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We Asked an Architect About the Game 'Prison Architect'

It's depressingly realistic.

by Emanuel Maiberg
Oct 9 2015, 2:00pm

Prison Architect, a management game like Sim City but for prisons, wastes no time diving into the horrors of its subject matter.

Your first task as a prison architect is to execute a prisoner with an electric chair, but there's a lot of details you have to figure out before you flip that deadly switch. You'll need to build a separate structure, with an execution chamber and holding cell, where you can put in a window and bookshelf if you're nice. Each room needs to be a certain size and use different types of floors. Each room also needs to be connected to the prison's power grid, and the electric chair causes a spike in energy consumption, so you'll need to build a few more capacitors for your generators.

By the time you execute the prisoner, the act seems like just another item on your ever-growing "to do" list: build more cells, expand the mess hall, establish a common room where you can start a drug rehabilitation program, fix the pipes for the showers, and oh yeah, execute this prisoner.

Chris Delay, creative director at developer Introversion Software, told me that it deliberately picked the darkest part of prison life for the first chapter of the game. "It would be very easy to think of it as building a hotel or something," he said. "Right from the very start, we knew we had to let the player know that this was a different experience, he has to think differently about it."

The most basic building blocks of the game are the square tiles that make up the map. Solving any problem will require you to use the space allotted to you efficiently, and after enough time, that's how you start to see the world. That's what's fun about management games. It's an exercise in optimization. It's especially satisfying if you're the kind of person who gets off on a well-organized bookshelf or clean desktop, which I am.

But then I remember the subject matter, and I realize how awful the job I'm doing well is, especially since it's surprisingly true to life.

Raphael Sperry is an architect, Soros justice fellow, and president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). He's also pushing the American Institute of Architects to prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics, namely prisons.

He told me in an email that space and building costs are just as much of guiding principles in designing real prisons as they are in Prison Architect.

"If you're pouring concrete to build a prison cell, each additional square foot of space creates more wall, ceiling, and floor area you need to pay for," Sperry said. "Construction costs are generally looked at in per-square-foot terms, so there is a direct correlation between the size of prison cells and the budget for the prison. If cells are smaller, other things can be bigger: the warden's office, the kitchen, the security fence."

That last point is also reflected in Prison Architect. Just like real life, a prison gets its budget according to how many inmates it has, so while building a psychologist's office will allow you to open programs that will improve a prisoner's life and reduce his chances of being imprisoned again after release, that office comes at the expense of more cells, which bring in money.

"Prisoners themselves are generally not included in the conversation where the prison construction budget is allocated to different priorities, so their needs come last and cell size is generally set at the legal minimum," Sperry said. "The legal standard only bars 'cruel or unusual punishment'—a cell can be punitively small as long as it doesn't cross that limit."

Some of the cost-saving designs that Sperry is fighting against in real life, would fit in perfectly in a Prison Architect strategy guide.

He explains that the "podular" prison design, where cells are arranged around a big "dayroom" in the center, minimizes staffing costs by allowing less guards to watch more prisoners. That cost is reduced even further if the dayroom doubles as a "chow hall," which in older prisons used to be a different space.

"Supervising the movement of a large number of people in a prison takes a large number of guards, so it was a clever idea to have people stay in the pods, even though that leads to an incredibly boring daily routine," Sperry said. "In this example it's clear to see how humane conditions are sacrificed in order to minimize operating costs by design."

Though the idea of the game was sparked by Delay's visit to Alcatraz in San Francisco, Introversion managing director Mark Morris told me that he and Delay didn't do a huge amount of research on real prisons while developing the game.

"We never wanted to create a super accurate prison sim that could be used to model future prisons," Morris said. "It was never about that, it was always just a game."

As Morris explains, the similarities to real prisons are a result of the deep systems in the simulation. These include everything from the electrical grid, to guard salaries, to prisoners' basic need, which much like The Sims are based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. At the most basic level, prisoners have psychological needs, but they also need safety, love, and self-actualization. If you simulate enough systems with enough depth, and add a profit incentive, you end up with something that's hauntingly real.

The most horrible and profitable prison in Prison Architect holds 12,000 inmates in solitary. Image: Introversion/Steam user Jesus Quintana

That means that you can't create a perfect prison either. Prison Architect has been available through early access for three years, allowing Introversion to carefully layer more systems and complexity into the game, and see how players respond.

In the last three years players have uploaded thousands of prisons for other players to download. Some of them are monstrously inhumane, and monstrously profitable. When they give demos to the press, Morris and Delay often bring up one user-made prison that has 12,000 solitary confinement cells for the entire prison population. It's demented, and it's only the logical endpoint of a for-profit prison.

On the opposite end of the scale, even if you managed to pay for a prison that's overwhelmingly reformist in its approach, with rehabilitation programs for prisoners, more space to exercise, and so on, you wouldn't be able to create an ideal prison. The simulation won't allow it. The small percentage of very violent prisoners will take advantage of lax security, and there will be consequences. Other prisoners and guards can die.

"You might decide therefore that you'll only take minimum security or gen pop prisoners, people of non-violent background, but then you're actually kind of socially selecting which prisoners you're willing to try to reform, and then you've given up altogether on the really violent prisoners," Delay said.

You can try to be kind, but it will never work perfectly. When I asked Sperry for tips on how to build the most humane prison possible, he said that I'd have to change the entire criminal justice system first.

"I'd remind people that racism is a huge factor in how law enforcement treats people and who goes to prison, as the Black Lives Matter movement is pointing out," Sperry said. "Frankly, I don't believe it's possible to build a really humane prison if it is being built on the basis of racial fear and hatred and it will be filled with people who wouldn't rationally be in prison at all."

And that's a problem that's beyond the scope of the simulation. Prison Architect assumes over-incarceration, and as long as that's the case, you'll never be able to build a humane prison, in the game or in real life.