What Was The Deal With The Casino In Nevada State Prison?

Before it was closed on May 18, 2012, Nevada State Prison had a reputation for being one of the most notorious penitentiary facilities in the United States.

But it wasn’t just known for being the state’s main execution site, it also became famous thanks to its official prison casino that was run by – and for – inmates for 35 years between 1932-67.

Baseball parlays board from inside the prison casino
Image: nevadamagazine.com

A Casino To Help Rebuild The Economy

The Nevada State Prison was initially constructed in 1862 and suffered two big fires within its first decade, one of which completely destroyed the original building.

We won’t go over the prison’s history today, though, so let’s fast forward to around 70 years later to March 19, 1931, when gambling was legalized in the state of Nevada.

Governor Fred Balzar signed Assembly Bill 98 into law, which had been introduced after the stock market crash of 1929.

During the period of the Great Depression that followed, Nevada was funding the construction of the Hoover Dam and needed to generate revenues from alternative methods.

It was this ruling that saw Nevada State Prison take the unprecedented step of opening an inmate-run casino known as the “Bullpen” in 1932.

This was something that had never been done before and has never been replicated since in United States penal history.

A Legitimate Operation?

Now, your first thought on hearing about a casino run in a prison is probably that things must have quickly descended into chaos.

But the opposite was true; the casino ran effectively for over three decades.

Inmates gambling at Nevada State Prison's casino
Image: nevadastateprison.org

During this time a wide range of casino games were available for inmates to wager on, including blackjack, craps, poker, gin rummy, and even sports betting – the theory being that a casino would keep the prisoners busy and out of trouble.

One Assemblyman, Howard McKissick, even suggested that gambling would prevent “homosexual problems”.

It was well known that gambling took place in US prisons anyway, so it was figured that a regulated venue would help to prevent more sinister forms of gambling taking place within the prison walls.

The Bullpen had such a good reputation during its golden years that even state officials and members of the local Kiwanis Club would come to enjoy a flutter.

In other words, there was no feeling that this was a seedy or dangerous operation. 

Interestingly, the Bullpen even had its own form of currency: Coins in the denominations of 5c, 10c, 25c, 50c, $1, and $5.

The currency that prisoners used
Image: nevadastateprison.org

All in all, they were not much different to the gambling tokens you can find in any regular casino.

Today, casino tokens from the Bullpen are serious collectors’ items with some of them selling on eBay for over $300 per coin.

Why Did The Bullpen Close?

If it was clear that a regulated casino within a prison was having a positive impact on inmate behavior and the general prison environment, why was the operation scrapped in 1967? 

The answer to that question begins with the name of one man, Warden Carl Hocker.

Hocker had come in from the California prison system to run Nevada State Prison.

At the time, the California prison system had different ideals to those in place in the Silver State and it was obvious that he saw no benefit in maintaining a pro-gambling atmosphere within the prison.

“I think gambling in prison is a degradation, and it’s certainly not constructive. We’re trying to replace it with constructive, wholesome activities that will contribute to a decent, healthful state of mind,” Hocker said at the time.

Prisoners enjoying a table game from the in-house casino
Image: nevadastateprison.org

The controversial decision saw Hocker put an emphasis on more socially acceptable prisoner activities, such as handicrafts, chess, volleyball, ping pong, and bridge.

There remains a degree of skepticism around Hocker’s reasons for closing the casino.

Speculation was rife at the time that a prison riot – caused by a disagreement in the casino – had led to legislators introducing a bill to close it.

Could It Happen Again?

The U.S. government spends approximately $80 billion every year on prison running costs.

It’s food for thought that part of that money could be recouped in revenue generated by opening legitimate and regulated casinos within prisons.

But despite the evidence that the Bullpen helped to improve prisoner behavior during its time in existence, there appears to be no appetite to re-introduce casinos into U.S. prisons.

And while illegal and underground gambling will always occur in prisons it is unlikely that we will see an official, regulated U.S. prison casino again.

The Bullpen’s relative obscurity is proof that the authorities are not exactly proud of having operated a casino within Nevada State Prison for over 30 years and the argument about whether it did more harm than good for the prison and its prisoners will continue to rage on.

The Prison Today

The Nevada State Prison officially closed its doors on May 18, 2012 and ceased being the state’s site of executions in 2016 when a new execution chamber was completed at Ely State Prison. 

Since this time, guided tours of the old facilities have become quite popular. During the walking tours you can learn about the many unique sights and stories that made up prison life.

As the site of many executions, the prison’s bloody history has also led many people to suggest the huge building is haunted. The prison was even featured on an episode of the paranormal TV show Ghost Adventures.

Night-time ghost tours of the prison are also occasionally offered. But be warned, they are not for the faint hearted.

Many who have gone on them have reported unexplained voices and some very eerie encounters… 

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