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Why don’t prisons offer gambling treatment?

If you ask Chris Myers what prison gambling looks like, he paints a clear picture: while it’s actually forbidden, it’s a popular activity, especially card games like poker. And “any day you can put down as much as you want on a sports pool,” says Myers. Even backgammon or bridge is available at $10 a corner, and that currency consists of anything you can buy from cigarettes to canteen items to illegal phones that can be wired in. And since prisons are relatively monotonous places to be, where structure rules, the thrill of illicit gambling holds definite allure.

As the problem gambling co-coordinator and counsellor for the Options for Change Addictions Team at Frontenac Community Mental Health Services in Kingston, Ont., Myers sees it all. At about 40 per cent, the prevalence of gambling within Canadian correctional facilities is lower than in the general population, but criminal offenders have the highest rate of problem gambling of any population. About 30 per cent meet criteria for problem gambling, and approximately 50 per cent of crime by these individuals is committed to support gambling.

Yet for its widespread prevalence in prisons across Canada, problem gambling is targeted by few, if any, treatment programs for inmates, either inside or after they’ve been released.

This might reflect what’s going on beyond prison walls, where problem gambling in general isn’t considered to be as serious of an issue as substance abuse or sex offending, for example, says Myers. In fact, as Myers points out, the culture of gambling is glamorized with televised tournaments and poker celebrities. Gambling opportunities have also increased, particularly via the Internet, and with Pro-Line sports betting at many corner stores. “For some people, this increased availability and accessibility increase the ‘need’ to gamble,” says Myers.

With such accessibility to general gambling venues, it means that problem gambling can lead to consequences such as incarceration. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, of the 254 male offenders who were studied at the maximum security federal Milhaven Institution in Bath, Ont., about 10 per cent scored in the pathological gambler range before incarceration. In a more recent study awaiting publication, the figure landed at about nine per cent. “We asked people about the relationship between their criminal behaviour and gambling, and about 65 per cent of pathological gamblers told us their gambling led to crime,” says Nigel Turner, a research scientist with the Social Epidemiological Research Department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, who led the two studies. “They gambled, lost money, got in debt and engaged in criminal activities to pay those debts. As one man said, ‘Around it goes.’”

Despite the connection between gambling and crime, attitudes toward gambling in prison vary within the correctional system. It seems to depend on the facility, says Myers. Some institutions welcome help to address the problem, but others see it differently. “Some institutions think it keeps inmates quiet; it keeps them out of trouble,” says Myers.

Gambling’s popularity in prison may be attributed in part to the lack of recreation options, says D.J. Williams, a former researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, who is now with the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice at Idaho State University. “Passing the time” was a common response when he asked inmates why they gambled.

What isn’t common are treatment options for pathological gambling. Myers is trying to address the need with a pathological gambling program that he runs in three Ontario institutions. The 15-week, three-hour weekly psycho-education program focuses on life balance and relapse prevention. Myers also works with inmates released into the Kingston area and connects parolees with gambling programs in the areas they’re being released into.

But as Turner points out, whether or not there’s a program available can largely depend on external prison circumstances. “A lot depends on having a local treatment service provider who is able and willing to go into the institution and provide the services for that community,” he says.

If gambling programs aren’t available, some inmates enter other programs, such as those for substance use problems. “The treatment programs in institutions tend to deal with these other issues, not gambling,” says Williams. “So the gambling piece is missed, and when we do see the link between gambling and crime, it’s assumed that the other form of treatment will spill over and address the gambling issue.” He adds, “That might be the case, or it might not; we don’t really know.”

Even when services are available in prisons, logistics challenges can stand in the way. The higher the security level of the institution, the more limited the movement and availability of inmates. Or if there’s something going on in the institution such as an incident, service providers may not be able to get in that day.

Then there are resource and educational challenges. “I see my job partly as educating management, workers and program staff,” says Myers. “They need to understand that if people with gambling problems aren’t treated in prison, they’ll go back onto the street and do the same things.”

Myers would like to see more and better screening of new inmates for pathological gambling. “One of my goals is to actually start asking questions about gambling,” says Myers. “When inmates come into Millhaven, for example, mostly for three to six months of imprisonment, an assessment is done. But unless gambling is part of their charge and is stated on their charge, are they asked, How much do you gamble? What do you do in your spare time?”

Spare time—and there’s plenty in prison—is an opportunity to provide recreational programs with a prevention or treatment component, says Williams. “Here in the United States—but I think it’s impacted the Canadian system to some degree—there’s been a ‘tough on crime’ approach since the mid-‘90s, and a lot of recreational programs have been cut because they’re considered a luxury.” Although a causal link between reduced recreation opportunities and increased gambling in prisons hasn’t been established, for Williams, it’s common sense: “If you don’t have adequate recreation opportunities and leisure time, you’re going to turn to gambling and other means that may not be healthy.”

Gambling treatment court stresses help, not punishment

The New York Gambling Treatment Court in Amherst, N.Y., is the only program in the world that diverts people who have committed gambling-related crimes from prison and into treatment. “Our goal is to get people into treatment so that they don’t turn back to crime to support their addiction,” says Justice Mark G. Farrell, who presides over the court.

Farrell recognized the need for a gambling treatment court after seeing defendants in traditional courts who appeared to have “out-of-control gambling problems.” To deal with them, Farrell in 2001 created a separate court modeled on the drug courts in which he has worked that focuses on rehabilitation, not punishment.

As with drugs courts, defendants must plead guilty, which gives Farrell discretion to defer punishment for up to a year and dismiss charges for those who complete the program. Defendants who pass a screening process sign a contract agreeing to participate in the program and abide by its rules. They then begin a treatment program that includes individual and group therapy, debt counselling and regular check-ins with the court. The program takes a little over a year to complete.

With an estimated 10 per cent increase in convictions coming through his court every year, Farrell says he would welcome more courts like his. The approach is indeed attracting attention, as gaming jurisdictions around the world investigate new ways to help problem gamblers.

Gambling treatment court by the numbers (2001–2011)

1,206 individuals screened
506 defendants entered some phase of the court
245 defendants entered treatment – 129 for pathological gambling, 109 for gambling problem extended treatment, 7 for short-term education program
41 graduates have not relapsed
16 graduates have relapsed
39 defendants in the court (end of 2010)
34 returned to criminal court

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