Gambling in Federal Prison

By Robert Rosso 12/16/15

Federal institutions are willing to turn a blind eye from massive, well-organized gambling operations because it keeps inmates from making trouble, but they're also creating an environment where addiction can fester.

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Gambling in Federal Prison
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Although gambling is illegal in the state of North Carolina, staff at Federal Correctional Institution Butner, a medium-security prison in North Carolina, facilitated an environment that allowed inmates to run poker tables, gambling pools, sports betting operations and otherwise gamble without fear of disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. In many Bureau of Prison facilities across the nation this is the norm. As long as prisoners keep the violence, drug use and other major institutional violations to a minimum, staff allow the lesser offenses to take place. It's a lesser of two evils mindset. 

"I cleared over 9 g's last year during football season," brags one bookie who is serving a life sentence. "Hopefully, I'll do even better this year.” Football season is one of the biggest moneymakers for bookies on the inside but prisoners like to gamble all year round. It helps to pass the time and serves as a substitute for a drug or alcohol addiction. They get a buzz playing tickets and sweating the ticker to see if they win or lose.

To get the Vegas odds or lines, inmate bookies typically pay other prisoners about $12 a day (equivalent to two books of stamps in prison) to get people on the outside to relay the numbers over the telephone or send them directly through the inmate electronic monitoring system, which includes email. Once in possession of the lines, the bookies create a master sheet, then pay yet another inmate to photocopy dozens of gambling slips in education, before they are handed off to the runners, distributors who pass the tickets out in different units and collect the bets, earning from the bookies 10% of each losing bet that they take in.

"When I ain’t got no ticket to sweat I'm all fucked up," says Skinny, an inmate who gambles religiously. Serving a 15-year sentence for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, he admits to spending anywhere from $3 to $24 a day on sports tickets. “Mostly I play three and four picks. But I do fuck with them seven pick teasers and shit sometimes." Gambling, he concludes, is his life.

And he's far from alone.

Geno Haibowitz arrived at Butner with rehabilitation on his mind. A two-time convicted bank robber with serious addiction issues, he had plans to get a job in UNICOR (the prison factory) and enroll in college courses. Unfortunately, things didn't go according to plan. Not only did he learn that there was a long waiting list to get into UNICOR, and that college courses don’t exist at FCI Butner, he found out that the recreation department was a safe haven for gambling. Immediately, Geno’s life took a turn for the worse.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Geno recalls. "There were guys sitting around all of these tables openly playing poker like it was legal or something. And while they are doing that, staff is walking around, or just hanging out, and watching everyone gamble like it's no big deal—and there were security cameras everywhere! I've never been in a prison this wide open." Geno describes the atmosphere inside the rec department like a "miniature Las Vegas," a place where the "houseman" even supplies the poker players with food and drink— soda, sandwiches, chicken tenders, candy bars, cookies, popcorn, fudge, you name it, Geno says. "And that's basically where I spent all of my time—at a poker table gambling."

A month into his gambling spree, Geno found himself down $700, a debt that caught the attention of the Special Investigation Supervisors (SIS). "When SIS came and talked to me they knew everything," Geno recalls. "Who I owed, how much I owed—everything!" Who he owed was a member of an infamous Mexican prison gang, a guy that Geno estimates was making at least $2,000 running just the one poker table that he played on in the rec department. But rather than write Geno a disciplinary shot for gambling, which is a violation of institutional policy, or pursue an investigation that could ultimately lead to criminal charges, SIS had other plans. 

"All they wanted me to do was pay my bills, man," Geno said. "They even talked to the guy I owed and had it all worked out where I wouldn't get hurt and I could pay him off a little at a time. One of the SIS guys even told me he had connections over at UNICOR, and could get me right in so I could start paying off the Mexicans ASAP. Isn't brokering the payment of a gambling debt technically illegal?” It is but prison is the netherworld of corruption and violence and normal rules don’t apply.

In fact, people who are in a position of power and engage in such conduct are violating several state and federal statutes, not to mention that facilitating an environment for inmates to gamble is a crime in itself, an inmate who formerly worked as a law clerk in the prison library tells The Fix.

"The same laws that were designed to dismantle the Mafia could be applied to the administration in this institution. If the local Assistant US Attorney were to take a serious look at these accusations, everyone from the warden on down to the captain, lieutenants, and officers who are turning a blind eye to these gambling crimes would be indicted,” he says. He points out that some of the gambling debts incurred in the institution are paid off with items purchased from the prison commissary, items that are sold to inmates at a marked-up price (commonly 30%), the proceeds of which go into the Inmate Trust Fund, an account that among other things—pays the salary of staff and inmates who work in the prison commissary. 

"So while it may not seem like a big deal, the fact is that ill-gotten gains generated from the gambling operations in this institution— gambling operations that are taking place with staff consent—are paying the salary of at least some federal employees, namely, the commissary workers. Man, that is a big deal.” Not to mention the fact that the prison system is advocating, facilitating and feeding prisoners' addictions.

An inmate who is housed in MD unit was on his way to the rec department when he was stopped and frisked by a member of SIS. In his possession were some poker chips, which are contraband. "Dude just took them and told me if he catches me with them again he'll write me up," he said, referring to an Incident Report. “Whatever," the prisoner concluded.

Undeterred, the inmate returned to his cell, grabbed some more poker chips and went out to rec. Later that evening, he returned to the unit with $120 worth of US postage stamps, the preferred currency in federal prison. "You can't keep a hustler from hustling,” he brags, flaunting his winnings. "When I get out I'm going to do this shit professionally."

Unfortunately, many prisoners at FCI Butner also believe that professional gambling is in their future. Geno Haibowitz sums it up this way: "The real danger in all of this is not that the staff lets us gamble; they are only doing it because they are lazy or trying to be cool. But the problem I see is that way too many guys in Butner are sitting around these poker tables preparing themselves for the streets - professional gambling is what a lot of guys in here dream of doing. I mean, what better place is there to learn and get good than in prison playing a bunch of lying and cheating cons? There's not, really. There just isn't.

"But gambling is a fast lifestyle that requires lots of money and most of these guys are going home broke, or will go out and gamble, lose and need money, and eventually be broke. Well what then? Obviously they will return to crime to get the money they need to support their lifestyle. I think it would be a lot better off for society and these guys if the guards in here would crackdown on gambling, and provide us with some education opportunities. This is a recidivist nightmare waiting to happen."

The addictive nature of the incarcerated prisoners and the consenting attitude of the institutional staff has created a culture that permits gambling even when it is against the rules and regulations. But a "wink-wink, look the other way" mentality prevails because at the end of the day the guards just want prisoners to do three things—stand up for count, stay away from the fence and don’t kill each other. Inside the belly of the beast, gambling and the addictions it spawns, thrive openly and out of control, creating more crime in the long run as correctional officials look the other way.

Robert Rosso is serving life in federal prison for a non-violent drug conviction. He also writes for VICE and has written for numerous publications and websites during his close to 20 years of incarceration. You can follow him on Twitter @robertrosso69

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