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August 15, 2012

Fascinating story of cowboy fun and games for prisoners in Angola

0802_prison_slateBecause so many of the stories about sentencing and corrections in Louisiana are depressing, I am very pleased a helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new piece up at CNN.  The piece is headlined "When the Game Means Freedom," and it is part of a series called "Gaming Reality." Here are extended excerpts which explain why this piece (and gaming culture) should be of interest to sentencing fans:

On October 20 in a small town in Louisiana, there will be a rodeo, complete with the prerequisite boots, bulls and Marlboro-man doppelgangers. But this particular rodeo will take place not at a fairgrounds, but at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as "Angola."  The riders are untrained inmates who have earned the right to participate -- and feel up to 6 seconds of freedom atop an angry bull -- in a highly calculated and wildly effective prison reward system....

Burl Cain [is] Angola warden..., [and] in 2004 Cain was charged with giving a makeover to America's largest and bloodiest maximum-security prison, home to 5,300 violent offenders. It was a Goliath-sized task.  Angola was stained with a long history of gang violence and one particularly gruesome incident back in the 1950s when prisoners cut their Achilles tendons to protest poor lockdown treatment....

Cain's play-by-play at Angola reads like a deck of game-mechanics cards.  To change behavior, he introduced a progression system that was notched with "appointments" -- challenges inmates had to conquer to in order to get a reward.  Rise to the challenge and you could earn the right to own a pet, to take a job, even the freedom to roam the grounds.

To reach the highest level, known at Angola as becoming a Trustee, can take up to 10 years.  It's not an easy game, but it's one that the majority of its players are highly motivated to play.  Today, Angola is a thriving prison environment that has successfully "rehabbed" many hardened criminals into productive Trustees.  Prisoners have a sense of ownership, achievement, status and some healthy envy -- not to mention an award-winning prison newspaper.

Of course, this is not a new concept.  Prisons have long used incentive systems to motivate inmates.  But Cain's implementation is unique.  His approach has flourished because he evaluated his target audience and recognized that the traditional reward system was broken.  Cain realized that his audience -- many of them men facing life or double-life sentences -- might not be motivated by standard rewards like additional phone time, longer visitation hours or upgraded quarters.

But they would be motivated by an incentive that offered them meaning -- something they could be proud of.  Cain believed the opportunity to be a champion could infuse meaning and pride back into the prison experience while motivating inmates to be better men. Which brings us back to the rodeo.

At a certain point in the climb to Trustee status, inmates earn the opportunity to participate in the Angola Rodeo, held each spring and fall in an arena that holds more than 7,500.  The day consists of 11 events, including bull riding.  The beast in question is a 2,000-pound Brahma bull, and most times the inmate rider has never been on the back of a bull before.  All is not fair in prisons and rodeos....

It's not as unprofessional as it might sound.  Seasoned rodeo clowns are always present in the arena to distract angry animals, and a team of emergency medical personnel is waiting in the wings.  Still, the whole enterprise is speared with controversy, for obvious reasons. Precautions aside, inexperienced inmates are facing off with agitated, unpredictable animals in a costly, injury-ridden event.  Change the name and tweak the specifics, and the Angola Rodeo could easily become the plot of the next bestselling dystopian thriller. "The Hunger Games," anyone?

And yet, the rodeo is a powerful motivator for inmates, for two reasons.  The first is pride. Prisoners are willing to face serious injury for the chance to be cheered on by thousands of onlookers.  The event represents both an earned right and a true challenge to overcome.

The second, overarching incentive is meaning.  It's huge.  It's the reason why we as people respond to games and game-like scenarios.  Games, especially those with powerful incentive systems, lead us up a ladder and allow us to grasp at something intangible.  Much like the Greeks filled stone stadiums to watch gladiators, people are tuning in to the new reality TV show, "Louisiana Lockdown," to see Angola's prisoners succeed or fail. Audiences aren't just responding to the rodeo itself, they're responding to the game mechanics that are driving the inmates' right to participate in the rodeo.

It's a testament to how more people are embracing gamification, which applies game-design thinking to real-life situations to make them more fun and engaging.  You don't need an app or a product or a business to use game mechanics.  You just need a person or a group of people with a behavior that you'd like to change....

Angola is living proof that game mechanics have come a long way from motivating us to water virtual crops in FarmVille.  As inmates become Trustees and take their shot at fleeting glory atop rampaging bulls, game mechanics are becoming a commonplace, mainstream approach to solving even the most intractable of problems.

August 15, 2012 at 08:25 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I am not so interested in the "gamification" aspect, but the wonderful use of a reward system. Without a doubt, our prison system relies far too much on punishing bad behavior rather than rewarding proper behavior. Even our most hardened criminals crave praise and reward.

I did the same thing (on a small scale) in my prison classroom. I had an empty classroom beside mine. Inmates that met a critieria for both quantity and quality of work Monday-Thursday were able to spend Friday in the adjacent room watching a movie of their choice (within reason). Those that did not, stayed with me working. By the third week, inmates I would usually have to fight tooth and nail with to get anything done were earning the reward.

Then, the officer on my floor bid another job in the facility and I was not allowed to do it anymore. The new officer did not like having the class split and sid not feel like I could watch both.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Aug 15, 2012 12:34:53 PM

Wonder if "Stir Crazy" provided any inspiration?

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