Nevada State Prison casino relegated to history
December 5, 2010
Before receiving a gambling license, an applicant must undergo a thorough investigation by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. People are routinely rejected if they have a criminal history or have associated with unsavory characters.
So then, how did inmates at the Nevada State Prison – every one of them a convicted criminal – operate their own casino for 35 years?
Blackjack, craps, poker, gin rummy, even sports betting were available as recreational activities for inmates at the state’s maximum security prisons between 1932 and 1967.
Inmates operated the “Bullpen,” a stone building converted into a casino, on the grounds of the state prison in Carson City. Sometimes the local Kiwanis Club and state agency heads stopped by the prison casino to drop a few coins.
For most of its 140 years, Nevada State Prison was the state’s only prison, even housing death row.
Former Mustang Ranch owner Joe Conforte, now a fugitive living in Brazil, even ran some of the games when he was a prison inmate there in 1962.
“It was a different time,” said Dennis Neilander, chairman of the Gaming Control Board. “They thought it would keep them out of trouble. It wouldn’t happen today.”
Neilander said that before 1959, gambling control largely fell to county sheriffs.
Nevada also had a long history of tolerating gambling even before it became the first state to legalize it in 1931.
Inmates will gamble, regardless of whether it is legal or illegal, and prison gambling did keep them out of trouble, said Carl Osborne, a Las Vegas bus driver who has accumulated a collection of Nevada State Prison tokens, called “brass” by the inmates.
“I think the games would have been more than honest, because cheating inmates would be scared of the consequences,” Osborne said.
“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, 61, served a short stretch in the Nevada State Prison in the early 1990s and got to know some of the older inmates. Even during his time in prison, sports betting was rampant.
There had been a riot at the prison early in 1967, and several legislators introduced a bill to close down the casino. Warden Carl Hocker was a veteran of San Quentin and a no-nonsense disciplinarian. The casino closure bill wasn’t needed once Hocker took pre-emptive action and bulldozed the Bullpen.
“I think gambling in prison is a degradation, and it’s certainly not constructive,” Hocker said, according to newspaper accounts. “We’re trying to replace it with constructive, wholesome activities that will contribute to a decent, healthful state of mind.”
Now the old state prison itself could end up like the Bullpen. Gov. Jim Gibbons tried to close it twice in the past two years, only to be rebuffed by the Legislature and the Board of Prison Commissioners.
With the state facing a
$1 billion to $3 billion revenue deficit, closing the prison likely will be on the agenda for the next Legislature.
Osborne is a history buff. He thinks it was a mistake to close the prison casino. He also realizes that not many Nevadans are around today who remember the era of legal gambling in the state prison.
“Virtually no one realizes we had a casino in our prison,” he said. “But it is in our history. It shouldn’t be forgotten.”