In February 2015, the BBC's Newsbeat strand – current affairs for teenagers, aligned with Radio 1 – ran an online article titled "The (surprising) things you're allowed in your prison cell". Amongst the items: sewing kits, musical instruments and video games consoles.
But video games have been a part of British prison life for several years now – not that they've slipped into the system without their share of critics. In August 2008, Mail Online bemoaned the £221,726 of Labour government money spent on Nintendos and the like. The piece quoted Conservative MP Nigel Evans: "Does being sent down for five years of hard PlayStation serve as rehabilitation or punishment? People will be outraged by this revelation."
Sure enough, whenever the fact that prisoners can get their hands on video games bubbles back to the surface of tabloid acknowledgement, there's always someone on hand with an indignant sound bite. In 2014, the Daily Express website reported on Xbox 360s replacing older machines in some prisons. They managed to stick a Dictaphone beside the gob of an unnamed prison service worker, who said: "If letting prisoners play the latest video games is cracking down, I'd hate to see what's next – widescreen TVs, sofas and takeaways in their cells?"
Of course, these reports, and the opinions contained within them, are incredibly ignorant. Console gaming in the prison system is an essential distraction for inmates who, if left without stimulation, can become confrontational, disruptive to the wider community, or self-harm. It brings prisoners together to help them not only bond with each other, to get through their sentences that bit smoother, but also to aim for something more, something better, than they had before they were incarcerated.
"When boredom kicks in, that's when people get edgy, and pissed off, and that's when fights start happening and that," Harry Harper tells me. He got out of HMP Wealstun, in West Yorkshire, four months ago. He was sentenced to six years for "the production of cocaine, and the intent to supply it, and there were MDMA charges, too". He explains to me how prisons are divided into categories – A is for the worst offenders, D is an open establishment; Harry spent most of his time at Wealstun, a cat-C prison – and inmates, too, are assigned ranks depending on how well they behave.
"You can be a basic prisoner, a standard prisoner, or enhanced. Standard means you're behaving yourself. When you prove yourself more, and you're not messing about and getting involved in drugs or anything like that, you get privileges. If you really behave yourself, you reach enhanced status, where you get an extra visit per month, you get to wear your own clothes all the time. Different prisons will have different rules of course, when it comes to being an enhanced prisoner, but at mine when you were in that category you could have a console in your cell."
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Harry had a PlayStation 2, nothing newer, and one game stood above all others as the crowd-into-a-cell tournament attraction of choice: FIFA. "We were all big FIFA heads in prison," Harry says. "Everyone was playing it. And it's good for the overall atmosphere. When you're in a working jail, like I was, during the week you're at work during the day, and then you have half an hour of social time in the evening; but at the weekend there's no work, so a lot of the time, if there's no computer on, you're just pottering around, doing nothing.
"So consoles are good to keep people occupied. If you're in a cell on your own, locked in at night, that's where a lot of people can have problems. You can keep yourself busy by watching telly, but there's only so much of that you can stand, because you only have a handful of channels. I'll sit there and write letters, I'll read, because I'm educated; but some of the lads in there are illiterate. They've never been to school. You get a lot of self-harm in there, too. And when boredom kicks in, that's when you start thinking about those things. So having the consoles keeps minds occupied, I think.
"A lot of people find themselves secluded in jail, and they keep themselves to themselves, but when there's a FIFA tournament or something going on, it brings people together. Everyone gets chatting, so it's a good way of keeping the peace."
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And they're not, as implied by the Mail and Express reports, handed out to prisoners arbitrarily. If you want to have a PS2 (or better) to call your own, for those lonely nights in (because you're not going out any time soon, right?), you have to work for it.
"I worked in laundry to start with, and then we did some outside contract work, washing sheets for hotels and that," Harry explains. "After that, I got some qualifications in IT, and became a mentor in the prison's IT department, helping all the other prisoners. It's not as if everyone's sat there, playing on a PlayStation, all day, every day. That's what people think, isn't it? That's what the critics think. But these video games are important for people's health, and futures. You're only allowed to have these games if you're behaving, if you're working towards your targets. They're a reward for showing that you're willing to change, that you're going to come out of prison and not reoffend."
Which Harry has no intention of doing. I wonder, though, if he'll be playing Prison Architect, a new prison construction and management game by Introversion Software that made over $10 million on pre-orders, now he has access to more current hardware. "Is it like Theme Hospital?" It is, sort of, yes. "I'd buy that myself, actually. It might give other people an idea of what prison life is like. They're massive organisations, and everyone needs keeping in check." And PlayStations and their ilk represent a small, but significant, part of that balance.
This article originally appeared in volume 22, issue 10 of VICE Magazine (UK) – find out more here. Find more Video Games Killed the Radio Star columns here.
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