The Nevada State Prison, known for housing brutal inmates, allowed gambling from 1932 to 1967. This unique inmate-run poker and casino operation, which ran for 35 years, contradicts traditional prison practices. It was a prominent feature of the prison, infamous for its reputation as a penitentiary facility in the United States.
The notion of the Nevada State Prison having “legalized” the poker game inside the prison is inaccurate. The prison never obtained a gaming license or official recognition from Nevada gaming authorities. Instead, the existence of the casino was disregarded mainly and tolerated. If an application for a permit had been submitted, it would have undoubtedly been denied due to the applicants’ questionable reputation and criminal histories.
The prison casino operated under self-imposed regulations, with inmates running the games and strictly prohibiting cheating or intimidation from avoiding intervention by the warden. A portion of the earnings was deposited into an inmate welfare fund, providing legitimacy to the activity. During its peak, the casino offered popular games like blackjack, craps, poker, and sports betting.
For 35 years, different wardens tolerated the casino or saw it as a beneficial diversion for the inmates. However, in 1967, the State Legislature considered a bill to ban prison gambling, which was ultimately defeated in the Senate. Shortly after, the State Prison Board utilized its authority to shut down the casino, leading to the demolition of the sandstone building that housed it. The history of this fascinating prison casino unfolds in detail.
All for the Economy
To revive the economy, the Nevada State Prison, initially built in 1862 and had faced significant fire damage in its early years, took an unconventional approach. Let’s skip about 70 years to March 19, 1931, when gambling was legalized in Nevada.
Governor Fred Balzar signed Assembly Bill 98 into law as a response to the economic impact of the 1929 stock market crash. With the Great Depression underway and the need for revenue to fund the construction of the Hoover Dam, Nevada sought alternative methods to generate income.
In a groundbreaking move, the Nevada State Prison introduced an inmate-operated casino called the “Bullpen” in 1932. This decision was unprecedented and has not been replicated in the history of the United States penal system.
Was it Legitimate?
Contrary to expectations, the casino operating within the Nevada State Prison ran smoothly for over three decades, offering a variety of games to inmates. The casino aimed to keep prisoners engaged and minimize trouble.
Surprisingly, Assemblyman Howard McKissick even believed that gambling could prevent specific issues. The Bullpen, as the casino was called, gained a positive reputation, attracting visits from state officials and local club members. It was not perceived as seedy or dangerous.
The Bullpen had its currency as coins, resembling regular casino chips so they were able to be immersed in the poker feel together with their poker hands. Today, these casino tokens from the Bullpen are highly sought-after collectibles, with some selling for over $300 per coin on platforms like eBay.
If it was great, then why did it close?
What led to the closure of the Bullpen, despite its positive impact on inmate behavior and the prison environment? The answer lies with Warden Carl Hocker, brought in from the California prison system to oversee the Nevada State Prison.
Coming from a system with different principles, Hocker needed to see the value in maintaining a pro-gambling atmosphere within the prison. He considered gambling degrading and non-constructive, favoring socially acceptable activities and promoting a positive state of mind. Hocker emphasized handicrafts, chess, volleyball, ping pong, and bridge pursuits.
There is some skepticism surrounding Hocker’s motivations for closing the casino. Speculation at the time suggested that a prison riot resulting from a dispute in the casino may have prompted legislators to introduce a bill to shut it down. The exact reasons behind Hocker’s decision to close the Bullpen remain subject to conjecture.
Is there a Renaissance in the Horizon?
Is it possible for legitimate and regulated casinos to be reintroduced into US prisons as a means of generating revenue? Considering that the US government spends about $80 billion annually on prison running costs, it is worth considering whether some money could be recouped through prison casinos.
While the Bullpen demonstrated the potential for improving prisoner behavior, there seems to be little enthusiasm for reintroducing casinos into US prisons. Although illegal and underground gambling will inevitably persist, the likelihood of an official and regulated prison casino reemerging is slim.
The relatively obscure nature of the Bullpen’s history indicates that authorities are not particularly proud of having operated a casino with a functional poker table within the Nevada State Prison for over 30 years. The ongoing debate regarding whether it did more harm than good for the prison and its inmates will continue to be contentious.
What’s the status of the prison now?
After officially closing on May 18, 2012, the Nevada State Prison no longer served as the state’s execution site starting in 2016 when a new execution chamber was established at Ely State Prison. Since then, guided tours of the prison’s old facilities have gained popularity. These walking tours allow visitors to learn about the intriguing sights and stories that were part of prison life.
Due to its history of executions, many believe the massive building is haunted, further enhancing its mystique. The prison was even featured on an episode of the paranormal TV show Ghost Adventures. Night-time ghost tours are occasionally offered at the prison, but it’s important to note that they are unsuitable for those who are easily frightened or have a weak constitution.
A Final Word on the Prison
Many who have gone on them reported unexplained voices and very eerie encounters. Nevada State Prison’s poker and casino operation is a fascinating historical landmark and testament to the state’s strange past practices. Though it closed in 2012, its history remains a reminder of what can happen when morality and infrastructure collide in ways nobody could have predicted.
With the success of other casinos around the state, it’s unlikely that any similar prison-specific casinos will ever open again. However, humans aren’t always capable of predicting how far our passions might take us. Thanks to Nevada State Prison, gambling enthusiasts know that even an unlikely casino entertainment venue can still succeed when paired with ambition and innovation.