Why you should care

This immersive adventure feeds our fascination with life behind bars, and makes it eerily real. 

My prison uniform doesn’t fit; the striped black-and-white top hangs close to my knees. My wrist chafes from the handcuffs, and the lack of natural light in my cell makes me claustrophobic. A lonely ceramic toilet and a small table sit in the corner of the room. I’m here voluntarily.

This is the Prison Escape experience, offered by new Miami-based company Escape the Quest, a fully immersive adventure that cashes in on people’s fascination with imprisonment, giving visitors a chance to get their “cell” on. It’s $100 for the experience for two to four people (cost per experience, not per person). Players escape the cell by deciphering the scattered clues. You’re given one hour to complete your personal prison break. If you make it, you receive an adrenaline rush of accomplishment, but if you fail you’re left with the knowledge that you’d (potentially) never make it behind bars.

They’re stripped of belongings — including cellphones. For the connected generation, this creates an unsettling sense of vulnerability.

Only about half make it. “We let about 50 percent of people out at the end of the hour,” Escape the Quest manager Yuliya Pashkevich, 26, told OZY. Pashkevich has a camera in every cell and she monitors each prison break. If needed, she’ll call out clues. Approximately 20 percent of teams break out with no help, and 30 percent manage with added clues. The quickest team managed it in 35 minutes.

Without giving too much away, many of the prison adventures start with team members locked in adjoining cells. To share resources and move between cells, they need to talk to each other and figure out how they can pool resources — such as moving chains through gratings or decoding patterns from graffiti etched into the walls. Before people enter the cell, they’re stripped of belongings, leaving cellphones, watches, etc., in lockers. For the connected generation, this creates an unsettling sense of vulnerability.

So what’s the draw? Society teaches us that prison is something bad, and that we should avoid behavior that might lead us there. With this in mind, why are people paying to play? It’s that fascination with prison, that unknown other, inhabited by lawbreakers and women from Orange Is the New Black and absorbed through fictionalized media and real life biographies. Which makes some want to get a (safe) taste. That sounds fine on paper, but it’s completely different when you’re staring at cold gray walls and feeling panicky. Even knowing that I can leave anytime I want — Pashkevich will let me out if I shout — doesn’t help: I don’t want to fail.

It’s voyeurism at its best.

— Noelle Hanrahan, director of Prison Radio

Critics call it out as an experience for the privileged, one that does not accurately reflect the conditions of incarceration. “It’s voyeurism at its best,” says Noelle Hanrahan, director of Prison Radio, a multimedia production studio that interviews inmates and advocates for social change. “Prison shouldn’t be conveyed as exciting or titillating. It’s much too serious,” she says. According to Prison Policy Initiative, there are 2.4 million people locked up in the U.S.

Entertainment is the business goal of Escape the Quest; the company wants to appeal to people looking for a thrill and something unexpected. And the concept is gaining traction. It’s been open for four months and already has dozens of positive TripAdvisor reviews. A new branch is scheduled to open in Minsk soon. Escape the Quest has also opened new “escape” rooms, where players are locked in “Apartment 101” and a “Mental Hospital.”

Inside, time passes quickly. My cellmate yanks my wrist and we struggle around the room, banging the walls and unhappily searching the toilet basin. I break two nails combing the corners. We’re soon arguing about what to do next. It’s illogical, but he has become the enemy. We make it out with 10 minutes to spare, but I’m left shaken. It might be a manufactured experience, but the feelings of imprisonment and powerlessness were very real, and I have new respect — and sympathy — for those who are living this way.

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