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Gambling and prison culture
Commission on Gambling & Crime research examines gambling through the lens of a prison culture.

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Gambling widespread and diverse

Today’s (30 March, 2o23) latest research from the Howard League’s Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms aims to understand the nature and experience of gambling within the cultural context of the prison, through the lens of prison culture. 
The research, authored by Sarah Lewis and Justine Bent of Penal Reform Solutions, was co-produced at a multiple security category men’s prison, and in the community, by a team of researchers and peer researchers who live in prison.

The experience of gambling in prison

The researchers found that gambling is culturally embedded within prisons, described as a ‘normal’ pastime by residents and staff. While gambling is prohibited in prison, staff reported that they did not see gambling as problematic and mostly viewed it as ‘harmless betting’ and low-level.

Residents highlighted that gambling is mostly hidden from staff and managed by residents, however there is a willingness amongst staff to turn a blind eye, to keep the “wings calm and quiet”, as “everyone is well behaved, not causing any problems”. A lack of knowledge around gambling harms meant that staff felt a sense of powerlessness in their ability to effectively control gambling. This lack of guidance and inconsistent response to gambling contributed to a confusing and enabling culture.

The role of gambling in prison

The researchers broke the role of gambling in prison down into four themes:

  1. the need to feel;
  2. engineering freedom;
  3. survival; and
  4. meaningful relationships.
The need to feel

‘The need to feel’ was articulated in two ways; to alleviate boredom and to generate stimulation. It brought a sense of joy and excitement and provided relief from the “dullness” of prison, where there were limited options for education or employment. For some, gambling was an aid to “numb everything”, to self-soothe and manage the pains of incarceration. In addition to this, gambling added meaning to life for many. Residents and staff stated that gambling added meaning to recreational activities (e.g. playing pool) and gave some residents a purpose, for example, having their own in-cell shop.

Engineering freedom

Residents also used gambling to engineer freedom, describing gambling as an “escape” from prison and a way to generate a sense of normality and to “pass the time”.


Survival was a consistent theme within the views expressed by participants in the research. Gambling was also described as a route to gain goods of value, which operated as currency across the underground economy (where food, property, drugs, and phones could be bought illegally).

Staff and residents acknowledged that if people did not have family support and money was not sent into prison, residents would struggle due to the small food portions, poor food quality and low prison wages.

Some residents explained that gambling was an “earner” that meant they did not need to “burden” their families.

Meaningful relationships

Gambling was also used to validate friendships and status and enabled people in prison to build new relationships or reconnect with those relationships from outside of prison. For new connections, gambling allowed trust and friendships to be built, reducing loneliness.

The impact of gambling

The impact of gambling differed depending on where an individual was positioned within the prison community. Some described the positive impact gambling could have on prison culture and community, highlighting that it brought people together, occupied their time and helped build relationships with residents and staff.

Others described the potentially negative impact of gambling on the prison community due to its impact on the prison dynamics, causing serious disruption, tension, and in some cases violence.

Harm was the most prevalent theme and related specifically to ‘risky’ gambling (both gambling related-harm, and broader harms associated with the prison environment). Residents described various trauma, including witnessing acts of violence due to non-payment of gambling debts, illuminating how the cultural rules dictate that residents are unable to disclose information to staff.

Financial harms associated with gambling were highlighted, describing how gambling affected people in and outside of prison, explaining how some people can leave prison with thousands of pounds worth of debt.

This harm extended to families, who were reported to be pressurised to bring in phones and drugs, to settle gambling debts, as well as experiencing the financial burden placed on them, while under threat.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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