While incarceration serves as an incredible, deleterious restriction on individual liberty, prisoners are people, and most seek a sense of normalcy, that is, to hold on some semblance of their former (and future) lives notwithstanding the realities of their daily existence. A story by David Purdum in The Sporting News about the impact of the Super Bowl on federal prison life highlights that prisoners are not immune to the lure of the big game:
The early tuna is on the 49ers.
At a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., canned meats — tuna, chicken and beef —and books of stamps are reportedly the most popular commodities to bet on the Super Bowl.
And the early action, according to one inmate who’s taking bets, has been on San Francisco by a 3-cans-to-1 ratio.
“There are bookies in every prison, and there are definitely a lot of people who gamble in prison,” said Gary Player, a Vegas gambler who uses a professional name and was a jailhouse bookie from 1999-2003. “That’s a big part of doing time. People would bet every day just to kill time. There were probably a lot of guys in there that had never gambled on sports a day in their life before they went to prison.”
Like in Vegas, the Super Bowl is the betting pinnacle in jail.
“The Super Bowl is a big day,” said Tim, who served just over a year in the Oregon prison for possession of marijuana and is known as Vegas T-Bone around the sports betting community. “Every two hours they count every inmate to make sure nobody’s missing. The Super Bowl is the only day that they change the count, so you’re not interrupted during the game.”
Tim still communicates regularly with the current jailhouse bookie at Sheridan. He feeds him point spreads for football and basketball games hidden in coded emails.
During his time in a different prison, Player made outside calls to get his betting lines, which eventually got him in a little bit of trouble.
“They listened to my phone calls, heard me getting the lines and came into my cell and found an excess number of stamps,” said Player. “I just said it was for recreational purposes only and nothing much happened from it.”
The copy of the USA Today that is delivered to the jail library is also a popular resource for point spreads.
“Guys would all wait around to get Danny Sheridan’s lines,” Tim said.
Sheets with the games and point spreads were distributed throughout the population on Thursdays. Bets were placed by hand-to-hand paper transactions.
“Guys would just come up and say, ‘I want six cans of tuna on the Niners to win by five,’” Tim recalled.
Player said most bets would be placed in the yard, with gamblers handing runners a slip of paper with their wager on it and a coinciding number of books of stamps. A big bet would be maybe $100, Player said. The average bet is around $10 or five cans of tuna, according to Tim.
Inmates are allowed to watch the Super Bowl and other televised games. But some of the most memorable moments for bettors and bookies are in the mornings after a lower-profile basketball game was played.
“There were times we’d be sitting there the next day trying to get the final by watching the bottom line on ESPN at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. We’d just wait for it to go by,” said Player. “It’s not like you can pull out the smart phone and look up the score.”
Tim estimates 75 percent of the prison population bet on football in some fashion. He said parlays and squares pools are popular.