Most parents try to shield their children from the reality of crime.
Other parents buy their children the LEGO Prison Island.
LEGO Prison Island is even worse than it sounds. Presumably modeled off two of the world’s most inhumane prisons - Alcatraz in California and Rikers Island in New York - the building block kit tells users, “You and the police have to be on high alert to catch the crooks sliding through the sewer to catch the getaway boat.”
We’ve normalized mass incarceration so much that we’re fine to find it in our toy chests.
If Prison Island weren’t bad enough, children can purchase (separately) the LEGO City Prison Island Accessory Pack, which includes “two prison guards and two crooks” for “role-play inspiration.” The prison guards come with walkie-talkies, a nightstick and a megaphone. The “crooks” are accessorized with money, dynamite, a crowbar and a ball and chain.
While Lego has stopped making this particular line and is apparently just selling out the last of its add-ons to this theme before the whole thing rightfully disappears, Prison Island was marketed to children as young as 6, whose brains are just waiting for lessons.
Prison Island is probably not as bad as “Don’t Drop The Soap,” a board game. It was designed by the college-age son of then-governor of Kansas Kathleen Sebelius, who eventually became President Barack Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services, and requires players to “Fight (their) way through six different exciting locations in hopes of being granted parole.” The game pieces, which include a bag of cocaine and a gun, represent players as they “escape prison riots in The Yard, slip glass into a mob boss’ lasagna in the Cafeteria, steal painkillers from the nurse’s desk in the Infirmary.” Just reading about this creation made me irate. I never got one bite of lasagna when I was in prison.
The sexual assault game, nicknamed “Soap,” makes Target’s Antsy Pants Build and Play Wild West Cove Jail - complete with a DIY “Wanted” sign - look like innocent fun. If hijinks are less than pure, you can always put one of the kids in the “small jail” sold by Child Therapy Toys. If you’re morally opposed to caging kids, then the economy cage from the same company might work for you because, even though it’s only seven inches high, it can still be “used as a jail.” Nothing says miniature mania better than a tiny pokey.
The world of correctional kitsch for adults - prison IDs on Etsy, jail-style restaurants, hotels that used to be penitentiaries, a sequined Tiger Woods mug shot throw pillow - is bad enough, but pushing prison perfidy on kids is abuse.
All toys are educational. Even if kids can’t read an instruction manual, they’re students of playthings. These toys and games foist knowledge of interpersonal and systemic harm that can cause anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms.
Experts advise that parents shouldn’t bring up topics like crime and extreme trauma to children unless they already know about it, according to commonsensemedia.org, in which case a frank discussion is recommended. But let’s be honest: If an 8-year-old is already hip to prison rape and planting glass in people’s food, interventions beyond conversation are warranted.
I’m sure the toughen-up types will argue kids need these toys because they’ll eventually understand that crime and incarceration are facts of life. So are taxes, but you wouldn’t put a lien on your child’s treehouse. Certain realities can wait.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.