Right to Write

On behalf of nerds everywhere, I feel kind of outraged about this court ruling permitting prisons to ban Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia and books:

Prison officials said they banned the game at the recommendation of the prison’s specialist on gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior and fantasies about escape.

Dungeons & Dragons could “foster an inmate’s obsession with escaping from the real-life correctional environment, fostering hostility, violence and escape behavior,” prison officials said in court. That could make it more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners and could endanger public safety, they said.

The court, which is based in Chicago, acknowledged that there was no evidence of marauding gangs spurred to their acts of destruction by swinging imaginary mauls, but it ruled nonetheless that the prison’s decision was “rationally related” to legitimate goals of prison administration.


I know most of the commentary on this case has focused on the fact that a) it’s dopey to assume that gaming causes pathological behavior, b) it’s particularly dopey to assume D&D-playing leads to the formation of prison gangs. But I actually think the free speech issues are disturbing. Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to think that unless a prisoner is writing threats or coordinating crimes through his writing, he should be allowed to keep doing it, and to keep his writing after completing it if he wants. Writing is distraction, it’s therapy, it’s a way to develop skills that, who knows, might actually serve someone upon their release from prison. I can see some circumstances under which it might make sense to monitor that writing, or to direct it into a formal program like InsideOUT Writers. And under some circumstances, it might make sense to act on somebody’s writing. Seung-Hui Cho may have been a lot better off if something had really taken place after his fellow Virginia Tech students and professors found his writing disturbing. But preventing him from writing wouldn’t have stopped him from killing somebody. And taking away a murderer’s D&D manual isn’t going to prevent the killing that landed him in jail in the first place. But it may have denied him something that was rehabilitative.