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Research commission: Prison culture and gambling

Exploring people's experience of gambling in prison

Prison culture and gambling


Gambling is not a permitted activity in prisons (HMPPS, 2020) and yet narratives of prison life suggests it occurs throughout the system (see for example Smith, 2022). Gambling is an increasingly normalised activity within the wider community and there is increasing concern about gambling related harms and addiction (The Gambling Commission, 2022).

There is little research about the relationship between crime and gambling related harms in England and Wales; most peer reviewed research has an international focus (Ramanauskas, 2020). There is no systematic screening to understand the number of people in the prison system, or wider criminal justice system, who identify a gambling addiction as a causal or contributory factor in the their offending.

Limited research examines gambling in prison and why people engage in it (e.g. Abbott, et al., 2005; Beauregard and Brochu, 2013).  However, a 2017 study of English and Scottish prisons suggested a 12% prevalence of problem gambling (May Chalal, et al., 2017).  One study has suggested that gambling in prison is a significant part of prison sub-culture (Williams and Hinton, 2006).

Evidence from research focusing on the lived experience of people whose offending is linked to gambling related harm and addiction has suggested that the experience of imprisonment can reinforce gambling behaviours, can be counterproductive to dealing with or continuing with desistance from gambling, and that there is limited or no support in prison for people with a gambling addiction (Smith, 2022).

Research aims

This research sought to build an understanding of the place of gambling within the prison culture of an adult male prison.

The aims of the research were:

  • To understand how gambling is conceptualised in prison by prisoners and staff.
  • To understand how gambling is experienced within the cultural context of a prison by prisoners and staff.
  • To understand the role of gambling in prison.
  • To understand the impact of gambling in prison on prisoners, staff and affected others and the support needed to address associated harm.
  • To assess how aware staff and prisoners are of the role gambling plays within prison culture and its impact on the rehabilitative environment.

The project was undertaken using peer research methodology, whereby a team of researchers and peer researchers with lived experience co-produced, delivered and analysed the data.


This research was published in March 2023. Read the summary here and full report here.

The research team

The Penal Reform Solutions (PRS) research team comprises four peer researchers, who are currently residing at HMP Hewell. Dr Kerry Ellis-Devitt (PRS freelance consultant) and Dr Sarah Lewis will be allocated to this work alongside research consultant Justine Best. The families team will assist PRS in reaching prisoner’s families and act as an intermediary for this project.  The peer researchers will work alongside PRS.

Justine Best

Justine previously worked at a prisoner’s charity for six years before joining the PRS team in February 2022 as a Research Consultant. She is a MSc Criminology and Criminal Psychology graduate, that is passionate about rehabilitation and supporting reintegration back into the community, while encouraging people to live a healthier and happier lifestyle. Since working with PRS, Justine has completed PRS’s Passport to Growth programme, has worked on thematic analysis projects with HM Inspectorate, and has been part of the needs analysis within our prison projects. Justine also supports PRS’s mentoring programme.

Dr Kerry Ellis Devitt

Kerry has 24 years’ experience as a researcher, and has worked in the public, private, academic and charity sectors. Having begun her career in 1998 as a psychology-based, quantitative researcher, she moved into social research in 2003, and specialised in criminal justice research in 2008. In 2020, she completed her PhD, a critical study exploring the life-stories of young adult men in the criminal justice system (CJS). Kerry’s research interests include young adults in the CJS, women in the CJS, probation practice, families of people on probation, practitioner wellbeing, mental health in probation, and most recently, the life-stories of domestic abuse perpetrators. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth on the Professional Qualification in Probation course, but will shortly be taking up a new role as Head of Research in employee-owned company, Interventions Alliance.


Dr Sarah Lewis

Dr Sarah Lewis is the Director of Penal Reform Solutions, a unique organisation that aims to reduce social harm and promote social good, by transforming the culture of correctional settings, providing preventative long term strategies to embed change.  PRS is formed of consultants with academic, practitioner and lived experience of the Criminal Justice System, addressing the core challenges associated with penal reform.

Dr Sarah Lewis worked within psychological interventions in Probation from 2004 before moving to the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies (University of Portsmouth), where she trained Probation Officers and taught Criminology, Penology and Criminal Psychology.

Dr Lewis established the Growth Project in 2016- an initiative which has been found to transform correctional cultures by magnifying the voice of staff and service users, taking a research-informed and whole systems approach.  From her research in Norwegian prisons Dr Lewis has created the Principles of Growth, which are used to promote personal growth and organisational change across an organisation, including staff, service users, families and local communities.   Dr Lewis advocates relationships, humanity and connection in her work, focusing on meaningful practice that is transformative.   She also hosts a podcast called Growth Uncut, to illuminate the voices of those who share her vision.

Dr Lewis is the founder of the Growth Alliance, a network of individuals and organisations who are passionate about social reform, advocating collective impact, social responsibility and changing the conversation around punishment.  Dr Lewis specialises in correctional relationships and is the author of Therapeutic Correctional Relationships, a research informed practitioner’s guide to developing relationships and mending relational ruptures within correctional practice.  Dr Lewis has been a Senior Consultant for the Council of Europe and focuses her efforts on training, coaching and advising practitioners, leaders and institutions, to support them in creating safe environments.

Dr Liz Riley

Dr Liz Riley is the Research and Evaluation Manager at Betknowmore UK. Liz has considerable experience of conducting research on a wide range of subjects. She was a Lecturer and Researcher at UCL, where she managed and implemented research projects in a number of countries on subjects related to social policy and poverty reduction. She subsequently became a freelance researcher, undertaking projects such as diversity and equality research for a Scottish council, housing policy reviews and child protection policy research. She also has experience working in the voluntary sector with a regional drug and alcohol charity and a literacy programme for prisoners. She joined Betknowmore in January 2021 and has been conducting research into women’s lived experiences of gambling support services. She has published her research in a number of peer-reviewed journals and also co-authored a book on community partnerships.

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