Gambling Behind Bars: Nevada State Prison’s Inmate Casino
All pictures in this post are provided by Nevada State Prison Preservation Society. Please consider donating to the NSPPS to help prepare the Nevada State Prison for tours and events.
Long before it was closed in May 2012, Nevada State Prison had a stark reputation for being one of the most notorious prisons throughout the United States. Despite this, the prison was actually home to a casino for inmates who were encouraged to gamble with one another.
If you find that hard to believe, read on to find out more.
Nevada State Prison
Nevada State Prison was constructed back in 1862 by the Nevada Territorial Legislature which had been leasing land from assemblyman Abraham Curry. The prison was located on the site of the old Warm Springs Hotel just outside Carson City and, in October of that same year, Nevada officially became a US state.
In 1864, the legislature bought the hotel and 20-acres of land the prison was situated on from Curry and, in return, made him the prison’s first warden. The prison ran into several setbacks. In 1867 the prison was completely destroyed in a fire. Since the prison was covered with dried wooden shingles, it’s thought that prisoners set fire to their cells. Three years later, in 1870, a large part of the prison was reduced to ash after another fire. However, the prison was rebuilt by the prisoners by using stone from the on-site quarry.
A year later, on September 17, 1781, a dramatic event occurred at the prison. The Captain of the Guard was attacked while locking inmates into their cells. Around 27 inmates stole guns from the prison’s armoury and attempted to escape. They shot lieutenant Frank Denver and several guards, killing two people. Most of the inmates were recaptured and two were hung.
This horrifying event led to a new legislation in which Denver was forced to surrender his role as warden to Pressly C. Hyman. He refused to surrender the position and refused to allow the state governor or any other members of the prison board from entering the prison. In retaliation, the state Governor Lewis R. Bradley ordered around 60 military troops to the prison in March 1873, prompting Denver to surrender the prison and his position as warden.
The prison continued to run until the 2010s. During this time, the prison was the State’s only prison and was even housed death row. Life at the casino completely changed in the early 1930s, when gambling was officially legalised.
Legalising Gambling in Nevada
On March 19th, 1931, Nevada Governor Fred Balzar signed Assembly Bill 98 into law, legalising gambling. The bill had been introduced by Phil Tobin following the stock market crash of 1929 and gambling was only legalised in an attempt to revive the country’s economy during the Great Depression.
It was shortly after this ruling that Nevada State Prison decided to do the unthinkable; open a casino for inmates. To this day, it was something that had never been done before and something that has never happened again since.
While it seems like a prison casino couldn’t have worked, it actually did. In fact, the inmate casino, known as the Bullpen, was actually a success for three decades before it was promptly shut down. Prisoners ran the entire thing, from games to the actual casino and security.
At first, the casino was conducted in a windowless solid rock room carved from natural sandstone surrounding the prison. It earned the nickname ‘Bullpen’ due to its proximity to the central prison yard. Then, sometime in the 1930s, the casino was moved to a larger sandstone building that featured windows.
The casino offered traditional casino table games such as blackjack, craps, poker and gin rummy as well as sports betting. Inmates “bought” rights to host games by presenting evidence that they had enough money to do so. According to reports, it cost inmates around $25 to run a game of poker and $75 to run a game of craps or blackjack. In addition, anyone who was running a casino game was required to make a percentage contribution to the Inmate Welfare Fund.
It’s been theorised that the casino was built in order to keep prisoners out of trouble and, as assemblyman Howard McKissick suggests, prevent “homosexual problems” from occurring. It was well known that gambling occurs at US prisons anyway, particularly more dangerous forms of gambling, so introducing the inmate casino was a way to regulate the activity and stop more dangerous forms from taking place.
A Reputable Casino with its Own Currency
Cheating wasn’t a problem at the casino either as any prisoners who were found guilty of cheating would have faced severe consequences from fellow inmates and would have needed to be transferred to an out-of-state prison for their safety.
One warden was reported to have called it the “most honest casino in Nevada” and that if someone was caught cheating “…they’d stick a shiv in their ribs.”
The Bullpen became so popular that state officials and members of the local Kiwanis Club, an international service club, attended the casino to socialise with inmates and gamble. According to reports, visitors didn’t feel that the casino was “seedy” or “dangerous”.
In January 1962, famous brothel owner Joe Conforte began a three-to-five year prison sentence after being arrested over tax evasion. During his time at the prison, Conforte, who is now a fugitive living in Brazil, expanded the casino by incorporating new bets such as high and low-ball poker.
In addition to that, the casino had its very own currency that could be exchanged for real US currency within the prison, making it easier for inmates to bet and gamble. The currency was known as “brass” to inmates and took the form of coins in denominations of 5c, 10c, 25c, 50c, $1 and $5. Today, the coins are collector’s items and are given to long-serving prison employees upon retirement.
The Bullpen’s Closure
Shortly after Nevada’s new governor Paul Laxalt was sworn in in early 1967, the prison suffered a large riot. Back then the prison suffered from a multitude of issues, including overcrowding. To address the problem, Laxalt hired Carl Hocker, a veteran of San Quinten, as warden and he made several changes to the prison.
Around this time several Nevada assemblymen introduced a bill to prohibit gambling at the prison but it was defeated in the Senate. Eventually, Carl Hocker ordered for the casino to be shut down and it officially closed in April 1967. The sandstone building that housed the casino was bulldozed and the currency prisoners used in the casino was returned and credited to the prisoner’s account.
In a newspaper interview from the 1960s, Hocker said: “I think gambling in prison is a degradation, and it’s certainly not constructive. We’re trying to replace it with constructive, wholesome activities that will contribute to a decent, healthful state of mind.”
Instead of gambling, Hocker emphasised on more “socially accepting” recreationally activities such as chess, volleyball, ping pong and handicrafts. The prison newspaper announced that braiding, painting and beadwork were also substituted for casino activity.
Closing Nevada State Prison
Carl Hocker continued to serve as warden until April 1973, when he was replaced with Ed Pogue. The prison continued to run until around 2009 when Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons attempted to close it twice over the next several years. Gibbons continued working hard to close the prison, believing that it would save the state money.
Under his plans, officers and inmates at the prison would be transferred. Under a budget crisis, the prison was officially closed in May 2012 and all inmates were either transferred to another prison or released early.