Our gay muslim friend Clay loves to spout that gambling makes everything better. While I cannot guarantee that this is true, I have yet to encounter a situation that gambling does not make more entertaining...even prison. What follows is the story of how Clay Travis got a following in federal prison.
Prison is truly terrible, but not in the way you would expect. I spent a year in federal prison and saw two fights (one a lover's quarrel) and never met anyone who was raped. Prison is terrible for two reasons, you are away from the people you care about, and it is truly boring. I'm not talking boring in a math class way. I'm talking boring in a "oh my f-ing god I can't take one more second of this bullshit" way.
It doesn't matter how I ended up in prison for the purposes of this story. It's enough to say that white collar crime doesn't send you to a "white collar" prison. It sends you to prison. One thing you learn quickly is to get over yourself. Everyone is there for committing a crime and on a somewhat equal footing. If you treat everyone with respect they will treat you with respect...except for the child molesters. There are lots of them, and if you're curious, they mostly look like you expect and play Dungeons & Dragons. Never let your kids go over to someone's house who plays Dungeons & Dragons (this is my public service announcement).
With that out of the way, back to the point of this story.
Gambling is rampant in prison. It far exceeds the incidents of violence and drugs combined. Each prison has multiple bookmaking operations called "tickets" and football season is the most active time. Of all the things I expected when I got to prison, this was not one of them.
What are the stakes in prison? There is a fervent prison economy based upon theft and services. You can buy food stolen from the kitchen, pay people to do your laundry, and even pay people to do your prison job for you. Some things you had to buy. To pay for these illicit goods and services currency developed.
There are two types of currency in prison: canned mackerel and stamps. Canned mackerel costs $1.15 at the commissary and is worth a dollar as currency. Many people in prison eat canned mackerel. I drew the line at tuna fish. A $0.49 forever stamp was worth a quarter. So people gamble for stamps and canned fish.
I self-surrendered to prison in the heat of summer only to discover that I was going to have the opportunity to live in one of the few federal prisons in the south without air-conditioning. You don't get used to it. It's just miserable and stifling.
One of my cellies (roommates) was clearly a compulsive gambler. He bet daily on baseball and I daily gave him shit about it. He consistently told me to wait on football season because everyone, including me, would be gambling. He was right, and though prison still was awful, it was better with gambling.
The bookies (tickets) in prison are organized better than the invasion of Normandy. They have the bookmakers and runners and all of it is done under the nose of the prison administration. They know it's happening but still have to catch you. Plus they let a certain amount go on to prevent disgruntlement amongst the inmate population. As you walk down the hall you can watch half the people in the hallway exchanging small slips of paper listing bets and gym bags full of mackerel to pay off debts.
Which brings us to Clay Travis' following in federal prison.
Not only is prison boring, it is information starved. Going from having all available information in the world available in a small hand held device to settling arguments with old encyclopedias and outdated Guinness world records books in the prison library is incredibly jarring. Fortunately I had a caring brother-in-law who began cutting and pasting articles into the prison e-mail system for me to read. Amongst these regular articles was Outkick.
Compulsive gamblers eventually lose. Compulsive gamblers with no information advantages lose in remarkably spectacular fashion. Compulsive gamblers losing in remarkably spectacular fashion double down on their bets and begin asking everyone for their opinion. I began to give them Clay's opinion.
I started printing out copies of Clay's picks column and leaving it for people to read in the library where I worked. It became a hot item. People began copying it and it would be found lying around the housing units. One person even had a copy of the column confiscated as "gambling paraphernalia." Needless to say my access to this valuable exclusive content combined with my subscription to USA Today established my credibility as a clear expert in the field of sports wagering.
My cell became the hot spot to stop by on Saturday mornings before "visiting the window." Twenty to thirty people would come in to find out if "I had heard anything". What the hell was I going to hear? I wasn't allowed to leave either! This began to get rather annoying. My cellie was a gang banger from Chicago and a gambler so he was in hog heaven. I just wanted to read my book and take a nap before the games started. I needed a plan.
Everyone without support from the outside has a hustle. Some people do laundry, some smuggle food out of the kitchen and some make cheesecake from commissary supplies and sell it in individual slices. You name it and someone is doing it. One guy even sold pictures of girls in lingerie door to door. I was fortunate to have extremely supportive family alleviating the need for me to risk getting in trouble as a result of complications arising from a hustle. One of the guys I worked with needed a hustle.
Working in the prison library makes you a de facto expert on everything. People come in seeking answers and they would much rather just ask the librarian than look it up themselves. That involves effort. One of the perks of being the librarian is that you get the newspaper first. A guy I worked with made his living providing scoring services to various inmate fantasy football leagues. There were tons of leagues and he scored them all. It was a good racket made doubly so because he was obsessed with fantasy football anyway.
Another co-worker had nothing. I came up with something for him. He became a tout. Instead of freely giving away Clay's picks he retyped them added some nonsense and charged people a dollar a week for access to his exclusive content. He charged people a can of mackerel a week and ended up with around 30 subscribers ($120 a month in prison is a fortune). For my effort, consisting entirely of hitting print on an email I received, I got free cheesecake whenever he made cheesecake. I also got to laugh at the various after action reports people would give about "Vegas" being out to get all of the prison gamblers (lots of conspiracy theories in prison). I got the added bonus of people leaving me alone early on Saturday morning.
Game day: the single least boring thing in prison. It's not that watching football gives you something to do because it's kind of annoying to watch football in prison. People flip from game to game so much to check scores it's almost impossible to follow an individual game. But watching 150 compulsive gamblers try and track their bets moment by moment may be in the top twenty people watching experiences of all time. Many sincerely believe that certain players are personally out to destroy their bets.
As for myself, I played my favorites of Clay's picks on a five team parlay every week. Five cans of mackerel a week at 25-1 odds. It's too bad Clay's picks weren't a bit better, but I won a couple weeks and came out a bit ahead for the season. The entertainment, however, was priceless.
I'm fortunate that I have been able to move on, have a life and am a productive member of society. I have a loving, supportive family that helped me through my incarceration and have helped me get back on my feet. I regret my actions that brought me to my lowest point, but I don't let them define my life. Just because I found moments of levity and amusement in prison didn't make it any less awful. Being separated from everything that you care about is unimaginable for anyone who has not experienced it.
NFL training camps are open, and it is football season. I am grateful that I will get to spend this one as a free man.