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Incarcerated Men Find Escape Through Role-Playing Game Dungeons And Dragons

Bart Heird, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / cropped
Dungeons & Dragons players use polyhedral dice during the game

From San Quentin Radio:

Across the United States, incarcerated people often separate themselves by race or ethnicity. Blacks hang with blacks, whites with whites, and so forth. But at San Quentin, people of all races participate in playing in a role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons. They defy incarceration politics to share in a fun activity and also escape from the stress of the incarceration system.

Instead of hanging out on the yard, a group of men are playing Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short. Dungeons and Dragons is a role-playing game with dice, sort of like Monopoly, or Scrabble.

Khalifah Christensen is one of the founding members of D&D at San Quentin. In today’s game, he is Max, a wizard. Khalifah started playing D&D when he was in junior high, and he was surprised to see it at San Quentin when he arrived.

“There was a few guys who started getting together,” Khalifah says. “And it was actually Mesro, who I knew from another incarceration system. I went to go and talk to him, and when I went to the table realized what they were doing. I was like, ah man I gotta get in.”

At San Quentin, people play together every day. You can go anywhere in the incarceration system and find a group of guys of all races sitting together, "gaming."

Today George Coles, better known as Mesro, is the Dungeon Master, or leader, of the game. He has a book that helps him set the gameplay and the adventure — also known as the set piece.

“We have Chin Strap,” Mesro points out. “He is a half-orc fifth level monk, his main thing is getting people with that two-piece and taking them out of commission as quickly as possible.”

The characters all have amazing skills, elaborate titles, and fascinating weapons. Khalifah’s character Max is armed with a deadly staff. And then there’s Gems, a rogue fighter who spent her entire life on the streets.

“She is a urchin so she takes nothing for granted,” Mesro explains. “She takes everything from everyone.”

These characters and their real-life counterparts are trying to defeat a horde of creatures called Gnolls.

“These creatures are hyenas that basically walk on their hind legs, and fight and eat everything that’s not nailed down,” Mesro says.

Khalifah says the fantasies of the game is a way to mentally escape the concrete walls and barbed wire fences.

“It's a way for somebody to unconsciously let part of themselves out that they normally wouldn't,” Khalifah explains. “Whatever societal restrictions there are, in this character they don't have those restrictions anymore.  And they can really let that part of them show. You have a lot of guys, that, on the yard, they're hard-asses. But they can be compassionate in these games if that how they want to play it. They can be somebody that they normally don't feel they can be.”

Mesro says that at other incarceration systems, he was rejected from games because of racial discrimination. But at San Quentin, he welcomes all people to the D&D table.

Khalifah doesn't like associating himself with any particular race. He identifies himself as an ‘other.’ That’s incarceration lingo for not being black, white, or Hispanic. There's a lot of racial bias and segregation in incarceration, but when he's playing Dungeons & Dragons, being an 'other' doesn't matter.

“I had already been on that trip,” Khalifah explained of his identity. “But it has helped me to be able to let others do that. And to let other people be them true selves. They can do that at these tables when we're playing these games. Even though it’s made-up characters, they get to be themselves.”

It’s a diverse group of people who play at San Quentin across race and gender - there are several transgender inmates who have started to play. The group has even tried to find books in Spanish so that bilingual players can participate.

Inmates are faced with many challenges that are overwhelming, but Dungeons & Dragons provides an outlet for them to escape mentally, at least for the moment.

Uncuffed, formerly San Quentin Radio, is a project in which KALW editors train incarcerated people to report stories from inside prison. A CDCR official listened to and approved the audio for this story prior to broadcast.

This story originally aired in October of 2018.

Crosscurrents From The Producers Of Uncuffed