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New Research on Prisoner Gambling: Correctional Considerations and Implications for Re-entry

by Dr. D J Williams
Independent Researcher, Los Angeles, CA

Exclusive article written for Prison Legal News (October 2009)

*The author wishes to thank the Alberta Gaming Research Institute for funding his research on prisoner gambling.

Research worldwide over the past few years has revealed that prisoners have the highest rates of problem gambling compared to any other known population. Rates of problem gambling among prisoner populations vary by study methods and location, yet rates remain much higher than the general population (approximately 5%). A new study by Dr. Nigel Turner and his colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto found that roughly 10% of their sample of 254 prisoners met criteria for problem gambling. Previous studies have found both lower and considerably higher problem gambling rates among prisoner samples. A comprehensive review of research on this topic was conducted recently by Dr. Robert Williams and his peers at the University of Lethbridge. They found that across nearly 30 studies, up to one-third of prisoner populations met criteria for problem gambling and approximately 50% of crime by these individuals was reportedly committed to support their gambling.
Prisoners are a vulnerable population. Many struggle with managing impulsive behavior and identifying fallacies and potential problems associated with “quick fix” solutions. It is not surprising that these difficulties may be common in the progression of problem gambling. Compulsive gambling has huge personal and social costs—high rates of bankruptcy, domestic violence, divorce, depression and suicidal behavior. The costs of crime are also high and bring tragic consequences. Therefore, research on prisoner gambling warrants careful attention from policy-makers, professionals in diverse occupations, and all those involved in the legal and correctional systems.
In light of this background, it is critical to consider the nature of prisoner gambling and the potential complications it brings to the correctional process. While studies have shown that problem gambling often leads to the commission of crime to support gambling, research has shown that in some cases the crime preceded the problem gambling. Either scenario is possible, yet it is important for professionals to understand the basic relationship of gambling to crime in each particular case so that primary issues can be identified and addressed effectively. Furthermore, although relationships of gambling and crime often are already developed prior to prisoners entering correctional institutions, there is also the strong possibility that complex gambling issues may develop during incarceration or even later, upon release.
Because most studies on prisoner gambling have focused on gambling behavior that occurred prior to incarceration, my research program has targeted gambling later in the correctional process—during incarceration and upon re-entry into the community. Consistent with the handful of studies on gambling within prisons and jails, I have found that typically about 40% of prisoners in our research samples report gambling while incarcerated and many seem to gamble frequently. Gambling takes many forms, including card games, bingo, sports betting, and betting on occurrences within prison. Participants may gamble for money, cigarettes, commissary items, food, specific tasks, or sexual favors. Severe violence may occur when debts are not paid.
Many prisoners report common reasons for gambling while incarcerated, such as to pass the time, provide some excitement, and to socialize. However, specific classifications of prisoners may gamble for additional reasons. My limited research conducted with female prisoners concerning prison gambling highlighted gambling as an emotional escape from the harsh realities associated with incarceration. These findings were reported (with Mary Liz Hinton as coauthor) in the April/May 2007 issue of Women, Girls & Criminal Justice. Many female prisoners are also mothers who are separated from their children and families, thus incarceration seems to be especially stressful. Some are trying to deal with past physical, emotional, or sexual abuse issues. Females in our study reported that gambling sometimes occurs in women’s correctional facilities in order to obtain psychotropic medications, particularly antidepressants, from other inmates. This can, of course, be dangerous and there are obvious medical and health implications that arise from these startling findings.
In another study published with Ms. Hinton in the journal Victims & Offenders, our sample focused on sex offenders. Besides common reasons reported by other groups of prisoners, many participants in this study gambled in order to be accepted within the broader prisoner population. Sex offenders commonly are recognized as having the least status within the prison culture hierarchy, and being classified as a sex offender brings a higher risk of potential violence from other prisoners. Our participants seemed to believe that gambling helped divert attention away from their classification as sex offenders, and helped to reduce their risk of assaults from other prisoners. Gambling seemed to help them fit in.
Correctional professionals should also consider how gambling during incarceration may impact prisoners and their re-entry experiences. One major concern is that institutions across the country have reduced, and sometimes eliminated, prisoner opportunities for healthy and productive recreation and leisure experiences. The trend to eliminate prisoner leisure and recreation experiences that is rooted in the “get tough on crime” movement appears to be a big mistake. Leisure and recreation provide people, including prisoners, with ways to express themselves in positive ways, reduce and cope with stress, and obtain important physical and psychological benefits. Thus, healthy leisure experiences need to be established in the transition from incarceration back into the community. A 2008 study we conducted (published in The Correctional Psychologist-also available online) with 150 prisoners who were transitioning into the community found that of those who gambled during their incarceration, 45% did so as a form of recreation. Many participants reported that their gambling experiences had important psychological properties (brings enjoyment, sense of personal freedom, positive emotions, a form of self expression, etc.) associated with positive leisure and recreation.
While much of gambling during incarceration may be fairly benign, it is worrisome that in a group at high risk for problem gambling there are few opportunities for healthy and productive recreation and leisure experiences. We now have emerging evidence (not yet published) that there are a few cases of problem gambling during re-entry into the community that originated while these individuals were serving time and not prior to their incarceration. Clearly, prisoners need opportunities for healthy recreational experiences in jails and prisons that they may continue to engage in when reintegrating into the community. Without such opportunities, it appears that a small number of individuals who begin gambling in prison for recreation may continue to gamble frequently upon release, thus becoming at-risk for problem gambling. It is important that specific prisoner needs that motivate them toward engaging in gambling are identified, and that there are healthy alternatives available to meet those needs.
My most recent study on prisoner gambling was conducted with Dr. Gordon Walker of the University of Alberta and published in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. We focused specifically on prisoner gambling issues during the re-entry process. We selected a diverse group of 15 experienced correctional professionals from the neighboring states of Utah (no legalized gambling) and Nevada (high gambling availability). All participants at the time of the study were working in some capacity with parolees (participants included administrators, supervisors, and officers), and most had worked previously in prison environments. Our interviews focused on their field experiences with prisoner gambling issues, and specifically with potential issues concerning gambling and re-entry.
Participants from both Utah and Nevada, with few exceptions, reported gambling in prisons and jails seemed to be common. However, while correctional professionals in Nevada were aware of the potential for gambling problems for prisoners transitioning into the community, their counterparts in Utah reported that such potential had seemed to escape professional attention. Despite some known cases of Utah prisoners with gambling problems, it seemed to be commonly assumed that treatment for other issues, such as substance abuse or sexual offending, would simultaneously address a gambling problem if it existed.
Study participants in both Utah and Nevada were aware of issues concerning associations between gambling and crime, and gambling and substance abuse. In Nevada many prisoners with substance abuse problems have “do not enter (a casino)” clauses in their parole agreements, while in Utah the treatment priority in correlations between gambling and substance abuse (or crime) seemed to be the substance abuse (or crime). In other words, the potential for gambling issues continued to be overlooked. However, several examples were reported by participants that showed complicated relationships of gambling to substance abuse or crime. In most cases compulsive gambling was the primary problem, while in other cases gambling was secondary to substance use or criminal activity. One unusual example of the latter was a reported case where a successful drug-dealer was making so much money she apparently needed a way to get rid of some of it (so as not to be discovered by corrections). She began gambling at first as a fun way to reduce her money without being detected, but she apparently later became hooked on gambling. In this case, the crime (drug-dealing) preceded and helped bring about problem gambling.
Important findings also revealed that prisoners with gambling problems have particular difficulty in re-connecting and building their social support systems upon re-entry. In many cases, those with problem gambling issues had taken money from loved ones in order to support their gambling. Many of these loved ones were especially hurt and angry. The problem gambler’s history seemed to complicate the process of once again establishing trust and building support. Learning to manage money and develop financial stability were additional re-entry complications noted for prisoners with gambling issues.
Correctional professionals in both Utah and Nevada reported the need for affordable and accessible resources for prisoners with gambling problems. This is somewhat surprising given the long history of legalized gambling within Nevada. Nevertheless, Gamblers Anonymous was mentioned almost exclusively as the sole practical treatment option for parolees with gambling issues. Other clinical programs in the community designed to treat problem gambling simply were far too expensive for most prisoners, several Nevada participants said. Lack of treatment resources for prisoners seems to be a major concern.
In conclusion, a growing body of research has established that large numbers of prisoners across diverse geographic locations have gambling problems, and that these problems tend to go unrecognized and untreated by professionals in the correctional system. Far more often than not, attention is focused on criminal behavior itself, while in many cases its precursor, compulsive gambling, remains hidden and untreated. New research suggests that large numbers of prisoners also gamble during their incarceration, and that some continue to struggle with gambling issues upon release.
It is important that professionals working in various capacities within the correctional system become more aware of the potential for prisoner gambling problems at any stage of the correctional process; that essential prisoner needs are adequately addressed; and that opportunities for positive recreational and leisure experiences are provided. Additionally, it is imperative that affordable and accessible treatment options are made available within the correctional system for those who struggle with problem gambling.

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