At The Marshall Project, journalist Keri Blakinger offers a sobering and poignant profile of Tony Ford and Billy Wardlow, two incarcerated men who found friendship and purpose by playing the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons together while on death row in Texas.
Death row didn’t offer any of the educational or mental-health programs available in regular prisons; rehabilitation isn’t the goal for those on death row, and special programming is not always logistically feasible for people held in solitary confinement. For these players, the games served as their life-skills course, anger-management class and drug counseling, too. Like Ford and Wardlow, a lot of the men on the row came to prison at a young age and never had a chance to be adults in the free world.
In 2013, Ford’s mother died, and he quit the game. But Wardlow kept talking to him, even when it was just a one-way conversation through the rec-cage fence. At first, Wardlow just mused aloud about whatever was on his mind, his voice calming and hypnotic. As he kept talking, Ford started to open up, too, crying as he recounted memories of his mother. He remembered the pride she took in her work as a police officer, and how much she taught him about computers when she worked in an Atari warehouse years later. He remembered how she showed him the basics of chess. At one point, Wardlow sent over some jelly beans — he knew Ford loved them, especially the black ones.
“Next thing you know, I’m not crying when I’m talking about my mother,” Ford told me two years ago during one of our first in-person interviews. “I’m just talking about her.” A few weeks later, he jumped back in the game.