SALEM, Ore. — With new legislation limiting cash payments to inmates and mandatory minimum sentences that force inmates to serve their entire sentences without the possibility of time off for good behavior, prison officials in Oregon were forced to come up with new incentives for prisoners to quell possible disruptions at facilities.
They found their solution in the device that entices millions of youth across the United States into hours of thoughtless activity: video games.
The Oregon Department of Corrections recently began offering the DreamGear 50-in-1 video game system, a handheld console that contains 50 rudimentary video games similar to the Atari system used in the 1980s.
The system is available to inmates who have 18 months of good behavior and can be purchased at facility commissaries for $35. So far, about 400 of the 2,000 eligible prisoners statewide have bought the system. The video games can only be played on individual 7-inch LCD flat-screen televisions that can also be purchased at the prison commissary.
Randy Geer, who heads the departments’ non-cash incentives program, says the cost of the system may deter more widespread use.
“Our average cash award in a month is about $30 per inmate,” Geer says. “It would be the equivalent of spending all of your monthly salary on one particular thing.”
The system has proved effective for the prison system, according to Geer, as inmates spend more time alone in their cell instead of in large group activities.
“If an inmate is in his cell with his video game console and his television, than he is not out in the yard or up in the TV group-viewing room where so much mischief happens,” Geer says.
One of the more popular games among inmates is Asteroids, a space ship game where the player must shoot other space ships and avoid asteroid obstacles. Other games include tennis and darts. The consoles are outfitted with clear plastic to prevent inmates from hiding contraband.
Widespread media reports in the state caught Oregon residents by surprise, but most of the feedback has been positive, Geer says.
“I think people were somewhat surprised by the idea, but they do understand that addressing inmate idleness and trying to do what you can to limit large group activities are both things that are necessary in today’s correctional environment,” he says.
He says the state Department of Corrections focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment.
“To many people, inmates go to prison to be punished, but that has never been quite the Oregon attitude,” Geer says. “I think Oregon looks at prisons a little bit differently. Inmates go to prison, that is their punishment. What happens to them in prison is hopefully the kind of programming and change of attitude that will make them less dangerous when they get out rather than more dangerous.”