Jail is no fun, so why the games?

Some well-behaved inmates at the Hernando County Jail get to play video games. Is it coddling? Or control?

Published June 25, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - After a long day of work, some inmates at the Hernando County Jail get to relax with a few hours of video games.

Daniel Sanchez holds a PlayStation 2 controller loose in his hands as he whips his dirt bike around a turn on the screen.

"You can actually feel like you're at home," said Sanchez, 21, who is serving time for burglary. "It gets you away. You don't feel like you're locked up."

Two months ago, two PlayStation 2 consoles and seven games were introduced at the privately run Hernando jail, which last winter was shaken by three suicides and other problems.

The sets and the games, which include football and racing, are used exclusively by the jail's trusties - nonviolent offenders who have earned the privilege of working inside and outside the jail. The equipment was purchased with proceeds from the inmate commissary, not with tax money.

"This is rewarding positive behavior," said Russell Washburn, an assistant warden at the jail, who says the video games have had a calming effect on the inmates. "I'd rather them be thinking about race cars than how I'm mad at someone."

But some others in the corrections business are not ready to put game controllers in the hands of prisoners.

Jails in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties do not allow video games; neither does the Florida Department of Corrections.

"We try to make sure people know that they're here for a period of confinement and it's not fun and games," said Maj. Robert Lucas of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"The Florida taxpayers do not want to provide PlayStations to inmates. There are plenty of taxpayers who can't afford them," said JoEllyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the state prison system, who added that there are a few small TVs on death row.

Across the country, however, as well as in Australia and the United Kingdom, video games have been used to help control and reward inmates.

Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that runs Hernando's jail, uses PlayStations at its Bent County Correctional Facility in Colorado as well as the Marion Adjustment Center in Kentucky, said spokesman Steven Owen.

"It improves the quality of life for the offenders, and it also is a good management tool," said Owen, whose wife bought him an Xbox 360 to blow off stress.

The Missouri Department of Corrections used to allow video games until an executive order banned them in January 2005, said spokesman Brian Hauswirth. The governor objected to violent titles such as Hitman: Contracts, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto and Extermination.

In Hernando, the approved games are all rated "Teen" or below to keep out any that might encourage criminal behavior.

"It's ridiculous in a way," said Bernard McCarthy, chairman of the criminal justice and legal studies department at the University of Central Florida. "Remember, CCA is in it for the money, right? They've found a cheap way to substitute technology for proper staff. When you check public jail systems, they scoff at it. They couldn't do it."

But other corrections experts are more enthusiastic.

"I can't see anything wrong with it. To me, it's creative," said William Blount, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. "If they were doing it on a computer, that would be even better because computer skills are useful."

Hernando Jail officials point out that video games are just one of many programs they offer for inmates.

There are GED courses, anger management training and even a program to teach prisoners how to be better fathers.

"I don't want it portrayed that all they do is sit around and play PlayStation. I would agree that's not right if that's all you do. But this is just part of the rehabilitation," said Washburn, the assistant warden.

"You can't throw them into a place and not give them anything to do and expect no problems. ... This is not a warehouse."

Michael Nase, 37, never had time for video games until he got locked up for driving with a suspended license.

"It's foreign to me," he said. "I just started."

Researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Daily Telegraph of London and the Herald Sun of Melbourne, Australia. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.