Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons Is Apparently Banned in Federal Prisons

State prisons around the country ban the roleplaying game, too, because of bizarre concerns about gang behavior and security threats.


Dungeons & Dragons, the seminal tabletop roleplaying game, is wildly popular these days, even more so than in its early '80s heyday, but there's still one place the revival hasn't reached: prison.

The Washington Post's FOIA guru, Nate Jones, alerted me to this 2018 FOIA request on MuckRock, which indicates that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bans D&D and other roleplaying games from being purchased for inmates:

Any rationale for the ban, if given, is buried under redactions, but D&D and other roleplaying games are widely banned in state prison systems under the dubious rationale that they present a security threat or encourage gang behavior. As I noted in a 2017 Reason feature on D&D's resurgence, this has resulted in some unusual case law:

In 2004, the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin decided to ban D&D and confiscated a small mountain of campaign materials from inmate and dungeon master Kevin Singer's cell, including a 96-page handwritten manuscript. Singer, a lifelong D&D enthusiast, sued the prison, arguing the ban violated his First Amendment rights. The case wound its way to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of august judges found themselves considering the security threat presented by inmates pretending to be wizards….

The 7th Circuit, ignoring affidavits from other inmates and from advocates of role-playing games, sided with the jailers. "The question is not whether D&D has led to gang behavior in the past; the prison officials concede that it has not," the court wrote. "The question is whether the prison officials are rational in their belief that, if left unchecked, D&D could lead to gang behavior among inmates and undermine prison security in the future."

Until recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned D&D manuals and similar role-playing games under the category of "writings which advocate violence, insurrection or guerrilla warfare against the government or any of its facilities or which create a danger within the context of the correctional facility."

Pennsylvania now allows the books, but playing the game is still forbidden, a spokesperson for the agency writes. The reason? "It is a hierarchical game. There is concern that such a competition could lead to violence."

It's all silly, but it does illustrate how counterproductive and dumb prison book bans can be. Of all the things you could be doing in prison, D&D is one of the better and less offensive ways to pass the time. It's social, encourages teamwork and empathy, and as one former incarcerated man told me, gives "the vilified an opportunity to be the 'Good Guy' that the world in which we live rarely does."

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment. If you're a federal inmate who plays D&D behind bars and can shed further light on this situation, you can reach me on Corrlinks at cj@reason.com or through a Sending spell.

UPDATE: Several former and current federal inmates sent me messages saying that, if D&D and similar games like Pathfinder are technically banned, correctional officers tend to look the other way.

A current federal inmate writes:

I'm in Danbury FCI and I do not play but many people do play pathfinder (D&D facsimile I guess) and it's very popular. Technically it's a gray area. Some say it's technically against the rules but they don't enforce the rules. Others say it's not. But I haven't seen anybody actually ever get an incident report (shot) for it. If it is in the rules they do not stop you. Many people get all the books sent in as well.

And a former inmate writes in:

I was just reading your article about the ban on roleplaying games in federal prisons and thought that I would reach out and offer my experiences. I spent just over 5 years (2009-2014) at FCI Terminal Island in Long Beach, California and spent much of that playing Pathfinder, a derivative of Dungeons and Dragons. While being officially "banned", there was something of a tacit understanding between our groups and the prison staff. They knew we had contraband (dice) and were breaking the rules (playing the game), but so long as we kept to ourselves and didn't cause any trouble they had better things to do than go harass some geeks.

Playing the game is what helped get me through my sentence, it let me mentally escape my situation and socialize with my peers since I didn't really fit in with most of the prison population. Honestly, if you want to keep inmates out of trouble then letting them play a multi-year long roleplaying campaign is a pretty good strategy.