The Ethics of Prison Architect: A Case Study

Simulation games have a long history in computing. From SimCity to the Sims, gamers have dragged and dropped trees, houses, streets and street lamps rebuilding their own utopia.

But what about simulations of dystopias? Enter Prison Architect, where you build and manage a prison facility. It’s for profit, of course, because that’s how you get money to expand your prison.
Prison Architect

Simulation Games

In SimCity, the most difficult ethical decisions tend to be things like where to place polluting industries, whether you should use nuclear power, or if you should build a casino. No one loses sleep on these issues. You might lose sleep because you can’t stop playing, but that’s a different issue.

You can do a little more evil in the Sims. Locking sims in enclosed spaces to their deaths, or denying access to bathrooms. For the most part, these are conscious choices.

Prison Architect is far more insidious. Do you really need to splurge on cell windows? How much do you really need to spend on higher quality food? After all, it’s not like these prisoners are real people, is it? It’s particularly easy to disassociate yourself from this reality, looking just at the statistics: X prisoners, Y staff, net daily balance: $$$. This seems to be precisely the kind of mindset that appeals to hands-off administrators and legislators involved in the decision making processes around real prisons.

Prison Design

I recently read an article about real prison architects, Prison Design and its Consequences: the Architects Dilemma. This article argues that architects should consider the ethical implications of the prisons they design, because they can directly affect the lives of real people.

There’s always political rhetoric around prisons. Whether social conservatives want a hard line stance on punishment, or the more liberal minded are speaking about rehabilitation, these are at best, abstract qualities in the minds of the public at large. The average citizen wants criminals removed from society, although whether this is for punishment, rehabilitation, or just to remove a risk to the public differs on the individual citizen.

Grand Valley Institution and Ashley Smith

The Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener is a Canadian federal prison for women, located in Kitchener, Ontario. This is the prison where 19 year old Ashley Smith died by strangulation while guards were instructed not to interfere. I drive past this prison often, but very rarely have I given it much thought.

Ashley Smith died at Grand River Institution
Ashley Smith died at Grand River Institution

I think most people in Waterloo Region know this much, and it may have coloured their perception of the whole institution. It’s not all segregation cells like the one in which Smith died. Regional Council member Jane Mitchell wrote about her visit to GVI in 2010. At the time, the prison only held 127 inmates, 8 of which were high security. There were only 4 segregation cells. Currently, the facility is rated for 177 inmates, with construction ongoing to accommodate 44 more by next year, bringing the institution’s capacity to 221 inmates, according to the Correctional Service of Canada page on GVI.

Grand River Institution for Women

The Canadian Prison System

I didn’t know that in Canada, criminal sentences of less than 2 years are served in Provincial jails, while those of more than 2 are served in Federal institutes. For women, Grand Valley is the only federal facility in Ontario since Kingston’s Prison for Women shut down in 2000. With an increasing prison population, this facility is seeing some of the same pressures explored in Prison Architect: they have limited space to expand, but must accommodate more inmates. They have no direct control over how many inmates are transferring in, as that depends on sentences handed down by the courts. As this article in the Waterloo Region Record notes, these changes have impacted access to services, as well as space for recreation and visitation.

Are the impact of these changes what we want for our society? Are they directed changes, to align with society’s goals, or are they accidents of happenstance? These changes seem to align with the Conservative government’s “tough on crime” image, which apparently focuses more on punishment than on rehabilitation.

These changes are concerning, in part because they are out of the public’s eye, until tragedy occurs. The inquest into Ashley Smith’s death seeks to shed light on some of the dehumanizing aspects of long term solitary confinement, and frequent transfers between provinces.

What about Prison Architect? Does it desensitize gamers to the prison system, or does it raise critical issues in the public’s eye? As I play the game, the issue drifts in and out of consciousness. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

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