The Howard League has urged His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to review the role of gambling within the system after disclosing the results of fresh inquiry.
Undertaken by the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms, the research looked to explore “the growing role of gambling in prison culture and the damaging impact this can have on people living behind bars”.
Chaired by Lord Peter Goldsmith KC, the study featured 140 participants, comprising 90 people living in prison, 10 with lived experience of prison, 24 staff, and family members of people serving time.
Data was analysed by the research team, which included four peer researchers who live in prison, two from Penal Reform Solutions and one from Betknowmore UK.
The research found that while gambling is not officially sanctioned in prison, it has become increasingly normalised as a part of day-to-day life and “is often seen in a positive light”.
However, participants revealed links to serious acts of bullying, manipulation and violence, with engagement in the activity being undertaken for one of a series of factors.
These include alleviating boredom, self-soothing the pains of incarceration, escaping daily lives, building relationships or potentially being a way to earn money that doesn’t “burden” families.
“It also highlights the urgent need to review prison regimes and the purpose of prison more broadly”Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Prison Reform Solutions
“Within our prisons, the harms caused by gambling, including debt-related violence, go under-recognised,” stated Dr Liz Riley, Head of Research at Betknowmore UK.
“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.”
The research identified four sub-cultures relating to gambling activity in prison, which led to a series of negative consequences, such as enforced or enacted violence or drugs storage, with participants also speaking of negative impacts on prison dynamics and serious disruption caused.
Further negative impacts identified include problems relating to community relationships and safety, loss, powerlessness, the dismantling of coping mechanisms, and mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Others spoke of self-harm and suicide risks as a result of gambling harms.
Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Prison Reform Solutions, state: “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.
“It highlights the gaps in awareness that exist within the system about gambling-related harms”Lord Peter Goldsmith KC, Chair of the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms
Despite this, staff were said to have “limited awareness of the ways in which gambling can be problematic and harmful”.
Those taking part suggested that they viewed the activity as “harmless betting,” while the behaviour was said to be “left to continue” or “in some cases encouraged” if discovered in order to build rapport.
“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,” commented Lord Goldsmith KC, Chair of the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms.
“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.”
In addition to calling for the aforementioned review, the Howard League has recommended investment and collaboration with those that have lived experience of prison and gambling in order to address gambling-related harm in prison and encourage safe behaviour.