A team of researchers from Lancaster University have insisted that crime could be reduced by five per cent if gambling problems were effectively addressed.
They made the comments after their research found that 5.4 per cent of all male and three per cent of all female prisoners considered their current offence was linked to gambling.
This was in a pilot study involving men and women in two English prisons. If representative, this equals 5.275 per cent of the total prison population at the time they responded to the study questionnaire.
The researchers also found that rates of problem gambling are significantly higher among prisoners than in the general population. 27.8 per cent of male prisoners and 18.1 per cent of female prisoners were defined as being either problem gamblers or at medium risk of gambling.
The three-year pilot study by a research team at the University of Lancaster was funded by the Responsible Gambling Fund (RGF), the national charity that distributes funds for gambling research, education and treatment.
A second study, funded by RGF and the Economic and Social Research Council, examining the questions raised by the pilot in more depth, is now under way.
Almost 60 per cent of male and nearly 40 per cent of female prisoners had taken part in some form of gambling before going to prison.
Researchers found that attitudes to gambling were broadly comparable with the national averages in the British Gambling Prevalence Survey. However, prisoners tended to be more in favour of people having the right to gamble whenever they want and to be against banning gambling altogether.
There was a significant difference between total attitudinal scores for women in prison and those in the community, with those in prison having more favourable attitudes towards gambling overall. But there were no significant differences between the two male populations.
Prisoners told researchers of the links they made between gambling and their current crime. These included arguing with a partner and selling drugs to get money to gamble; stealing from family members to gamble; and getting into fights over gambling.
One prisoner believed there is a link between her being a "street working young woman" and gambling. Another regarded gambling in prison as a guilty pleasure, while recognising that it sometimes leads to potentially violent confrontations between prisoners.
Jim Fearnley of RGF said, "“If this pilot’s findings are representative of the prison population at the time the research took place they reveal a worrying level of problem gambling amongst offenders in England and point to the need for co-ordinated national activity to tackle gambling problems in the criminal justice system.”
Chris Bath of UNLOCK, an organisation of former offenders, explained, "Although prisons have increasingly recognised the importance of personal financial responsibility in reducing re-offending, gambling has simply not been on the radar".
Bath insisted, "People with gambling problems need support, whether they are in prison or the community".