After eight decades, Monopoly continues to be one of the highest selling board games in the world. During this time span, a wide range of editions were released to fit the specific contexts and interests of players. With an eye toward modernization, Hasbro recently asked the public to vote whether the iconic game pieces (i.e. car, hat, ship, etc.) should be replaced with more current symbols – like a hashtag or emoji.
Despite these superficial alterations, the game of Monopoly retains the same problematic impulses. The overall objective is to accumulate the most private property by bankrupting everyone else. Enough of my posts address the glaring issues of capitalism, so I will not repeat them here. Instead, I will debunk three subtle criminal justice myths perpetuated by the game: 1). rich people go to jail, 2). jail is located near poor communities, and 3). being in jail is a consequence of a person’s actions.
Rich People Do Not Go to Jail or Prison
At the beginning of every traditional game, each player has $1,500 to buy property, pay taxes, and/or settle debts. While this amount may sound inadequate today, we must remember that the game still uses values from 1935 – so all property is relatively cheap (between $60-$400). Everyone begins rich. However, the possibility of going to jail is a barrier to one’s overall objective. When a person lands on a designated area on the board or flips a certain card, they must move their token directly to jail. Unless the player has a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, they are stuck for a few turns.
The first problem with this idea is that it fails to represent the relationship between capitalism and criminal justice. Our economic system is based on a battle between two groups: the small ruling class, and the masses of people that they dominate. Those at the top of the pyramid own and control all that is necessary for the survival humankind: property, resources, factories, etc. – while the multitudes of people have nothing to offer but their labor power. The differences between these groups are irreconcilable because the powerful operate with a sense of greed; while the masses operate from a sense of need.
To maintain their position, the powerful use the police and build prisons to control the masses. It is no surprise that local jails and prisons are packed with people from impoverished backgrounds. A whopping 57% of incarcerated men between 27-42 years of age had incomes less than $22,500 a year before being locked up. This percentage rises to 72% for incarcerated women. The United States has a money bail system whereby a person can pay to be released pre-trial. However, since people of color and women receive lower wages, these groups are often unable to afford bail. Consequently, defendants are forced to languish in jail because they are poor. Justice has a hefty price tag whereby a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ only when they can pay.
The criminal justice system exists to protect the wealthy – which is why it is rare that rich people are ever arrested or charged. A prime example is the fact that Wall Street bankers caused the financial crisis – but only one person was incarcerated. The monumental transgressions of the rich are ignored, while the crimes of the poor receive harsh punishment. Part of the reason for this differential is that our definition of ‘crime’ focuses almost exclusively on blue-collar crime: robbery, assault, vandalism, shoplifting, etc. This group of crimes is associated with the masses of people. We do not discuss the prevalence of white-collar crime: embezzlement, bribery, money laundering, fraud, insider trading, etc. These crimes are associated with people in power who have wealth and prestige. In contrast to popular belief, Edwin Sutherland argued that “the financial cost of white-collar crime is probably several times as great as the financial cost of all the crimes which are customarily regarded as the ‘crime problem’” (1939, p. 4-5). While a regular person is sentenced to prison for 5 years because he/she robbed a single store, Wall Street executives are given slaps on the wrist for robbing an entire economy.
If Hasbro is interested in modernizing the game, they would either eliminate the ‘Go to Jail’ feature in entirety; or give every player an endless supply of ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards.
Distance From Correctional Facilities
The second criminal justice myth perpetuated by Monopoly is the idea that jail is in proximity to impoverished communities. In the traditional game, the jail is located near some the lowest value properties. The corrections facility is on the same side of the board as Baltic, Mediterranean, and Connecticut Avenues – meaning it is on te ‘same side of town’. However, 63% of state prisoners are locked up over 100 miles from their families. Under these conditions, maintaining family ties – which decreases recidivism – becomes harder. Traveling to and from prison is time-consuming and costly; especially for low-income individuals in the absence of public transportation. As distance from the prison increases, the likelihood of inmates receiving just one visit per month decreases drastically.
If Hasbro is interested in modernizing the game, the jail would be located on the opposite side of the board from the poor communities.
False Reasoning for Incarceration
The third criminal justice myth perpetuated by Monopoly is the idea that encountering law enforcement is a consequence of behaviors. As noted above, there are only two reasons a player ends up in jail: landing on the designated space, or flipping a specific card. Following this impulse, people are locked up as a direct result of their actions. While this view is common sense, it fails to grasp the relationship between blackness and law enforcement. Black people are not arrested in response to a transgression of law or custom, but because of their being. Black folks are born guilty; their existence is the violation that sets the justice system in motion. Black people need not do anything to find themselves behind bars – because their presence in an anti-black world is the biggest ‘crime’ of all.
Photo Credit: Angry T-Shirts
Sutherland, Edwin. 1939. White-Collar Criminality