Let’s first dispense with the obvious geek jokes about Kevin Singer, whom the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled does not have a Constitutional right to play Dungeons & Dragons in prison: Singer failed his luck roll. His Spell of Invisibility didn’t fool the guards at the gate. His 5th Level Wizard was no match for a 50th Level Judge.
Singer turned to the courts after Wisconsin’s Waupau prison banned the game in 2004, and confiscated his D&D books as well a 96-page manuscript he had written. Prison officials told Singer that fantasy games like D&D were banned because “they promote fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”
Singer argued that the ban violated his Constitutional rights of free speech and due process. Waupau Gang expert Bruce Muraski testified that cooperative games like D&D endanger public and prison safety because they can “mimic the development of gangs” and “foster an inmate’s obsession with escaping from the real life correctional environment.” No kidding? You mean prisoners would rather dream of something else than their next meal of prison Jello, or getting shanked in the ribs courtesy of Crazy Bubba in the next cell?
Though acknowledging evidence that D&D was harmless, the court ruled that Singer failed to demonstrate that the ban was unreasonable in light of legitimate prison concerns. As law professor Ilya Somin noted, the decision was “based on the highly deferential standard under which most prison regulations are to be upheld against constitutional challenge so long as they are ‘rationally related’ to some legitimate goal of prison administration.”
Perhaps the court was right in adhering to the letter of the law. Or perhaps the judges wouldn’t know Dungeons and Dragons if a dragon torched their robes. Prison gangs of D&D players? What are they going to do, bounce 20-sided dice off the head of Carlos the Mexican Drug Lord, famed for his sense of humor as he plays “Dunk your Enemies in a Vat of Acid”? If there is any group in this world that is harmless, it is the guys sitting around a kitchen table munching Doritos and diet soda while they congratulate themselves for wiping out 20 goblins with a fireball spell.
Make no mistake. I have no sympathy for Kevin Singer. What he robbed from his victim can never be restored. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. Kevin Singer will never taste fresh air, or good food, or the caress of a woman. Thus the punishment fits the crime.
Yet this is not a question of physical freedom. This is a question of whether a man has a right to dream, even a man who has committed a heinous crime. We can and we should restrain a murderer’s body. But do we have a right to restrain his mind? His ability to dream of what he does not and cannot ever have?
Dungeons & Dragons may be an escape for Kevin Singer. But as anyone who has ever played D&D knows, for three hours on a Friday night, you can be a powerful wizard or a fearsome warrior. But when those three hours are up, it’s back to reality. Kevin Singer may be a king for an evening. But when he awakens in the morning, he will face a world of gray walls and gray faces. Perhaps that punishment would also fit his crime.