I grew up in a pre-tech boom, working-class Bay Area neighborhood, where a kid having relatives that were incarcerated was the norm. Some of those kids would, unfortunately, grow up to follow their relatives into cells (or worse). I wouldn’t classify the town as bad, it’s just the mechanisms of the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex were definitely in full swing around me. As for how I dodged it and became a game industry writer? I benefited from some skill, a lot of luck, and obvious systematic advantages that ensured my troubled youth phase didn’t land me in deep shit.
So when I saw Prison Architect, a game where the player constructs and runs a prison, my first reaction was to laugh at its ridiculously dark premise. Then I felt an uncomfortable wave of self-disgust. Whether that reaction is Prison Architect’s intent, I’m not sure. What I do want to see, however, is how someone who had actually spent a considerable chunk of time in prison would react to the game.
I have acquaintances, old and new, that have done time all over the country, for a wide variety of reasons. Seeing as America jails over 1.5 million people, I imagine it’s difficult to not have a relationship with someone who has been, or is, behind bars. When I thought of who I wanted to observe playing Prison Architect, however, the first name on the list was James Brown.
Obviously, I’m not talking about the Godfather of Soul. And for the sake of his civilian life, James Brown is not his real name. James Brown, as you will know him here, has done some serious shit to wind up in prison. He’s also one of the few that has pulled a complete 180 since leaving the system, functioning in society better than some people who have never worn handcuffs.
We agree to meet in a secret location, where I have brought a laptop running Prison Architect. I’m grateful that he is willing to dive back into his dark past for us, all for the sake of discussing a video game.
GamesBeat: I am keeping you anonymous for obvious reasons, but just so people know this isn’t Joe “never been incarcerated” Blow giving random opinions — could you tell the readers a little bit about your credentials for discussing this topic?
James Brown: Well, I was incarcerated for killing a rival drug dealer in what was considered mutual combat. The state of California sentenced me to 13 years on a plea bargain. Originally, they were trying to get me life without the possibility of parole, because they felt it was premeditated. Which, to be honest, it was. I had time to think about what I was doing.
In terms of the incarceration, after I was sentenced, I was immediately taken to San Quentin, where I … [laughs] well … I promptly assaulted another inmate. So I stabbed this guy, but they couldn’t prove it was me. They suspected, so that was enough to get me a first class ticket to New Folsom. And then eventually I wound up in Old Folsom.
From there, I got deeply involved in some of the prison gangs. Eventually I wound up in Soledad running my own thing. It was a small crew, and I ran it until I was paroled.
GamesBeat: So, what I want to do is have you play through the first campaign of this game. I just want your honest reaction to it.
Brown: Sounds good man.
I load up Prison Architect on a laptop and start the first campaign, which involves executing a prisoner on death row. The intro plays and is showing off different locations of the prison.
Brown: Seven cells deep with one on the end is the “bird bath” one. [Bird bath is a term for essentially taking a sponge bath, as opposed to using the showers, out of the cell’s sink while sitting on the toilet — Ed.] OK. So, we’re just building it out right now? I can’t just put the building anywhere?
GamesBeat: No. It’s a tutorial, so they’re making you put it somewhere specific so you figure out how things work.
Brown: Ah! OK.
He drags out the foundation for the execution building. He then chooses the main door to attach to the outside.
Brown: So I can’t just put this door anywhere? [He snaps the door into the space the game is instructing him to] Oh! They have sliding doors like New Folsom. Most of the really old prison doors had the old hinge, swing in, swing out, kind of deal.
The execution building is constructed and James begins assigning which areas would be the execution room and the holding cell. He begins picking out items to fill the holding cell.
Brown: Interesting. So, I guess we’ll do the bed first. Then … the toilet. The electric chair goes there.
I can tell you, this set up … they are basing it off of older prisons. Mainly because the toilet and sink are usually combos now, sitting right next to the bed.
GamesBeat: So where would the sink be?
Brown: It’s a combination. So there’s the toilet, then this metal backing, and then a sink attached to that as one.
GamesBeat: So when you’re sitting on the toilet you have the sink in your back?
Brown: No! Here’s your toilet, and then there is this metal thing that comes up from the back and there’s your sink [James draws an imaginary picture in the air, of the metal backing being flush, so the sink doesn’t protrude out.]
GamesBeat: Ah! OK
Brown: Yeah. It’s all one piece of aluminum. It’s so they can shove it all in as one small thing that saves room.
The game instructs James to dress up the holding cell. Specifically, to give the room a bookshelf and a window.
Brown: [Laughing] So you can give this guy a bookshelf and a window?
He starts poking around the items menu some more.
Brown: Wooden floorboards?!?! [Shakes his head] That’s not happening! [Laughs]
James finally chooses a light and a window option.
Brown: Well, outside lighting is crucial in a prison.
GamesBeat: Like in what way? Don’t they use a lot of artificial lighting?
Brown: Well, no. It said to spruce the place up you can put in outside lighting to light the walkways and stuff, but, it’s like …. in this game, it’s optional. In real life, it’s mandatory. They have lights everywhere.
GamesBeat: Oh! Right. What’s it asking you to do now?
Brown: Basically the list is asking me to complete this cell and then transfer the prisoner. So … there’s some other things I can do. Add a window or a bookshelf.
So. Does the prison run itself?
GamesBeat: Eventually you have to micromanage everything, but right now the guards are kind of wandering around themselves. Later on, you get to assign them to certain routes and do certain things. But that’s not until after the first tutorial or two.
Brown: Right, OK. So it’s on auto. OK. So … let’s add a bookshelf.
GamesBeat: The funny thing is, they say add a bookshelf, but I don’t see one in the list (It does exist, I was just blind). But I remember when I tried this out before coming here, I gave the guy a TV and all kinds of cool shit.
Brown: [Laughs] Well, that’s mighty philanthropic of you.
OK. So. Add a window. This is kind of grim. I guess he would want to see some activity.
He pokes through the inventory some more
Brown: A sofa?!? You can put a sofa in his cell?!? Really? Naw!
GamesBeat: Well, it is the execution cell I guess. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe they think since the guy’s going to die, they’ll give him some comfort before hand?
Brown: Dude … OK. Hold on. Let me see if they really allow you to do that.
He selects the sofa and places it in the execution cell successfully
Brown: Oh, my god! Do you know how much shank material is in a sofa? Cause if you’re a condemned man, literally dude, you are on watch 24 hours a day. You never leave their eyesight, because they don’t want you to commit suicide. And you get nothing. You have to ask for your toothbrush. You have to ask for your [hair] brush. When they give you your meals, they want all the utensils back. They give you nothing.
The philosophy … the perspective is that you’re a condemned man and you have nothing to lose. Therefore, you’re willing to kill somebody and what are they going to do to you? Kill you? You’re already assigned to die. So. …
James turns back to the game
Brown: … but I think that’s kind of cool that they give you a couch. Interesting.
James adds a window to the cell and then starts looking for the prisoner awaiting execution
Brown: Is that him?!? [James points the cursor over a different prisoner]
GamesBeat: No. You’ll see a Polaroid. The guy we want is more toward the right, but you can check out each prisoner if you want.
He clicks on a random prisoner, which pulls up his personal file
Brown: Wow! They have profiles on these guys?
He begins reading the profile of one of the prisoners
Brown: Tough instigator? [Laughs] Grand larceny? Are we in a federal prison here? So that’s why they’re given all the perks?
OK. So. Where’s this guy [to be executed] now?
GamesBeat: To the right. So, for those that don’t know, what’s the difference between state and federal prison?
Brown: Federal prison is considered easier time. The reason is because, it’s not as … they just allow certain amenities, not in your cell, but, like, couches … [in mid-sentence he clicks the prisoner to be executed, which starts a cutscene]
Oh! So we get his confession, hunh?
The cutscene shows the prisoner in the civilian world, approaching his home. He catches his wife cheating on him with another man. He shoots the couple, killing both of them.
Brown: Oh, no. [Laughs] He found his wife with another man. Wouldn’t this be considered in the heat of the moment?
GamesBeat: That’s what I thought, but …
Brown: OK. So, back to federal prison. It’s considered easier time because they have shit like courts, couches in the visiting room … visiting rooms are definitely nicer. Guests don’t feel like they’re locked up in prison.
State is considered harder. No! It is harder. There’s no fucking anything. State prisoners call federal “Club Fed,” because it’s just the better way to do time.
GamesBeat: Would they execute prisoners in federal?
Brown: I don’t know if they do or not. They may but …. enhhhh … I don’t know. But federal time is definitely easier, so I am guessing [the game] is based on that.
Their food is a lot better.
The guards start walking the prisoner to the execution building
Brown: I mean, my initial impression [of the game so far] is that it’s a fun little thing. You can do goofy shit like put a couch in a prison cell. That’s just not going to happen in state prison. Fuck, you don’t even get a couch in the visiting room. So, I mean … [the game] is good laughs.
The game has reached a point where we need to add electricity to the electric chair
GamesBeat: So we need to connect the electricity to the electric chair.
Brown: [Laughs] Too funny.
We both fumble around with where to place the power lines
Brown: So, yeah. Is this similar to prison? No. [Laughs] Nobody is going to get a fucking sofa in their cell. There is just so much shank material in that thing. The springs, the wood, the cotton — could be used to make something flammable. I mean, come on. It’s not even a question.
We keep fumbling with the power lines. …
GamesBeat: Supposedly later in the game, you have to deal with crap like prisoners rioting and creating improvised weapons, but I haven’t gotten very far.
Brown: Just the fact that you can put a couch in a cell tells me they aren’t going for something realistic. This [game] seems like a fun, quirky thing to do … but compared to prison in real life is like … no fucking way. I mean, maybe federal prison. Maybe. But not a state prison. State is really hard, man.
It becomes obvious that we may have accidentally screwed something up with the wiring section of the game and got us stuck. So James starts poking around the prison and U.I.
Brown: So this prison is generating money. Where is that coming from?
GamesBeat: I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with how many prisoners you have incarcerated?
Brown: Every prison that I know of, in California, generally have factories. Like at Folsom, I made license plates. The license plates on California cars, a significant chunk of them come out of Folsom.
In Soledad, it was textiles. We made shirts and furniture. It was shipped off to places like Office Depot. A lot of people don’t know about that. A lot of the office furniture comes from prisons and PIA, which is the Prison Industry Authority.
So this [game] is probably, I’d imagine at some point … maybe there is a factory part of the prison making money?
He begins scrolling around the prison, looking for the factory, but suddenly focuses on the cell blocks.
Brown: You know, let me tell you something about this game. If I were in this prison, I would have a fucking field day with these blind spots.
He begins circling several corners of the cell corridors.
Brown: They intentionally make prisons — and especially the newer super prisons — to not have any kind of blind spot. Mainly for the guards. They don’t want a guard to be, like, keying a door right here and Joe Blow and his psychopath friend rush this corner and stick the guard like a fucking Christmas ham.
So there’s … [he points out another blind spot and laughs] look! If I was in this prison, I would be going to fucking town. [Laughs] Hold on! Let me check the chow hall.
He starts scrolling around, looking for the canteen.
Brown: The chow hall is probably one of the most dangerous parts of the prison.
While searching for the canteen, he pauses on the shower room.
Brown: The shower … [laughs] is interesting. Oh, yeah. Yeah! Once again, I would not be … look. Prison showers are typically set up like this. You see the shower head [he points to a shower head on an exterior wall] … those would be all along the walls here. There would be nothing obstructing the guards’ views.
He points to a middle column of shower heads, not attached to the outer wall.
Brown: I mean, you know this is buttfuck city right here.
Not that I did that shit. I’m just saying … that’s how those guys work. If you look at the ebb and flow of the place, like, these are some serious blind spots. Especially where they [guards or prisoners] can’t see shit. That’s where someone could seriously work you over.
GamesBeat: So where would the guards be positioned to look at you?
Brown: Well, that’s another thing I wanted to mention. Most prisons have cat walks. Guards are up above you, with guns, watching you. So they have an aerial view of you. In the event that there are no cat walks, they would maybe have guards three deep here.
He points at the entrance of the shower room.
Brown: And even then, someone on a cat walk [within view] so if something pops off and one of them gets grabbed, the guy up top can start shooting or try to smoke them out.
But normally, the guards on the ground would be by the door. Normally, though, guards don’t mingle with inmates on the ground level.
We find the canteen.
Brown: So, like, the chow hall is a good example.
At San Quentin, when you go into the chow hall, all along the top part of this thing [he points to the outer wall of the canteen]. It’s a huge, tall building. All along the building, out of your reach, is a metal cat walk. And guards are literally walking all around watching you eat. So there’s just no way you’re going to pull something without them seeing you. Such as stabbing someone.
So I am going to assume this [game] is a cat walk thing.
GamesBeat: I don’t think so. I see the guards moving with and out of the way of prisoners.
Brown: Yeah, and that’s bullshit. In state prison, guards generally do not walk with the general population. Only time they do is when they are cutting someone loose from cells, doing mass feeding in the chow hall … but they utilize the cat walks and have guards on the floor opening doors to let them [prisoners] in and the guards on the ground are watched really closely by the cat walk guards.
If you grab them, stick them, or anything … they just start blasting into the crowd. They don’t give a shit if you did it or not. They’ll shoot everyone in the fucking hallway.
If you’re looking for comparisons, that’s something I definitely noticed. And definitely the blind spots. There are all kinds of corners in here that can be used to turn someone into Swiss cheese.
Brown: The chow hall on the ground, itself, is fairly accurate. They do have tables lined up like this. Again, they [state prison] have cat walks. There’s one guard per table. And you usually only have X amount of minutes to eat. And once your time is up they tell you, “Throw your shit out and leave.”
I mean … this is probably the closest realistic thing I’ve seen. You come in here [points at the entrance], you line up [points to serving counters], then they go down … table, table table … you empty your shit and leave. In real life, there’s a flow. There’s a very strict movement order in prison.
And I mean, these blind spots. [Laughs] I’ve been to San Quentin, Old Folsom, New Folsom, Soledad … and I’ve never seen anything like this. If you have enemies in this place, you’re in deep shit.
And these showers are rape city.
GamesBeat: Yow … OK.
We check the wiring again, but it’s a lost cause.
Brown: This is definitely a grim, but funny, game. One of the things that would make me want to push forward is to see if I got to execute my own guy.
I don’t know that I would execute the guy they chose. I’d definitely go for the rapists or pedophiles. I’d happily execute every one of those motherfuckers in here. And I would have fun with it. But … that’s just my fucked-up perspective of the world.
We mess around with the electrical some more, but we have obviously done something out of order.
Brown: What pushes me to play [this game any further] is to see how far it goes. Like, are there prison riots? Are there gang factions? Is there drug dealing? All of this stuff is prevalent in prison life.
Are there corrupt guards? Are there gay guys and prostitutes that I can hoe out? I’m just curious.
But would I play this game on my own? Probably not. If it was a free download, I’d probably fuck around with it for the laughs, just for the fact that you can do shit like this.
I mean, the fact that I can put a wooden floor inside my prison. There is no fucking way that would happen. They use concrete floors for a reason. You can’t make a shank out of concrete.
GamesBeat: I’ve seen footage of later parts in the game where a guard is among the general population and beating back a mob of prisoners with a billy stick and … I haven’t been to prison, and even I know that’s not realistic.
Brown: They [guards] aren’t wandering around. Like, on the Folsom prison yard, when they had to go out in the yard, they were usually three deep and covered by gun towers. They don’t wander around.
You have to understand, there are people doing life sentences. They are incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole. So for them, sticking a guard is no big deal.
It’s like, what are you going to do to me? I’m already going to die in here. You’re going to put me on death row? Fuck it.
And that’s another thing. That’s why the death row inmates are never housed with the general population. They’re always separated because, again, you’re dealing with a condemned human being that has no reason to fear death. They’re already dead. So in their mind, they’ll kill a guard, kill an inmate, or anyone they can get their hands on. Especially if they see a way out to escape and you’d make a good hostage … they’ll do it.
Brown: So death row inmates are definitely kept segregated. In fact, so segregated, at San Quentin when they were taking out … I don’t know if you remember this, the fucking sick bastard Richard Ramirez. You know, the Night Stalker?
GamesBeat: Maybe you can explain for those that don’t know who he is?
Brown: He was a Mexican guy in Southern California who basically was crawling into women’s rooms, raping them, and killing them.
And anyway, he was really frowned upon in prison. Whenever they had to take him out, or Stanley “Tookie” Williams (one of the founding members of the Crips, who was executed in San Quentin in 2005), these death row inmates, they’ll always announce, “Dead man walking.”
Anybody and everybody that’s on the yard stop, squat, and turn their back to the dead man walking, who is chained and shackled up and is usually surrounded by four to six guards. Because … these guys … they’re just desperate human beings. They’ll try to kill you. And the guards walking them are in full riot gear.
I noticed the condemned guy [in the game] was among the general population. That’s just never going to happen. The moment they are condemned …
James performs an open hand chop on the table and scoots it to the side, as if sliding something imaginary away from me
Brown: … they are separated from everything. They get their own bus. If for any reason they wind up traveling on a bus with other inmates, they wind up in their own special little cage. I don’t know if you’ve seen Con Air, but they use cages like that for these death row inmates.
This game, though … I find it funny. I want to see how deep it goes. Are there corrupt guards?
GamesBeat: I’m not sure.
Brown: Because guards … look. Tobacco, drugs, cellphones, weapons … there’s only so much that can be shoved up someone’s ass coming through the visiting room and make it through. Guards are responsible for 60 percent of the contraband that filters into the prison.
Look, if you’re a prison guard making $40,000 a year, and some guy says, “Look, man. Bring me a phone. I’ll get you $2,000 cash. This is all I need from you.”
You do that 10 times a month, maybe for 10 different guys … that’s a lot of paper. So I kind of wonder if this [game] would get that far.
GamesBeat: Hmmm …
Brown: I also wonder if, in this game, can I just execute anyone?
GamesBeat: I’m not sure. We’re supposed to execute this guy right now, but we’re stuck for some reason. I imagine you could. I mean, you’re the Warden, right?
Brown: Uhm … OK?
GamesBeat: No, no. I don’t mean in real life a warden gets to kill whoever the hell he wants. This game has you looking over what’s essentially a bunch of electronic ants. So why not be able to choose when and who on death row gets executed? I guess that concept alone is pretty dehumanizing.
Brown: [Laughs] That’s interesting. This is funny. I mean, it’s totally unrealistic. Just the fact that I can have a couch and a lamp.
I could weaponize the entire fucking prison just off of that couch alone.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the human suffering aspect of this game?
Brown: I think it’s kind of grim. I noticed that they have the profile [for each prisoner]. I thought that was pretty interesting. Like, this guy is in here for grand larceny, and this one over here is a killer.
Well, first off the one guy you execute … like, first off, he’s white. Secondly, you catch your wife fucking this man and you blast this guy and her right on the spot, it’s called a crime of passion. And that is not a death row offense. Even though, technically, you could say, “Well, he brought the gun, so he premeditated the murder.” But … yeah, he brought the gun, but he didn’t go there to kill them. He just lost his mind in the moment, became enraged, and he shot everyone in the room. That’s not a death row offense. I can’t think of anyone on death row, that I knew of, that was in there for a crime of passion. I mean, I knew guys inside that were in there for a crime of passion, and none of them were even remotely close to being on death row.
GamesBeat: Who was typically on death row?
Brown: Death row is straight, cold-blooded, premeditated killing. At one point the D.A. [district attorney] was considering putting me up for death row. Their thing was, you had to time to think about, conceptualize, and conceive what physical things you’d need to murder.
So, let’s say for example the neighbor you don’t like. You’re thinking about killing him, you go down to the gun store, get a gun, buy bullets … you know you’re watching this guy go to and from work every day. You catch him right when you know he’s going to be alone and you fucking blast him and kill him. That’s death row.
You plotted, conceived, put into action, and then completed a killing of another human being. You treated them like hunting an animal.
Brown: Where it’s not premeditated is you go in, you catch your wife with another man. You flip out. You grab him and snap the guy’s neck. It’s a crime of passion.
So then, you know, this guy should’ve known better. Bad Stephen!
Slaps his wrist
They’ll give you a couple of years, but that’s not death row.
As for this game, I’ve been housed in these environments, and I find it grim yet funny, even with all the inaccuracies. But … I’ve got to admit man. When I clicked on the guy in his cell, and they have this little file … it just struck a nerve.
You know, that’s all we ever were [to them]. We were in this cell, and all they knew about us was this file filled with all the horrendous shit we’d done, but they never knew what lead us up to that horrendous act. Where we came from to get into that situation. Because in prison, files are a big deal. They call it your C-file, or central file, and that file follows me even today. So seeing that file [in the game] really struck a nerve. It’s like, oh god, the almighty central file that the staff has to read and they say, “We know all about you!”
It’s like, no you fucking don’t. There’s more to me than what’s in there.
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