Quarterback Cam Newton celebrates during the NFC Championship, where his Carolina Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers are the heavy favorites over the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Photo via Getty Images/Streeter Lecka
A week before the Super Bowl, Eddie was sitting in a TV room in the federal prison where we're both inmates* watching SportsCenter with Monday's USA Today sports page in his hand. Eddie may be a prisoner, but he's also a bookie, and he was doing what bookies everywhere were doing in the lead-up to the biggest betting event of the year: worrying about the betting line.
"Carolina's still giving Denver three points," Eddie said. "I need that to go up at least a point and a half or I might get crushed. Everyone's taking the Panthers."
Just like on the street, sports betting is big business in prisons, and it follows the same format—Eddie had given the inmates who wanted to bet on the game the most recent Vegas line, and everyone was taking the Carolina Panthers both inside bars and out. (A week after our conversation, so much money had been bet against the Denver Broncos the line had moved to favor the Panthers by five and a half points.)
There aren't statistics on the subject, of course, since inmates are technically prohibited from gambling, but some bookies in my facility claim to make upward of $30,000 a year. Eddie claims he's made about $7,000 since last April, when he decided to start a betting pool, also known as a "ticket," at the beginning of the baseball season. Since then, he's expanded to bigger betting events, such as the Super Bowl.
"I was tired of giving the bookies all of my money," Eddie explains. "So I said, 'fuck it,' and started my own ticket."
The name of Eddie's ticket is "Bet & Sweat," and the inmate said he has runners, or people who collect bets (and later debts), in every block on the prison's nine-block compound. Each runner makes 10 percent of each losing bet that they bring in, and Eddies gives his betting clients a free $2 play every night to entice more action.
Some prisons might use cans of tuna or mackerel for money, but you're just as often to find stamps being exchanged. In this prison, the powers that decide such things determined that each 49-cent stamp used on the black market is worth 40 cents in the prison; a $1 stamp is worth 80 cents. To keep the underground economy afloat, inmates purchase stamps at full price from the commissary, so a "book" of ten stamps is worth about $4. During Super Bowl weekend, a bookie could easily make several grand. The Panthers are considered such a sure thing that Eddie decided to require gamblers to bet on three other games this weekend, mostly basketball, in order to play his ticket.
One of his runners is called Man-Man, a convicted drug dealer serving 16 years and a diehard Panthers fan. He said that he's yet to bring in a single ticket that has someone betting on Denver.
"I've had about 30 dudes in last five days bet the Panthers on their tickets," Man-Man said. "I told Eddie not to mix the Super Bowl games with basketball, but he didn't listen. Now he's got at least eight dudes who laid a book [of stamps] on four bets, and they all hit three games. They're just waiting on the Panthers to hit, too, and Eddie's out 80 books"—or $320.
In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, there was plenty of talk about the game and who was betting what on it. An inmate named Little C was seriously thinking about dropping 25 books, or $100, on the Broncos. The guys who run Pay-to-Play, a competing ticket, were talking about giving the Broncos four points instead of three, and paying the winners 3-to-1 meaning you bet $100 to win $300, an enticement to get people to bet on the underdog.
"Yo, my gut be tellin' me to do it, you know?" said Little C. "But if Peyton shows up and the Broncos do what they do, man, it might be all bad for the black man... And how I'm gonna look goin' for a white man [Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning] in this Super Bowl?"
Old Man Denis is a lifer in his late 70s who's been running a betting pool called Win Big in every penitentiary he's been held in since 1995. He's got fond memories of the last time the Panthers were in the Super Bowl, in 2004.
"Best Super Bowl game is the history of the NFL," he said. "They went a quarter and a half without scoring a single point, then in the last five or six minutes of the game they put up nearly 30 points between them. I thought I was in big trouble."
"The Panthers saved my ass," the inmate remembered. "The game went way over [i.e., everyone who bet the over instead of the under won] and if New England would have [covered the spread], I would have lost nearly $10,000. As it turned out, I pulled in a little over $1,000 that night."
This year, Eddie has his own plan for how to recoup his losses if the Panthers cover the spread and he ends up having to pay. "If the line doesn't change, or everyone sticks with the Panthers, I'll just lay some of my bets off on the other tickets," Eddie said. "I refuse to get massacred... I'll leave that up to Peyton."
*Note: The author of the piece asked that his name and location not be revealed because he's writing about activities banned by prison authorities and is worried about the repercussions he could face as a result. The last names of the inmates quoted in this article have also been redacted.