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The Prison Hustle

The day room erupts in shouts of joy and frustrated cursing as the score changes unexpectedly on the TV screen. Fans of the winning team jeer and laugh at fans of the losing team and boasts and predictions are made on the next game’s outcome. Those predictions are quickly converted into wagers. It is a scene played out in living rooms, garages, and bars across the world. It is no different here in prison.

Each dorm in TDCJ has a day room area with 2 TVs. By policy, one is considered a sports TV and must be on a game or ESPN all day, every day. The other TV is called the movie TV and is on regular programming channels. There are inmates here who spend most their time sitting or standing in front of the sports TV. Most do it for fun, but some do it for profit.

My buddy, who we will call “Chops,” is one of those men. When he is at work, he is either watching that TV or listening to sports in his cell on his radio modified to pick up TV station audio. Chops runs a pick’em ticket betting hustle. To my knowledge, it is the biggest and most popular on this unit of 3,000+ men. His reputation for honesty and fairness has been gained by his many years in the “game” and there is a constant stream of money passing through his hands. He spends, at the very least, 3 to 4 hours a day making tickets by hand on notebook paper, distributing and collecting those tickets, getting scores on all the games involved, and counting the money going in and out as well as his percentage of profit. The “money” here consists of commissary food of varying prices which changes every two weeks. One dollar may be in the form of 3 soups, 7 mint sticks, a sardine pack, a pack of flour tortillas, or any combination of other things which may also require change to be figured out.

Gambling here is popular year-round and wagers are placed on every type of game, but NFL reigns supreme and is the most anticipated and busiest, followed by NBA, then MLB.

There are various forms of gambling such as side betting, squares on boards, and fantasy teams, but the most popular and profitable is the pick’em ticket, which is Chops’ chosen hustle. A pick’em ticket is a list of games with point spreads provided by Las Vegas sports books. You pick any combination of teams that you believe will win against the point spread. The more picks you win on a ticket with no losses or ties, the higher the odds, and so the greater the payout. For example, a $1 bet on a 3-pick ticket will pay out $5 if all 3 win. A 4-pick ticket will pay out $10, and so on. Each dollar risked doubles the odds and, therefore, the payout. The odds of winning make it a very profitable business for the house, even though it is not unheard of to get hit for several hundred dollars in one day. The odds of that are low, but it is a gamble.

People here gamble for much the same reason as people on the outside do, and then some. For some in here, it is a form of escape. Having your mind on something outside these bars makes the time pass with just a little more ease. Having a stake in the outcome of a game makes it more exciting and fun as you watch. Most days here are filled with mind-numbing repetition, each day like the one before, and good days are rare. People try to spice their lives up by doing something different; be it working out, taking what little classes are available, doing drugs, or gambling.

While it can be an addiction; it mostly brings joy to those involved. There are stories of people losing all to a big game gone bad, but it’s rare. My buddy Chops’ hustle is relatively low-risk and he seems to be at peace with all and is always happy and good natured. He provides clear and fair oversight to something that brings many here joy, especially since there is usually so little to look forward to here. The outside world needs a few Chops of their own and gambling would be a much safer and legal activity. With care, there is less harm.


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