Friday, 29 August 2014

Prison Gambling: Playing With Your Safety

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. 


  1. So are you suggesting a Gamblers support group should be available to prisoners?

    I can understand alcohol & drug programmes but to my mind, a gambling 'addiction' falls in to the same category as someone who eats too much junk food, or a 'chocoholic' or anybody else who fails to exercise the smallest bit of self control.

    Alcohol & drug abuse have proven physiological elements & whilst endorphin rushes may be experienced by gamblers, I believe chocolate and exercise also can provide similar rushes.

    What about 'adrenaline junkies' who TWOC for the thrill of being chased by the police or people with low self esteem who 'need' expensive clothing to feel worthwhile and steal to support their 'habit'.

    In my opinion, if you go down that road you're not far off declaring every criminal as not responsible for their actions due to their 'condition'.

    Self restraint is the key to civilised human behaviour and the vast majority of people in prison have failed to exercise self restraint in a particular area that has led to the crime. Very few people in prison are there due to 'need' like stealing a loaf of bread to avoid starvation, stealing clothes to sell for medicine for a sick family member, etc.

    Of course prison is full of many different types of people with many different stories.

    I'm not a drug addict because I made a conscious decision not to try 'hard' drugs because I heard, read and saw other forms of media that made me decide it 'could' lead to addiction. I drink, in moderation for the same reason and after 20 years smoking I gave that up 7 years ago.

    I want to have a nicer car, a bigger house, better holidays and spend more time with my loved ones and I could maybe devise some criminal scheme to make me wealthier which would help me achieve that BUT instead I show restraint and obey the law and work hard.

    1. You make a very good point that some crimes are committed for 'need'. To feed your baby, clothe yourself etc etc - maybe not morally acceptable but in some way understandable - you would do anything not so see your child starve.

      There is another element to need - that is the need to feed an addiction. Drink, drugs, gambling or many others.

      Many do find themselves inside through addiction. Gambling is a serious problem very similar to drug addiction. It's simply a need to have access to cash to feed the addiction. Crimes are committed to pay for the addiction.

      As much as drug or alcohol addiction is treated it's right that gambling addiction should be (yet isn't) tackled in prisons.

      I've witnessed myself many forms of gambling inside. It is usually for small stakes - a bar of cheap chocolate etc but the repercussions can be huge. Failing to pay your 'small' debt would almost surely involve a bout of violence against you, it could even involve a move into protective custody - a vulnerable prisoners unit.

      It's a very nice notion that we all have the option to make the "correct" decisions in life to avoid breaking the law. For many inside that option wasn't the best for them at the time. Maybe through need or necessity crimes were committed. Maybe through simply not having any other option or sheer stupidity. What the prison system lacks is a system to highlight the errors of these perpetrators ways and to offer any help, support or a way out of the situation they found themselves in.

      Prison to house people only to create a gap between offences just won't work in the long term. Real rehabilitation is key, with help and support, it just isn't happening.

    2. Thanks for both thoughtful contributions. Firstly, I don't think that any addiction, be it alcohol, drugs, gambling, driving at speed or sex, frees adults of individual responsibility for their actions. Of course, the exception would be for those who are judged by the courts to be insane (in the legal sense of the term) as they would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, but that would be the same for any criminal act such people committed.

      Generally speaking, however, addictions are experienced as compulsions to act in a certain way or to take specific substances. In my experience, most addicts are very much aware of their problems and a significant proportion would prefer to manage their addictions in a legal and responsible way. In an ideal world, they would be able to abstain, but in the real world, human nature is often far more complex and complicated.

      In answer to the specific question about treatment for gambling addiction in prison, I would definitely support the idea, as I feel that there is a need to address any addiction that has led a person to break the law and end up serving a prison sentence. I think that the main difference between the examples you cite of addictions to junk food or chocolate is that very few people end up in prison as a direct consequence of these weaknesses, whereas gambling outside of prison is participation in what is usually a state licensed activity that often requires significant amounts of cash to play.

      Regular advertisements in the media 'push' an idealised image of participation and the possible rewards - from the National Lottery and betting shops to online casinos. If some people get hooked on gambling and they don't have ready money, then they can and do commit crimes that they might not otherwise dream of doing (such as stealing from close friends, family members or employers).

      Gambling is often perceived as a shameful weakness - particularly if losing - and that is why gamblers, like many people with alcohol dependencies or drugs habits, are often so good at hiding their problems from those around them until it is too late. I also think that at least some of the people who live with gambling addictions have other underlying problems: poor self-image, relationship difficulties, pressure from others to achieve unrealistic goals etc.

      That is where appropriate treatment programmes might help the individual to identify the underlying issues and at least show them how to manage these compulsions before they reoffend. As I understand it (not having participated in any courses myself), the same principle applies to all cognitive behavioural therapies. I believe that a key part of such treatment is to recognise the problem and take personal responsibility for it - which I think addresses the issue you raise in your post about responsibility.

      Based on my own experience of supporting others in prison, I actually believe that many prisoners with addictions would accept appropriate treatment if it were to be offered. Since one of the declared objectives of the Prison Service is to provide opportunities for offenders to be rehabilitated, then I think that ignoring the underlying reasons for certain types of offending behaviour will mean that the person will be released without the required 'tools' to help manage their behaviour when they are back in the community - and results in a much higher risk that they might commit similar offences again in the future. If we are truly serious about reducing reoffending, then I think that investment in appropriate treatment programmes for those willing to make the effort to change would be public money well spent in the longer term.

    3. A very well written and reasoned response to my comment and whilst I feel we might disagree all day on certain points.

      For example, I accept that gamblers feel a compulsion just as drug addicts or alcoholics do, but, I would suggest that self restraint should be applied by the individual as soon as they suspect an issue or even earlier than that; I smoked from the age of 13 and by the age of 17 considered myself 'hooked' having failed twice to quit. Around that time I decided that I wouldn't try cocaine (described by a friend as a kiss from an angel) or anything addictive as I have was aware of the possible consequences. So I made the choice before it could become a compulsion.

      I did the same in my original job / career in the public house trade; I noticed & had it confirmed to me that pub managers were either functioning alcoholics or practically teetotal, I chose the latter as I didn't want to risk becoming the former.

      However, we do agree that once people are in this situation of addiction they do need help to break the cycle of offending and I think that cuts to the Prison Service budget are ridiculous and should be one of the 'ring fenced' items protected from cuts.

  2. Perhaps if prisoners had guaranteed access to work (including gaining new skills useful for life on the outside), education, counselling and other meaningful or therapeutic activities (animal care, gardening, budgeting, cooking, mentoring, crafts, artistic/creative pursuits), instead of being doomed to abject boredom, gambling would be less of a problem?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure, to be honest. Some prisoners do make a jail living from the proceeds of gambling, so that would be a hard habit to break, particularly for those cons who already have a gambling addiction.

      However, I am sure that general boredom and lack of meaningful activity does lead prisoners to indulge in all sorts of unhealthy pursuits. I really saw the difference between prisoners in closed nicks (B and C-cats) where even those who had a job only managed a few hours work a day and those at the open prison I was at for nearly a year where there was an extensive farm and gardens operation, as well as other cottage industries linked to local businesses. There was always a waiting list for places in these workshops.

      Prisoners often worked voluntarily out of normal hours to fulfil orders or to care for farm animals. They ended each day exhausted, but with a sense that they'd actually done something productive. There was also less gambling, even though the opportunities were so much greater as we could associate in rooms on our units until midnight. In practice, most of us were in bed with the lights off by 10.30 pm, at least when we had work the following day.

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  5. There is only one thing someone in jail should do: get out. Biding one's time until release or posting bail are the two things to focus on. Those who have to stay locked up should focus on educational and fitness pursuits. Gambling is only going to make time in lockup far worse. Nothing good comes out of gambling. Bide time in prison safely. Being in debt isn't safe.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ Jr's Bail Bond

  6. Gambling is only going to make time in lockup far worse. Nothing good comes out of gambling. Bide time in prison safely. Being in debt isn't safe.