Charity Game Sends Donors to Prison

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March 15, 2012; Source: Bristol Evening Post

In Bristol, some 300 people will be paying £15 for the privilege of playing prisoners breaking out of a jail in a city-wide theater game called Prison Break to occur over a three-day period later in March. It seems like a lot of effort to raise £2,000 for Bristol charities, but maybe all the energy and engagement will be worth it.

The concept is “immersive theater.” Designed by 29-year-old Lydia Mason, a local resident, Prison Break will put the 300 or so participants on trial, send them to prison, put them in prison uniforms, and lock them in cells. The volunteer “prisoners” can then plan an escape, working together or working by themselves, with clues about how to do it, abetted by an explosion of some sort. Then they get chased around for a while before being gathered for an after-event party.

It will cost £2,000 (plus the help of 100 volunteers) to raise £2,000 for the benefitting charities, which include the Prison Reform Trust, Amnesty, and Clean Break. Mason is still looking for a private company to “help us provide some food for the volunteers next, as they work incredibly hard over the three nights.” One hopes that Mason also remembers to feed the “prisoners.”

Mason describes Prison Break as “grown-ups at play.” Obviously the benefitting charities don’t mind the idea, but maybe we don’t appreciate something about it. The Prison Break website claims that the design of the game was influenced by Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment, which randomly assigned students to roles as guards and prisoners in a jail (with Zimbardo as the prison superintendent). The abusive behaviors that resulted were heinous and Zimbardo shut down the experiment early when one of the participating students, a grad student who he happened to be dating, complained about the morality of the whole event. Apparently she was the only one to complain, as even Zimbardo was permitting the abuse to happen between “guards” and “prisoners” and among the “prisoners” themselves until his girlfriend (later, his wife) woke him up to what he was doing. We can only imagine what might happen among the Bristol “prisoners” concerning those who decide not to escape or those who don’t necessarily go along with some of the tactics of the leaders of the group.

Maybe we don’t get the humor and the excitement involved in being prisoner-for-a-day (or three days) for charity, with a big party at the end of the fundraising experiment. Do you?—Rick Cohen