On one of the largest and most restrictive death rows in the nation, some have turned to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to give themselves a small sense of the freedom they have left behind, the New York Times Magazine reports. Based on a reporter’s several years of exchanging letters with and interviewing the men on Texas’ death row, the story describes the logistical hurdles that players must overcome, since they can’t look up rules online and the hard-bound manuals, materials and maps are expensive and prone to prison censorship. But their efforts pay off in the escapism the game provides, not to mention the sense of camaraderie it breeds.
While fewer prisoners arrive on death row each year, they languish there far longer. In many states, prisoners spend those years living in isolation so extreme the United Nations condemns it as torture. Not every state keeps its death-row population in solitary. Some prisoners sentenced to death in Missouri and California, for example, are mixed with the general population. In Arizona, people on death row can go to the rec yard and day room in groups for a few hours a day. In North Carolina, they can take prison jobs; in Florida they can have TVs in their cells; and in Louisiana, they’re allowed to have contact visits, where they can hug their friends and families. Texas offered some of those freedoms until seven men in 1998 staged a breakout attempt. In the decades since then, the men on death row at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit have spent their days in near-total isolation, only allowed to leave their cells for two hours of recreation, three days a week, alone, in day rooms or fenced-in cages. Sometimes, the men say, they go weeks without setting foot outdoors or being able to take a shower.