Keep up-to-date with drugs and crime

The latest research, policy, practice and opinion on our criminal justice and drug & alcohol treatment systems
Gambling in prison
young offenders playing cards
Gambling availability and culture in an English prison

Share This Post

Gambling in Prison

Interesting new research (published 18 November 2022) looks at gambling in an English prison. “Gambling and crime: An exploration of gambling availability and culture in an English prison” by Lauren Smith, Steve Sharman & Amanda Roberts looked at four main issues:

  1. the prevalence and type of gambling occurring prior to and within prison;
  2. the reasons prisoners give for their gambling;
  3. the currency used for gambling within prison; and
  4. the prevalence of gambling-related borrowing and debt within prison.

The research 

Two hundred and eighty-two volunteer participants were recruited at a category B, adult male prison located in England. The research is based on questionnaires which were administered between March 2018 and February 2019.

Gambling prior to prison

One-hundred and eighty-five participants (66%) reported gambling before this imprisonment, at some stage during their lifetime. Of these, more than a quarter (28%) were in the moderate or problem gambling risk categories. The most common types of gambling prior to prison were:

  • Gambling machines (slots) 49%
  • Sports (46%)
  • Horses/greyhounds (42%)
  • Lottery (37%)
  • Casino (36%)
  • Online gambling (33%)
  • Card/dice games (24%)

Gambling in prison

One hundred and twenty-six participants (45%) reported gambling in prison. One-hundred and sixteen (92%) of these were people who had also gambled prior to prison but there were 10 participants (8%) who had not reported gambling prior to prison but reported gambling in prison. Eighty-one participants (30.3%) reported that gambling was a normal part of prison life.

The most common types of gambling in prison were card/dice games (52%), sports (46%) and ball games (21.6%). Less common types were horses/dogs/animals (14%), and other (14%). This included gambling on sexual favours, what happens on TV, time of cell unlock and ‘Fight Club’), board games and other people’s behaviour, such as the outcome of someone smoking psychoactive substances).

The researchers were not able to clarify the exact definition of ‘fight club’ but it was thought to be organised fights, sometimes where prisoners are forced to fight other prisoners by their peers.

Of those who reported that they gambled in prison, 23 (19%) reported that they borrowed money from other prisoners in order to gamble.


The research found that over 30% of participants reported that gambling is a normal part of prison life.  Card/dice games, sports and ball games were the most common types of gambling in prison. Interestingly, gambling on people’s behaviour was more likely among those who scored as higher risk on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) self-screening tool which was administered as party of the survey. It was not clear from the research whether gambling on people’s behaviour was relatively benign in motivation (such as betting how long it takes for an officer to answer a cell bell or unlock a door) or had more violent connotations (such as betting on a prisoner’s reaction to taking psychoactive substances, or betting on the outcome of a fight between prisoners).

The researchers also found that winning prizes, excitement/challenge and relieving boredom were the most common reasons for gambling in prison.

Illegally held cash and canteen items were the main currencies used for prison gambling. Worryingly, one in five prisoners reported borrowing from other prisoners to support their in-prison gambling and, of those who had borrowed, over half had not repaid the

This research provides excellent insight both into the prevalence of gambling problems amongst people in prison (over a quarter of this sample) and of the nature of prison gambling.

Current large-scale gambling surveys being undertaken by GamCare and HMPPS will increase our understanding further.


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

Share This Post

Related posts

Gambling and prison culture

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

Women’s experiences of gambling and crime

Women whose lives have been affected by crime linked to gambling say a lack of awareness at every stage of the criminal justice system leaves them unsupported.

The economic and social costs of gambling

Official calculations find cost of gambling-related harms in England to be between £1.05-£1.77 billion and say this is probably an under-estimate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prison posts are sponsored by Unilink


Excellence through innovation

Unilink, Europe’s provider of Offender/Probation Management Software


Get every blog post by email for free