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30 Mar 2023

Report reveals damaging role of gambling in prisons

The growing role of gambling in prison culture, and the damaging impact this can have on people living behind bars, is explored in research published today (Thursday 30 March) by the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms.

A new report, Exploring gambling and its role within prison culture, reveals that, while gambling is not officially sanctioned in prison, it has become increasingly normalised and is often seen in a positive light, with people playing with currency ranging from money and material goods to acts of service.

But the research also uncovered links to serious acts of bullying, manipulation and violence, and found that prison staff had limited awareness of the ways in which gambling can be problematic and harmful.

Co-produced by a team comprising researchers in the community and peer researchers living in prison, this is the latest in a series of research reports being published by the Commission, which was set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform in 2019.

Chaired by Lord Peter Goldsmith KC, the Commission is investigating the links between crime and gambling-related harms, what impact they have on communities and wider society, and what steps could be taken to reduce crime and make people safer.

Lord Goldsmith KC, Chair of the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms, said: “This important research shines a light into a corner of the criminal justice system that few people get to see – the role that widespread and diverse gambling activity plays in prison culture and the consequences that can have.

“While some people living and working in prison view gambling as a harmless way of overcoming boredom, others have given alarming accounts of coercive behaviour and shocking violence. It highlights the gaps in awareness that exist within the system about gambling-related harms.

“This is another vital contribution to the Commission’s work, and we are grateful to everyone who gave their time to participate in the study.”

More than 140 people participated in the research, including 90 people living in prison, 10 people with lived experience of prison, 24 staff, and family members of people in prison.

Data was collected using assisted questionnaires and interviews. The data was analysed by the research team, which included four peer researchers who live in prison, two researchers from Penal Reform Solutions and a researcher from Betknowmore UK.

Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Prison Reform Solutions, said: “This report illuminates the relationship between prison culture and gambling related harms, and demonstrates how cultural rules influence the way people in prison behave, as they strive to survive and seek meaning. It also highlights the urgent need to review prison regimes and the purpose of prison more broadly, so that gambling harms can be addressed across the prison system, through cultural change.

“More research is needed to understand the role gambling plays in prison, with specific attention to how this new knowledge can be practically applied to prison practice, to improve the state of play.

“This report calls for collective action as part of the solution, whereby those impacted by gambling work together to form sustainable solutions, which address prison culture. This will bring sustainable change, whereby people leave prison in a better state, then when they arrived.”

Dr Liz Riley, Head of Research at Betknowmore UK, said: “Within our prisons, the harms caused by gambling, including debt-related violence, go under-recognised. This peer research project explored all the ways in which gambling is part of the culture of a male prison. It highlights the need for a change in culture so that gambling harms are better understood by staff and prisoners, with services put in place to support those in need.”

Staff who took part in the research reported that they did not see gambling as problematic and mostly viewed it as “harmless betting”. Where gambling behaviour was found, it was often left to continue, or even in some cases encouraged between people living and working in prison to build rapport. People living in prison reported staff willingly turning a blind eye to keep the “wings calm and quiet”.

Researchers found that gambling served a particular purpose for people living in prison. For some, gambling was a way to alleviate boredom and the dullness of prison, while for others it acted as an aid to self-soothe and manage the pains of incarceration.

Some used their gambling to ‘escape’ from their lives in prison, and as a means to build and sustain relationships. For those who did not have family support, gambling could be an “earner” that meant they did not need to “burden” their families when they struggled with small portions, poor food quality and low wages.

However, participants also spoke about how gambling could have a negative impact on prison dynamics, causing serious disruption, tension and, in some cases, violence. Researchers identified four sub-cultures relating to gambling activity in prison, in which some people were made to give favours, store drugs, or enforce violence while others instigated, managed, and enacted extreme violence and acts of humiliation. One resident described: “Depending on who you are, you get beat up, bullied, put pressure on your family to help you”. Others spoke of “people beaten up over a tin of tuna” and “two guys stabbed over chocolate cake”.

The research identified several other negative impacts of gambling in prison, including problems relating to community relationships and safety, loss, powerlessness, the dismantling of coping mechanisms, and mental health. It found the prison environment to be detrimental to people already experiencing gambling related harm and addiction.

The harms associated with mental health were frequently acknowledged by people living in prison, including depression and anxiety associated with gambling, as well as its ability to remove opportunities and de-habilitate. One person living in prison said: “Gambling takes away where your concentration should be, concentrating on change and rehabilitation, instead you are concerned about the next bet, where to get the money and pay gambling debts.”

Others spoke of self-harm and suicide risks as a result of gambling harms.

Researchers found that gambling related harms were intensified in the prison environment, with negative effects sometimes extending to people’s wider networks outside prison. The researchers heard cases of families pressurised to bring in phones and drugs to settle gambling debts.

The report calls on His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to review the place of gambling in prison. It identifies a need for greater awareness, education and training, and recommends the provision of healthy alternatives to gambling in prison regimes. It also recommends investment and collaborative action with people who have lived experience of prison and gambling, to address gambling-related harm in prison and encourage safe behaviour.

Notes to editors

  1. The Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms (formerly known as the Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling) was launched in 2019 and is chaired by Lord Peter Goldsmith QC. He leads a team of academics and professionals with expertise in the criminal justice system and public health, as well as experts with knowledge of the gambling industry and with lived experience of addiction.
  2. Exploring gambling and its role within prison culture: “You can be flying high, the fighting” can be read here.
  3. Penal Reform Solutions is an organisation that supports correctional organisations to develop a culture that transforms people. It draws on academic and prison experience, both nationally and internationally. Betknowmore UK is a leading provider of gambling support and training services. More information about the study and the team behind the report can be found here.
  4. More information about the Commission and its work can be found here.


Noor Khan
Press and Public Affairs Officer
Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7873

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