Why is Gambling So Popular in Prison?

Time in prison goes very slowly if there’s nothing to keep your mind busy. One of the most common forms of entertainment behind bars is gambling. When other forms of “killing bird” like sport, creative classes, and learning are available, why is it gambling that most entertains people in jail?

Playing cards and handcuffs, representing illegal gambling
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Prison and Gambling – A Match Made in Heaven

Gambling has always been rife in prisons. What better way to pass the time in a confined space than to introduce an element of competition, intrigue, and potential reward?

In an environment where achievements and progress need to be found in unorthodox ways, gambling offers inmates the chance to experience emotions they might not ordinarily have the chance to during their sentence.

It is widely believed that prison offers ideal conditions for gambling to thrive. Former prisoner Jeannette Tossounian (http://www.anklebonebooks.com/) was convicted of a crime she did not commit. She used her time in jail to write a book, and witnessed her fair share of gambling in prison.

“Gambling pretty much is a daily regular part of prison life. I mean, what else is there to do, right? You at least need to barter for items in order to survive, so naturally that would lead to gambling as a way of survival,” she said.

The Casino Prison

The relationship between gambling and prisons is perhaps best illustrated by Nevada State Prison, which actually operated a casino within its grounds. Between 1932 and 1967, the casino, named The Bull Pen, was run by and used by inmates.

The Bull Pen was eventually shut down, despite evidence suggesting it actually improved prisoner behaviour within the prison. It was felt that the casino gave the inmates some focus and purpose, which stopped them getting bored and kept them out of trouble.

Prisoners gambling inside the Nevada state prison
Image Credit: nevadastateprison.org

Warden Carl Hocker took the decision to close down The Bull Pen, stating that he felt gambling in prison was a “degradation”. He planned to replace the casino with more wholesome activities to keep the prisoners free of boredom. Many still feel that closing the casino was a mistake. Nevada State Prison itself closed in 2012.

If one thing prevails from the era of The Bull Pen, it’s the potential for gambling to have a positive impact within prison walls if managed correctly. An organised betting environment that does not tolerate rule breakers can reap positive rewards for prisoners and help the prison’s disciplinary record. It’s also proof of just how popular gambling can be with inmates.

Games of Choice

A number of classic casino games are popular in prisons. The usual games of blackjack, poker, spades, casino, rummy, and bridge are commonly played amongst inmates as a way to pass the time.

In terms of betting in prisons, it is not just casino games that are wagered on. Traditional board games such as Risk, The Game of Life, and Monopoly suddenly become arenas for high stakes gambling.

Tossounian states, “Mostly any type of card game is used. Spades was a popular card game when I was in. There are also board games. You can bet on anything really.”

Standard playing cards
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The betting doesn’t stop there. Sports played within prison become the focus of pools. If prisoners aren’t lucky enough to organize their own weekly sports betting rings then the prison sports become their betting attention.

The Dark Side

It is always the case that it only takes the minority to let a whole process down. Gambling in prisons is no different. The vast majority of prisons have gambling going on with little to no fuss. Cheating isn’t tolerated, and those that do try to cheat are dealt with in an appropriate manner.

There are times when things get out of hand. Disputes over winning hands, allegations of corruption, and people simply being unable to win or lose with any dignity. This results in prisoners starting mass brawls and violence becoming a huge problem.

An argument can be made that the gambling isn’t what triggers this reaction. That behaviour exists within the individuals gambling. Even without gambling the prisoners would still find another reason to lock horns and express their violent actions.

Tosounnian highlights how the stakes involved in gambling weren’t money, like on the outside, but more essential items that can make life on the inside easier.

She said “You would think drugs, but food was probably the most popular item, whole jail meals, or chocolate bars and chips. Mostly products that inmates could only get through bought canteen items, as most inmates in the jail I was in had no money and you couldn’t work for money in that jail.”

“Items like toothpaste and hair conditioner were big ticket items as well…. and drugs, mostly the prescribed drugs that were ‘cheeked’ at med time,” she added.

Is There a Future for Gambling In Prisons?

The debate rages on about whether gambling in prisons is positive or destructive for the prison environment. For the time being, it appears that the two sides of the argument are very much based on a moral foundation.

Tossunian herself admits that gambling can become addictive inside prison, due to it being a daily occurrence.

“When you first get in and see everyone trading and gambling items, you think ‘how stupid.’ But after a couple of months of institutionalization, you find yourself in the game in order to either survive or just have things because there is not much to have in that place. Most people do it as a lark at first, but the more you spend time, the more addictive it becomes.”

Those that argue against gambling in prisons do so because they believe gambling as a whole is a sin. It should have no place in a prison, where inmates are put as a punishment for their sins. But while gambling does bring its problems, are they issues that would exist in prisons anyway?

HMP Birmingham is a men's prison
Image Credit: inews.co.uk

At a time when the UK government took over full control of HMP Birmingham from private firm G4S due to its awful conditions there is perhaps fair reason to argue that maybe now is the time to re-consider how gambling is dealt with in prisons. Gambling will thrive inside no matter what. Would it be for the best if it was done in a regulated and organised manner?

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