An excellent piece!
I also think that Prison Architect misses the mark in a lot of ways, but my feelings are less informed by a wider discourse about prisons and more from a very specific gameplay experience I had.
I played the game during the public alpha, and it was a strange experience. Most of the “upgrades” weren’t in the game, and it was mostly a building simulator with some light goals. You imported prisoners, attempted to make a profit off of them, and tried to run the prison to the best of your ability. To be clear, that’s mostly what the game is now.
However, during this early release, it was impossible to turn a profit. Without the ability to use prisoners as functional indentured servants, eventually the cost of running the prison became so high that every inmate who was brought to the prison was essentially a debt that the prison was taking on.
This is obviously not intentional. It’s a glitch, or a case of a system that wasn’t developed far enough for actual gameplay. But it was also the most interesting thing that Prison Architect could say about prisons.
In that alpha state, the game was accidentally making the compelling argument that prisons only work in the United States because of a heavy influx of capital from a wide array of actors. This is the carceral state that this week is all about at Waypoint – there is a wide alliance of money, groups with power, legislators, and public interest the keep prisons afloat in modes that do not originate in the prison itself.
Prisons are a product of both a society and its economic relations, and what the “broken” alpha demonstrated is that you cannot abstract one single prison from this wider set of conditions in the social world. There are no prisons; there is a carceral state with individual manifestations.
But, of course, that was all on accident. The game turned toward final release, the inevitable failure that existed in the alpha was “solved,” and now we have a game that argues for the social and economic benefit of prisons. Just what we needed.