There have been some strange locations for casinos throughout history, and even today there remains a series of casino establishments which can be found in unusual places. Yet perhaps it would come across as quite a strange thing to learn that there was also once a casino based inside a prison. And not only that, but it was a casino that the prisoners were given to run by themselves. That’s a considerable amount of trust to put in people who have been convicted for various crimes!
Yet it actually operated at a good level in its years of activity, although none have opened up inside prisons since that time. Gambling may be quite the common pastime between prison inmates around the world, but not on such an official level as a proper casino. With that being the case, we thought we’d take a closer look at the Carson City Nevada Casino Bullpen, which existed between 1932 and 1967. Its 35-year reign as the sole casino inside a prison remains as quite a legendary tale in its own right and comes with quite the history to it.
A Look Back in Time to The Great Depression
Back in 1932, the United States of America was not in the greatest of shapes. It was in October of 1929 that bad practices in the financial sector had led to markets collapsing. As a consequence of that highly unprecedented crash, the country entered into a bleak period known as The Great Depression. It had never been the case before that the state of Nevada had witnessed so much misery, thanks to the instability and attempts to regulate society as well as the economy in order to recover.
It was with this in mind that The Silver State took the decision to authorise legal gambling in March of 1931, with a view to cleaning up its own public accounts via tax revenue from that activity. With Bill 98 signed into law by Governor Fred Balzar, gambling was introduced to the state. Of course, in stark contrast, the federal administration did not react in such a gamely way. Instead, the New Deal developed by President Roosevelt was developed between 1933 and 1938.
Yet the inmates housed at the Carson City prison in Nevada took things under their own wing prior to the decisions made by Roosevelt. Instead, they asked for permission to set up a physical casino within the penitentiary’s walls, which would be run by them and provide a gambling outlet for all prisoners.
It would normally be the case that an official casino would need a licence to be able to operate legally. And while the prisoners of the Carson City jail asked for such, the state’s commission was not able to authorise anyone with a criminal record to possess such or be associated with gambling. Therefore, in an official capacity, the prison casino was never actually a recognised entity. Yet it was very much tolerated by the state, and despite some people believing it wouldn’t run effectively inside prison walls, it did. More than three decades worth of gambling activity took place inside the casino in an orderly fashion.
A schedule was introduced for use of the casino, too. Between Monday and Saturday, the casino could be used between the hours of 8:00 am and 3:30 pm, while on Sunday inmates could visit it between 8:00 am and 1:30 pm.
The casino incorporated into the prison was given the name of the Bullpen, and it was housed within a windowless room made out of solid rock. That had been carved from natural sandstone, which had surrounded the prison itself initially before it was moved to a larger sandstone building with walls at some point within the 1930s.
With many prisoners being crowded into such a small place and gambling taking place there, prison wardens had the belief that it would be a catalyst for violence and riots between prisoners. However, this was never the case. Nobody cheated inside the casino either, because strict protocols were approved so as to prevent such activity.
The Bullpen was also equipped with a variety of traditional casino games for inmates to play with and against each other. This included blackjack tables, poker tables and craps. Even sports betting was available inside the casino, for those who were interested.
It wasn’t only up to the prisoners to run the casino itself but ensure that games were hosted properly and that a level of security was in place to protect players and the games themselves.
Because prisoners weren’t allowed to have physical money from the outside world, they created their own currency for playing in the Bullpen casino with. The chips were minted in the jail’s own occupational workshops, with the words “Nevada Estate Prison” written on them, and they could be redeemed within the prison commissary. The currency was issued in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents, 1 dollar and 5 dollars. As a matter of fact, these prison casino chips are now highly valuable to collectors, with some people paying up to $300 (roughly £240) for a single coin. When a prisoner came to the end of their sentence, Carson City jail paid out in cash the value of the tokens that each inmate had saved up from playing in the casino.
It’s also the case that a percentage of the takings of the casino itself was deposited into the inmate welfare fund. This was said to be an act that added a certain sort of legitimacy to the “immoral habit” that gambling was classed as by some.
Throughout the 35 years that it was in operation, the prison wardens and jailors tolerated the casino, and many of them actually considered it as a worthwhile distraction for the criminals. Better they participate in a few rounds of blackjack or poker for money than turning their attention to unruly behaviour within the prison. The casino went on to last for a much longer time period than many expected it to, thanks to the efforts of all the inmates to keep it running and the decision of the state and prison wardens to “turn a blind eye” to it, so to speak.
Unabated Activity for Many Years
Casino activity remained strong in Carson City Bullpen throughout its years of establishment there. While prisoners may have come and gone within that timeframe, there was always inmates willing to have a go at the games and potentially bag themselves a few chips to exchange for cash when leaving at the end of their sentence.
Yet something changed in 1967 when the new Nevada Governor at the time, Paul Laxalt, hired Carl Hocker as the warden for Carson City prison. One of Hocker’s first decisions as warden was to order that the Bullpen be shut down, with gambling being replaced by what he defined as much more “wholesome” activities for prisoners. This led to prisoners being pushed towards playing games like volleyball, chess, ping pong, painting and engaging in other crafts.
It was in April of 1967 that the casino was officially closed by Hocker, and the sandstone building that was the location for it was also demolished.
Many did question the effectiveness of closing down a casino of this nature, because the prison officers had gained quite the advantage. The gambling which was tolerated in the Bull Pen had prevented illegal gambling from occurring inside Carson City prison, which was something that they had never really managed to control before the installation of the casino. However, Hocker was such a straightforward and stringent disciplinarian, that there was no way he was going to reconsider his decision on the Bullpen. Speaking on the casino at the time, he 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”.
One collector of the minted coins from within the prison, Carl Osborne who is a Vegas bus driver, agreed that the casino did keep the prisoners out of any sort of trouble, negating a lot of discord within.
“I think the games would have been more than honest because cheating inmates would be scared of the consequences. If someone got caught cheating, they might have to be transferred out of state for their own safety. You wouldn’t have been very safe there”,
Osborne said. That information came from a place of first-hand experience, as he had served a short stretch within the Nevada prison in the early 90s. He said that he was on a friendly basis with some of the prisoners who had been in the place for long stretches and gained some insightful information from them.
Yet it has become tougher for Osborne to add the casino coins to his collection, as they are becoming much rarer to find. Despite warden Hocker swiftly selling off all the brass that was minted by the prisoners after he closed down the casino, they aren’t quite as commonly sold today. Sites such as eBay and WorthPoint can sometimes be great places for avid collectors to visit and score themselves a deal.
Prisoners Are Set to Work on Alternatives
Unfortunately for the inmates of Carson City prison, Hocker chose to propel them in an entirely different direction. This not only saw them partake in alternative games as mentioned previously, but participating in handicrafts, such as constructing beaded necklaces and the like.
It was said that a riot had occurred in 1967, and this spurred Hocker to close the casino, despite the upset having nothing to do with the Bullpen. Yet he decided that this was the catalyst for the riot and justified his actions against the casino. A resident of Gardnerville and expert on Nevada Prison’s gambling tokens, Howard Herz, said that a number of Nevada legislators had put forward a bill to shut down the casino following the riot in ’67. In any event, it was not necessary for that bill to be signed because Hocker ended up bulldozing the casino down.
Herz also went on to state that the casino was not an illegal one. It had been sanctioned by the prison itself, and all the backgrounds of the inmates participating in gambling games were also checked beforehand. Any prisoner who had money could play the games there, and the winnings would be credited to their individual jail money account.
And while there would be minor stories popping up about the prison and its casino throughout its operational years, it wasn’t until the closure of the Bullpen that it gained more attention. If you were to ask a Nevada resident today about the state prison in Carson City and its casino, then they likely wouldn’t remember that era or be able to inform you of it.
Would state prisons create casinos within their walls today? Well, it’s highly unlikely that this would be the case. Yet with the closure of the Bullpen, inmates still participated in betting, just without any control by officials or within a prison sanctioned area. And the likelihood is that prisoners incarcerated today still partake in gambling with others inside, although on a lot less formal level, thanks to the unavailability of a casino like the Bullpen.