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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 March 2006, 08:56 GMT
Computer games help convicts cope
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Computer game being played on TV, BBC
The initiative aims to give prisoners a taste of life beyond bars
Oregon's prison system in the US is turning to computer games to help rehabilitate felons.

Inmates who have a clean disciplinary record for 18 months are being given a chance to buy a small handheld game console.

The gadget has 50 simple games onboard that can be played through small TVs fixed in cells.

The Oregon state prison system said the gadgets also help to stem some of the trouble incarceration often provokes.

Time trial

The game gadgets, made by technology firm DreamGear, have been introduced to Oregon's correctional system as part of a larger incentive system that starts to help prepare prisoners for life beyond bars.

Oregon's prisons are among the safest in the nation and have been for some time
Perrin Damon, Oregon Department of Corrections
The escalating system of non-cash incentives rewards those prisoners that stay out of trouble.

After six months of clean conduct, inmates get the chance to buy a 7-inch LCD screen with a cable hook-up for their cell. Inmates earn the money for the tiny TV, which costs $300, via the wages they earn doing jobs while serving their sentence.

In 2004-2005, almost 2,400 LCD TVs were bought by inmates of Oregon's prisons. The state has a prison population of approximately 13,000 people.

Six months of good conduct also grants the right to buy CD players and discs, and gives access to social groups and clubs.

After 18 months, inmates are offered further incentives, such as more visiting hours and get the chance to buy ice cream.

They are also given the chance to buy the game gadget which costs $35. The graphics in the 50 games stored on the gadget resemble those seen in mid-1980s consoles.

The titles of games on the DreamGear gadget include Star Ally, Smart Escape, Dragon Poker and Space Castle.

Troubled times

Perrin Damon, communications manager for the Oregon Department of Corrections, told the BBC News website that it had sold 809 consoles to inmates that had earned them between November 2005 and January 2006.

Screengrab of Pac man, Denki
The games date from the Pac-man era of gaming
She played down media suggestions that the console and other incentives were being used to tackle unrest in the state's prisons.

"Oregon's prisons are among the safest in the nation and have been for some time," she said.

Instead, she said, the TVs, music players and game gadgets were part of a larger programme that tried to modify prisoner behaviour and make rehabilitation easier.

This was important, said Ms Damon, because 95% of the state's prisoners will eventually return to the community.

The game gadgets were part of the so-called quality of life incentives that try to make prisoners "gravitate toward the pro-social behaviours critical to successful transition back to the community".

Statistics show that trouble in Oregon's state prisons has declined following the introduction of the gadget incentives.

Over the past three years the incidence of misconduct reports, assaults on warders and fights between inmates has declined, even though the numbers of prisoners has increased.

The non-cash incentive system was introduced following legal changes that introduced minimum sentences for some violent crimes.

This meant that 40% of the state's prisoners could no longer earn time off their sentence for good behaviour.

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