A correctional officer reviews Prison Architect

How does the popular game stack up to really running a prison?

Currently in its Alpha 30 release, Prison Architect is the brain child of British game developer Introversion Software. The UK-based company has experienced a great deal of success in the strategy genera since its debut in 2001.

Prison Architect is a prison management simulation which puts players in charge of the planning, construction and operation of their own prison.

I have to be honest; my first impression when I came across this game in the Steam store was one of dismissal. I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to play a prison simulation game. In retrospect, I suppose that had more to do with my desire to separate work from home than the concept of the game. After much consideration I decided to give the game a try.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The game begins, as most do, with a short tutorial level. In this case you inherit an already running prison and are provided with a few tasks to complete, thus learning the fundamentals of the game. Afterward, you are free to start building your own prison.

What impresses me most about this game is the level of detail and parallels to real life. Laundry service, inmate programs, prison intelligence, patrols, classification, visitation, even parole hearings are all included. As you play, and your prison grows, you must divide your time amongst a variety of issues.

Contraband control is just one example. There are many ways your prisoners can acquire contraband. They may get drugs passed to them through visitation; or they may steal a knife from the kitchen, or tools from the workshop. To keep things in check, the player may place metal detectors and K9 handlers in high traffic areas, interview confidential informants and order the occasional shakedown.

To avoid riots and violence, keep your prisoners happy (read: busy) in the same ways that real correctional facilities do. Provide the prisoners with work programs, religious services and counseling. Use prison intel to find out early if a prisoner has been ‘green lit.’ Assign the prisoner to protective custody to keep him from being taken out. Armed guards can also be used to quell riots quickly, but be careful because deaths devalue your prison. I keep a couple of officers stationed outside my main entrance and I was pleasantly surprised at their swift response to an escape attempt following a riot.

Escapes are a constant threat. Prisoners will try everything, from walking out an unsecured door, to tunneling out, to assaulting staff and taking their keys. A good team of guards (read: officers) armed with TASERs, a regular K9 patrol and a solid security system can help to prevent most escape attempts.

There are a few things I would like to see in future updates to the game. The AI for the guards is a little lacking when emergencies arise; I would like to see them respond without so much intervention. Medical responses are also lacking and prisoners will often die of minor injuries which go untreated without active intervention.

Replacing the term ‘guard’ with ‘officer’ would also be a major improvement. It would also lend a great deal of function to the game if additional levels could be added to the prison instead of constantly requiring you to build outwards. These are just a few of the things I would like to see in future updates but overall I was quite happy.

It is important to note that this game is still in Alpha and as a result, is prone to bugs/glitches. The up side is that updates are frequently being published, which include not only fixes but additional content.Prison Architect is available through Introversion’s website or through Steam; prices start at $29.99. While it may not seem like a go to choice for those of us already working in corrections, fans of ‘sim’ or ‘tycoon’ style games should give it a try. 

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