"

Yes, coins -- all forms of currency, actually -- are banned.

Do some sort of simple pseudo-RNG then (DM seeds it obviously). Icky math, but you could probably just generate a bunch of rolls as part of your prep work.

Ok a leaf? Or a piece of toilet paper.

Scrabble tile, letter up vs. letter down. Bonus in that the flips may be done all at once and ordered alphabetically.

Even better, if you can come up with 5 flippable distinctive items you can simply set each as a bit and shake and flip them at once.

d4=2 bits+1, d6=3 bits rerolling 0/7, d8=3 bits+1, d10=4 bits rerolling 0/11-15, d12 similar, d20=5 bits rerolling 0/21-31. I suspect that most gamers could pick that up pretty quickly with just a bit of practice.

This is a refreshing read that I can relate to personally. I have never been to prison, but myself and a group of fellow soldiers played D&D in army basic training. We drew all maps on notepad paper, played using rules someone either recalled or made up on the spot, and carved bars of soap into dice. It always sticks out in my memory as a great example of how humans can figure out a way to find joy in an _extremely_ bleak environment.

This article is extremely well documented. It must have taken a lot of time to investigate the matter. It becomes rare enough to notice this!

Or they could simulate dice by each person picking a number, adding them all up, and then modding by 6 (+1). Could lead to interesting results methinks...

Someone mentioned playing cards were allowed and with a bit of math, card removal, and a lot of shuffling you can use playing cards as somewhat fair dice.

If you remove Kings and any Jokers you have 4 sets 1-12, which mod 6 gives you 8 sets of 1-6 in a single deck (an equivalent to 8d6 can go a long way). For less card math you could just use the 4 sets of face value 1-6 cards. If you replace cards every "roll" and fair shuffle, you have relatively fair dice.

Of course, trick shuffles are too easy an unfair advantage in that situation that I wouldn't suggest playing something like Craps or Yahtzee with Playing Cards, but could certainly be fair enough for a collaborative RPG environment. Similarly, card replacement and amount of shuffling could be relaxed in a RPG setting if the table agrees to allow "unfair" failure/success patterns (which can lead to interesting trade-offs to roleplay; I can succeed at this first die check, but already know I have to fail the next).

ETA: Playing cards and spinners are both mentioned in the linked article. The article describes using a deck for 1d20 as opposed to 8d6 as mentioned above, which makes sense given a D&D context.

This would be a variant of Odds and Evens (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odds_and_evens ), though Odds and Evens is kept honest by the fact that it's an adversarial game, so there's no point in players colluding to fix the outcome. To obviate any concerns of player collusion you'd need to ensure that the GM is one of the people picking the numbers, and once you've gone this far you actually only need two people to pick the numbers (the GM and one player), which will be just as random as having all players pick the numbers (setting aside the human tendency to pick "random" numbers non-randomly, which is hopefully mitigated by the adversarial nature of the choice). You'd also need some way for the adversaries to prove that they chose their numbers before the other number was revealed, which, as in Odds and Evens, you can do with your fingers (don't fret about the d20, you can count to 20 on your fingers with enough imagination).

I have never played any of these games, are some of them without competition? Like everyone is on the same side? It wouldn't work in that case. But all you need is one person picking numbers to be on an adversarial team in order for this to work.

The typical D&D game will have a group of players working as a team and exploring a monster-filled dungeon. A different person is the Dungeon Master and is responsible for crafting the plot of the adventure and presenting challenges to the players (monsters to battle, though choices to make, and so on). However, it isn't really an adversarial thing. A good DM doesn't "play to win" as their goal is to create the most fun experience for everyone.

Exactly. A good DM thinks up challenges that make players work together to succeed. If plot material is available, the DM doesn't necessarily have to be able to think that up, but it was by far the funnest part of being a DM for me.

I once ran a group adventure where the players' characters were hired by a noble to provide escort for his daughter to a distant kingdom. Along the way, in every town the players stayed, mysterious murders started taking place. Over the trip, authorities started to suspect the adventurers due to circumstances. This really rankled the players and when they discovered the noble daughter in their charge was an evil assassin having fun, they had a massive range of emotions to their reaction. Not only did they have to prove their innocence, they had to find evidence to do so. Some of the players were really torn - what would the noble father do to them if they turned the daughter over? What would happen to them if they didn't?

One interesting effect to running a good adventure in the prison was that a number of non-playing inmates wanted to hear about the latest gaming events, much like following a soap opera.

I was really surprised not to see this method in the article.

Comming from Norway where we have a very different attitude towards prisoners, I never cease to being amazed at the sheer pettiness towards prisoners in the US. Are they not supposed to have an ounce of enjoyment in life? A dice is contraband!!! Seriously!!

Is the point of prison to be miserable every single day? How is hating yourself, your life and everything every day supposed to make somebody a better person?

It often feels like the US is mentally speaking where we were 100 years ago in Norway. It is just bizarre how such a modern innovative country is so backwards with respect to how people are treated. Norway legislated national maternity leave over 100 years ago. It still doesn't exist in the US.

Somehow it seems like the US is regressing. Many of the progressive ideas we use came from the US originally. Liberal American professors have spread ideas which have benefited Nordic countries a lot, such as Harvey Milkman which solved the drug and subsistence abuse in Iceland.

There is an enthralling article in The Intercept by incarcerated hacker Barrett Brown about his time playing DnD and other RPGs in prison.

He also details the spinner:

> With unlimited paper and pencils provided by the federal government, we had everything we needed except for a set of variously sided dice. It turned out that this was generally handled by making a spinner out of cardboard, a paperclip, and the empty internal plastic tube from an ink pen. This latter item is impaled loosely on the paperclip, itself positioned in the center of the cardboard, on which has been drawn a diminishing series of concentric circles divided into 20, 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4 equal segments, respectively.


You can also use the last digit on a stopwatch stopped randomly (hundredth of a second), or open a book on a random page

I understand the dice ban somewhat, I mean, gambling is principally what they'd be used for, but why is chess of all things banned? Seems.. counterproductive.

We used to make them with toilet papier-mâché.

Just add water and push them into the corner of the locker. When it dries, put on dots and wrap it in clear tape to protect the dots.

Would not using cards (which appear to be allowed) be simpler

Even though the section on cards mentions that "many prisons" do allow them, what the article is trying to emphasize there is that playing cards can be used to simulate dice if the prison happens to allow them (while also implicitly demonstrating that the rules against gambling are often inconsistent and arbitrary). The implication seems to be that there are more prisons that disallow cards than that allow them, and indeed earlier on the article quotes a prison handbook that explicitly mentions cards as contraband.

Furthermore, even if cards are explicitly allowed by the rules, that doesn't mean that cards (along with pretty much anything else) can't be confiscated at any moment. For those instances, it's good to have a backup that involves materials that are always on hand.

No dice? Sounds like they'd be better off playing Diplomacy instead.

Personally, I would probably have just played a simple, diceless RPG, like Archipelago: https://norwegianstyle.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/archipelago-...

I did this in the 90s, we just used card and referenced a table for whatever card was drawn.

We used cardboard spinners. A thumbtack was pushed through and bent over to form the pivot. We got the cardboard from the back of notepads of paper. Concentric circles had equal divisions to form the d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 ranges.

Fascinating read, didn't know this was a thing in prison, but makes total sense.

Also, now have a few more ideas of how to get creative when pieces of games are missing. Creativity FTW.

When I was a teen I hung out with a SHARP crew in SoCal, we played D&D all the time. We had some members go to prison and they started up their own games inside.

Aren't dice and coins banned because they can be sharpened into a shiv? That would explain why cards are allowed.

If that were true though, then they wouldn't confiscate any of the makeshift dice, made of paper/cardboard etc.

Nah, sometimes stuff is confiscated just to make life more miserable for the inmates.

Some of those dice are beautifully designed--it wouldn't surprise me if people would buy them (if able).

I'm fascinated by this as a problem. I had an idea how to solve it. Books are not contraband and you can pick two random words from, say the Catcher in the Rye or to name a less controversial book, the Bible and use the first letter of each one to "roll the die". Wrote a small script that tries to balance the odds given the frequency of first letters of words in the English language (odds taken from [1]). Script can be found on Gist [2]. This can of course be adapted to provide tables for common probabilities (say 3d6 for example). All of the methods the prisoners are using is "good enough". Having a table that is not accurately 5% for each number should not be a problem. It will depend on the books used as well. Sample output:

    a  b  c  d  e  f  g  h  i  j  k  l  m  n  o  p  q  r  s  t  u  v  w  x  y  z 
 a  6 15 14 16 18  4 12 16 11  5  7 13  9  3  7  1 11  9  5  2  4 16 20 13 20 20 
 b 18 13  5 16  3 13  8  5 20  1 15 18 20 20  6 12  3  9  2 15 11  3  9  1 13 14 
 c 18 10 12  6  1 18  1  1 11 11  8 15 14 20 20 19 19 17 17 19 17 10  1  4  7 10 
 d 13  6  3 10 17 15 10 12  6 15 20  2 11  1  8  3  3  7 11 19  6  3 13  2  8 17 
 e  1  4 12 19 17 12 13  6  3 15  9 14 14  9 10 11 19  4 15 10 16  3 14  4  1  9 
 f  2  2  2 14  7  5  6 13 14 14 16 12 13 13  9  2  9 12 16 11 20  1 12  5 12 20 
 g 16  8  7  5  1 18 12  8  1 13 13  8 13  2 17 10 12  1  9 11 10 13  5 18 17 12 
 h 17 13  6 13 17 16 14  1 10  5  6 19 20  1  6 16 16 10  6 12  3 13 15 19 16  6 
 i 15 12 20  3  6 12  9 17  4  7  1  9 19  9 11  7  5  5  7  9 12  6  5  1  1 10 
 j 14 12 19 11  1 12 14 12 14 10 12  8 18  4  9  4 13  4 10 13  1  1  2 14 19 14 
 k 19  1  7 17  5  4 15  9 14  5  7  3  2 12 14 20 14 15  8 12 10  8  5 19 16  3 
 l  4 15  7  7  1  4  6  6 15 15 15 15  6 15  3 17  9  6 10 15 18 13 20 16 19 20 
 m 14 19 13 14 14  5 12  5 11  5 16  7 18 10 14 16 16 19  7  4  7 16 15  2 15  9 
 n 11  6 17 15  5  2 17 13 17  8  8 10 16  2 13  6  3  9 13  4 11 19  6 17 18  7 
 o 20 13  6  3  1 20  4  7  2 12 19  9 19  2  4  2 16  4  1 10 18 15 15 14  7  2 
 p 19 19 20  3  4  6 14 18 11  1 19  3  9  7 10 14 13 14 12 17  7  4  3  2  6 15 
 q 12 20  7 15 17 20 20  2 12 20 13 11 19 14 16 12  9 17  7  4  8 10 19  5 13  4 
 r  8  2  9 14 13  2 18 19 20 18 19 10 14 11  5  7 20 14  5  1 12 11  9 19  2  9 
 s 17  1 10  4  5 18  5 13 16 15  2 17  9 18 14 12 18  9  4  8 11  9  3  6 17 16 
 t  3  5  7  7  3 13  5 14 19  3 16 15 16  9 16  1  1 17 18  8 11 17 18 16  4 18 
 u 12  5  6 17 20 16 15  6 19  5  8  5  9 14  8  7 10  2  5 14 12 16 15  8 14  5 
 v 17 16 19  4 12 10  2 16  5 13 12 17  2  7 16 15  8 11 18 10 17  4  2  7 11  4 
 w  5 11  8 20  7 13 18 17 20 20 20 11  5 13 12  4  5 13 12 10 11 17  1 11 13 12 
 x  3 10 12 10 10  2  9 13 13  3  1 12  2 14  1 14 15 12  6 19  7 18 14  6 13 12 
 y 13  6 13  8 15 19  9 17 13  7 12  3 18 10 20  6  4 14 14 12  4  8 16  4 16 12 
 z 16 18 11 12  6  7  2 15  8  5 20 13  4 16 10  9 18  9  7 17 11  5 19 13 19 19 
Difference between maximum and minimum odds: 0.004783609999999994

  [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_frequency#Relative_frequencies_of_the_first_letters_of_a_word_in_the_English_language
  [2]: https://gist.github.com/arnists/d23194c4c48880979ed0993bd3ec4b7c

Using a Bible is a good idea (and also amusingly ironic), because it would allow you to open to a random page, point at a random word, and use the chapter and verse numbers as your random elements, no script required. The statistical distribution might be a bit curious, though...

Chapter and verse would not be good enough, they are not "random enough".

That is a really interesting idea. But if we pick words by randomly pointing at a page in the book we might need take into account how big the words are in addition to how frequent they are.

Yes, I thought about that. I'm working on extending the program to essentially change the King James Bible into a fair random distribution of any kind. Length of words is something to consider. Position on page might also be at issue but one would need data on the exact printing so that might be overkill.

Being a gamer myself motivated me to actually solve this problem neatly. Make PDFs and get them into distribution.

tl;dr - they make dice.

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