Dragons in the Department of Corrections

Dragons in the Department of Corrections
January 19 11:43 2017 Print This Article

(Waypoint) – Inmates at a Colorado’s maximum security prison use Dungeons & Dragons to collaborate and exercise their creativity… all without dice. By Elisabeth d Kleer, 27 October, 2016

Sterling Correctional Facility is not the kind of place where people are known to play nice. A maximum security prison 130 miles northeast of Denver, it houses some of Colorado’s most egregious offenders: murderers, bank robbers, even a few serial killers—rule-breakers of all kinds. Yet, every afternoon, half a dozen inmates gather around a table in the common room to join forces against imaginary foes in a cooperative game of Dungeons and Dragons (1974).

D&D, a role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as been played by over 20 million people since it was first published in 1974. Per the game’s rules, the inmates choose imaginary characters and roll dice to determine their strengths and skills. As a party, they work their way through fantasy worlds—solving puzzles, vanquishing enemies, and acquiring treasure.

The course of the game is guided by a dungeon master (known as a DM) who has spent hours preparing for the session, using his imagination to create worlds and storylines and to develop quests for his players. Some DMs use books with pre-fabricated stories and plots; others—including the inmates at Sterling—prefer to do a lot of this creative heavy-lifting themselves. Dice, including the D20—a 20-sided die that’s the hallmark of a gaming session—aren’t allowed behind bars, so the inmates have gotten resourceful and instead use a set of 20 playing cards to make “rolls.”

Over the course of the three hour sessions, the players, who represent many different races and in some cases gang affiliations, set aside their differences and assume the virtual skins of their characters: elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. As the dungeon master leads them on quests to kill mythical monsters, concrete and iron bars give way to a haunted forest, a dragon’s lair, or a castle’s keep—dungeons of another kind.

Not Your Typical Gamer

A 6’6″, 33-year-old Melvin Woolley-Bey cuts an imposing figure at Sterling. Since the age of 18, he’s been charged over a dozen times for thefts, burglaries, and drug possessions. For all intents and purposes, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is home.

When Bey was a boy, he wanted to be a playwright. “Live theatre has always held my imagination,” he says, “To depict the passage of time and the growth of individuals within the confines of not just linear time, but the stage itself is… intense. It offers a challenge that I think pushes writers to their limits.” However, during his teens, his home life collapsed, and he found himself on the streets where he fell into drugs.

When Bey first stepped foot in Sterling, he noticed a group of inmates playing D&D. Bey had been drawn to the game in his teens because of its similarities to theater, but it had been years since he played. He joined the game and quickly found in it a welcome opportunity to shed the hardened persona that helped him survive on the streets.

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