Have you ever seen a group of grown men involved in a punch-up over a game of Scrabble or serious violence sparked off by an accusation of cheating at dominoes? If not, you’ve probably never been in prison.
Prisoners, like most other folks, often get very bored and are constantly looking for diversions to help pass the time. A popular phrase in the slammer is “it’s a bird killer” (ie, something that makes the sentence seem to go by more quickly). Gambling, in all its many forms, is an acknowledged ‘bird killer’.
|Fancy a punt on the footie score?|
Some cons will gamble on almost anything: football results, other major sporting events, games of cards, board games… you name it, someone, somewhere will be willing to take a punt on the outcome. Playing cards is probably the most common type of prison pastime, with poker, whist, crib and kaluki (sometimes spelt kalooki) very popular games.
Kaluki – which I’m told is very similar to Rummy – is sometimes considered to be a very typical card game played in the nick, although it is said by some to originate from Israel. Jokers are used as wild cards and the objective is to be the first player to play all the cards in your hand. I’ve never played it myself, although I have watched innumerable games being played on prison wings (and in prison workshops when there is little or no work to be done).
I’ve never been an enthusiastic card player myself, and I barely know the rules of much more than patience or snap. However, I did find myself getting drawn into watching some of these games, as they can get quite exciting. One very affable young drug dealer I got to know in a B-cat prison did try to teach me the rudiments of poker, but I really couldn’t pick it up. Just as well really, because he was a noted card sharp and supplemented his meagre prison wages by winning ‘burn’ (rolling tobacco) and chocolate bars from other cons.
|Contraband in some prison workshops|
Some prison governors have banned prisoners from taking playing cards to work because it sets a bad example and can look awful when official visitors turn up without warning. However, at other nicks most screws and instructors really don’t mind because anything that keeps inmates occupied and quiet during slack periods is to be welcomed. If an official visitor suddenly appears, then cards are easily swept off the table and into a pocket. You might be surprised to learn just how much informal collusion of this kind goes on between cons and screws in the interests of everyone having a quiet life.
In one nick there was a very active football pools racket running during the footie season. All participants were required to pay in a 50p bar of chocolate from the canteen in order to play. The winner would end up with 20 or more bars that could then be used as prison currency to pay other debts or for services such as private laundry. Not a bad return on a 50p stake for the lucky winner. What really shocked me was that two of the wing screws were enthusiastic members of the pool – raising all sorts of questions about appropriate boundaries and the potential for blackmail.
|Very popular in YOIs|
Other popular activities in the nick include board games such as Scrabble, Monopoly and chess. You may find it hard to believe but many prisoners are chess wizards, particularly lads who’ve spent long periods in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). Even some of those who have literacy problems can learn to play chess to a very high standard and tournaments can go on for weeks, spread over many association sessions. Playing dominoes is also very popular, especially among prisoners whose background is from Somalia or other North African countries where the game is a favourite in all-male coffee houses.
In one B-cat, a large group of black lads used to occupy a cross-landing (the middle walkway that connects two sides of an upper landing) using small wooden tables moved from their pads and play simultaneous games of dominoes for high stakes. Of course, the scoring was done with things like matchsticks so passing screws wouldn’t realise that players were actually wagering cash, canteen goods or burn, since actual gambling is supposed to be a violation of prison rules.
It’s ironic that while alcohol and drugs are officially prohibited in jails, gambling – which is also against the rules – tends to pass under the radar, at least until it all turns very nasty and someone gets seriously battered. And this can happen when a player’s debts have mounted up and he can’t cover his losses, or when allegations of cheating have been made.
That’s why gambling in prison can be for very high stakes indeed: your personal safety. To be fair, extreme violence sparked off by gambling is probably responsible for only a fraction of the incidents caused by the illegal drugs trade inside prisons or the business of loaning out tobacco at interest. However, when incidents flare up over gambling they can be every bit as nasty and violent.
|Potentially offensive weapons|
One of the biggest prison brawls I’ve ever witnessed during my time in the slammer was set off by one lad of Egyptian origin being accused by some Somalis of having cheated during a game of dominoes where high stakes were involved. This accusation led to the overturning of tables, Wild West saloon-style, and a free-for-all punch-up during which the players split into two groups: fighters and excited spectators. The wing security alarms went off as the screws realised it had all kicked off up on the top landing.
Various participants were hauled off and ‘nicked’ (charged) for fighting, while all the rest of us were ordered to get back ‘behind our doors’ to be banged up for the rest of the evening. Bad feeling over this incident dragged on for weeks, particularly because of the high amounts of cash and canteen goods that had been at stake. Like many fights in the slammer, you rarely get to the truth of what really happened and everyone has his own version of events.
However, if you are surprised to hear that dominoes can be such a dangerous game, then imagine two Scrabble players rolling round on the floor beating the seven bells of hell out of each other because one had dared to challenge the validity of a word played by his opponent in a close-fought game which had money on the line. Even though the word in question had indeed been misspelt, the player refused to accept that he had made a mistake and, since he suffered from what might be called ‘poor anger management’, the end result was a right royal dust-up, during which quite a few hard blows were exchanged. End result: black eyes and nickings all round.
|Not supposed to be a contact sport|
I’ve heard of similar rows over alleged sharp practice during games of Monopoly. Chess, for some reason, tends to be less of a violent activity in the nick. I’ve yet to come across two chess players slogging it out. Perhaps the nature of the game appeals to a more intellectual type of con. Still, I’m sure that disputed moves have probably led to prison violence at sometime.
In addition to the problems caused by debts between prisoners, gambling can also have other negative consequences. Quite a few cons are actually in jail for gambling-related offences, particularly embezzlement, theft or robbery. I’ve been inside with lads who’ve blown their pay packets or weekly benefits down at the bookies or on the slot machines and then held up the manager or the cashier at knifepoint to try to get their cash back. It’s much commoner than you might suppose.
|Gambling: can be highly addictive|
Other inmates are doing time for stealing from their own companies, employers, family members or friends in order to fund gambling addictions. I’ve known some very decent blokes – ex-professionals – who have wrecked their own lives, and sometimes that of their families, because of serious problems with gambling that got completely out of control.
Strangely enough, although most prisons do offer some limited support programmes for cons whose offences have involved misuse of alcohol or drugs, I’ve never come across any provision for prisoners with gambling addictions. In my opinion this is a serious oversight, given the number of inmates who are serving time for crimes that have involved some element of gambling.
Almost invariably, the same men run the risk of getting sucked into the various opportunities to continue gambling inside prison, often with negative consequences for them and, potentially, for their families who may get desperate phone calls pleading for money to be sent in to help them cover their debts. Like so many other activities inside prison, even seemingly innocent and peaceful pastimes – such as a game of cards or dominoes – can have a darker, much more sinister side.