01/23/2012 07:16 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Former Exchange Bandit looks to help others

The former Bay Street Financier known as the "Exchange Bandit" now wants to be known as an advocate for gambling awareness.

Kevin Pinto is on day parole, serving the last part of a six-year conviction for bank robbery. He says the corrections system doesn't know how to properly handle gambling addicts.

"There are a lot of guys in prison that are cross-addicted. They've have drug addictions and alcohol addictions along with gambling addictions, and unfortunately the gambling addiction is not identified," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Pinto was convicted in 2009 of robbing 10 banks in Toronto and Peel Region. In all, he estimates he stole over $35,000. Police dubbed him the Exchange Bandit because he always asked tellers for the U.S. exchange rate before slipping them a holdup note.

Pinto says his criminal behaviour was fuelled by a need to fund his "out of control" gambling addiction "Toward the end, 2008, [the addiction was costing] thousands of dollars a day," he says.

"And it didn't matter what it was, I was gambling on European hockey because it was 9 o'clock in the morning and I needed action."

After his conviction, Pinto was taken to Millhaven Correctional Institution for assessment. He says despite telling them about his gambling addiction he was sent to the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, a medium-security facility with no gambling addiction treatment programs.

"It's not white collar, there's a lot of drug dealers a lot of murderers. It's pretty rough and there was no help there, so I had to bide my time for a year ... to get the treatment I needed."

Pinto recalls the environment in prison, one where gambling was ubiquitous. The small-time bets for cigarettes and chocolate bars weren't enough for a major gambler like him, still, the urge to gamble was all around him.

"I was determined not to go back to the life of gambling I realized what it had done to myself, not only myself, but my family and my friends."

He eventually got into a program called Options For Change offered at the the minimum security Frontenac Institution. Combined with a residential program in Windsor, Pinto says he was able to get his addiction under control. Though he remembers the feelings of withdrawal he had to endure.

"I had vivid dreams every night of gambling. I didn't sleep that well, I couldn't eat, I was agitated. So there were a lot of withdrawal symptoms that happened and I was forced to go through that."

Pinto says the treatment programs he did receive were not recognized by the National Parole Board and that's something that needs to change. He'd also like to see better assessment done when addicts first enter the corrections system.

He also wants to see more money spent on public awareness campaigns. He says not enough people know the consequences of a gambling addiction.

"There's a lot of guilt and shame that happens with a gambling addiction and we don't see a lot of people talking about it, because once they' do the devastation to themselves and their families, they try to fix it and keep it quiet because they're ashamed of it."

Pinto will be sharing his experiences at the 2012 Ontario Problem Gambling Provincial Forum on Monday. He'll be speaking alongside researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and with other community health experts.

Pinto says he's still dealing his own addiction and that he still has a long road ahead. He compared dealing with addiction to being caught in a spider's web.

"We get stuck and we struggle and struggle and struggle and we get more entangled in it until there's just a shell of a person left. There's no life in us and we finally give up. Some of us figure out we've hit rock bottom and we get help."

He's also offered an apology to those who were victimized by his actions over the years.

"I'm extremely sorry and I'm remorseful for what I've done and if I could do it over again, I would probably choose a different course of action"