A Handy Guide to Drinking in Prison

How accurate are the pop cultural notions of prison drinking? Jennifer Cacicio reports on just how much modern prisoners are drinking and how they're doing it.

prison drinking illustration james carpenter

In Goodfellas, Henry arrives to prison dinner with a big bag of smuggled goods over his shoulder. He pulls out bread, salami, cheese, scotch and the thing Paulie is really waiting for—wine. In Orange is the New Black, Poussey, one of the inmates, is known for having the toilet hooch touch, making hers with a mix of “Kool-Aid, old fruit, ketchup and moldy bread.” In one episode, she gifts a soda bottle full of it to some fellow inmates when they’re mourning the death of a friend; in another, she turns down an offer to monetize her craft.

But just how close are these scenes to reality? The general crackdown on prison security over the past two decades makes one wonder just how much prison drinking is really going on anymore. Are inmates smuggling booze in, or are they fermenting it—perhaps even distilling it—on their own? The answer is yes, all of the above.

Getting your booze behind bars used to be easy. In his chapter in The Oxford History of the Prison, Randall McGowen points out that in late-18th-century England, alcohol was often regulated by those in charge: “Prisons were largely self-financing operations, and the jailer was supposed to derive his income from the fees owed by prisoners for various legal services…They might collect fees from visitors, charge for bedding, or benefit from the sale of beer.”

In those days, imprisoned folks were either debtors or felons. The former enjoyed more freedoms than the latter—the ability to purchase their own food and wine among them—which led to the opportunity to turn around and make a profit off their less powerful inmates; they had debts to pay, after all. When the American prison system was established post-Revolutionary War, some prisons were modeled in the image of these English establishments. As such, alcohol was a valuable commodity from the start.

Today, prisoners make alcohol for a variety of reasons: to get drunk, to ease drug withdrawals, to drown one’s sorrows, to develop a new hobby, to kill time. But it can still be used to make a quick buck. This can be especially important if you’re a new arrival, with little to no money to your name.

Dave—who served time at a medium-security state prison in Massachusetts in the ’90s—used to get alcohol in via cases of canned soda. “At one point, we had a guy that worked at the bottling company, so he could get the cases and put them in and they would go through the final canning solution.” When that deal went bust, he and his cohorts enlisted friends on the outside who used hypodermic needles to take “the soda out of the can and then put the alcohol in—it was very time consuming—and seal it with superglue.”

Tim—who’s been in and out of CA prisons since 2006, and requested, along with every other ex-inmate I spoke to by phone, that I only use his first name—explained how making a batch of booze can be a way to get on your feet: “If you’re talking about a guy who doesn’t have any money…and he’s getting free oranges and a couple of sugars every day from the state and and he saves it all up and makes a couple bottles of wine…he can buy himself a pair of reading glasses so he doesn’t have to sit there all day doing nothing.”

The process itself is pretty timeless, though the ingredients vary according to location and law. You begin with your kicker, a starter formula of fruit and sugar. Ideally you’d use overripe oranges, maybe some raisins or prunes—unless, of course, you’re locked up in a place where these foods are no longer given out by the state because of this very issue. In that case, you might make use of grapefruits, apples or potatoes—but beware of the latter. Potatoes are often the source of the sometimes deadly botulism that has spread through prisons over the last decade.

Next, smash whatever you’ve got, and aid it into fermentation with sugar cubes or packets, though these are largely banned now too. In place of sugar some guys use Jolly Ranchers or other hard candies; others use ketchup, even cake frosting. Add water or juice, then toss it all into anything you can get—a trash bag, a bucket, an empty two-liter—and hide your batch in a drawer, in the ceiling tiles or under a bag of real garbage. Seal it up and let it sit for about a week, letting the pressure out once a day—a process some call “burping”—so that it doesn’t explode. Finally, strain and drink your prison wine, known colloquially as pruno or hooch or homebrew depending on what part of the country you’re serving time.

Shaye, a former inmate who’s been in and out of CA prisons since the ’80s, says that the quality of the product depends on the talent of the maker. “It either comes out really strong and tolerable or it’s super weak and it tastes like shit.” On Orange is the New Black, Crazy Eyes describes it like this: “Shit tastes nasty, like vomit wine coolers.”

For those who can’t choke it down, there’s always the smuggling option. Dave—who served time at a medium-security state prison in Massachusetts in the ’90s—used to get alcohol in via cases of canned soda. “At one point, we had a guy that worked at the bottling company, so he could get the cases and put them in and they would go through the final canning solution.” When that deal went bust, he and his cohorts enlisted friends on the outside who used hypodermic needles to take “the soda out of the can and then put the alcohol in—it was very time consuming—and seal it with superglue.”

The cases themselves were added to the boxes that used to be allowed prisoners on birthdays and Christmas. “At Christmastime you were allowed to get three boxes of 33 pounds per box.” To cover their tracks, they would find a guy who had no friends or family, thus no boxes coming his way. They’d arrange for him to get one box filled with whatever he wanted in exchange for them getting his other two boxes filled with 66 pounds of contraband.

But those days are over. The practice of inmates receiving gifts from home was first banned in Federal prisons in 1985 and most state prisons followed suit over the next couple of decades. According to a California prison guard who also requested anonymity—even going so far as to answer my questions via email through a third party—a touch of smuggling remains at many minimum-security locations. His facility butts up against a freeway, and inmates will arrange for friends or family to drop alcohol by the side of the road. Most often, it’s an overweight inmate chosen for the task of going out and picking it up so that he can hide the bottles of booze in the rolls of his fat.

If you get caught with a batch or a bottle, the punishment varies. Some guards will just take it away, maybe ripping open the bag and spilling the fermented juice on the floor of your cell for effect. Some might revoke your commissary privileges for a week or throw you in isolation (a.k.a. the hole or the SHU) for a couple of days. Worst-case scenario: you get more time, though that’s generally saved for the more elaborate operations. Tim told me about his time served in San Quentin, where “there’s a couple of “distilleries” where they’ll take the wine that’s made and…evaporate off the alcohol and cool it down with a spray bottle and a hose and drip it off to make more of a refined moonshine-type product that’s stronger.” Because of the obvious time, patience and experience needed for something like this, these setups are rare, and usually run by those already carrying a sentence of life.

At the outset of the American prison system, this country took most of its cues from England, and in the face of what has become a terrible and mismanaged institution of overcrowding, dehumanization, high rates of recidivism and homemade alcohol, perhaps we will learn to follow in Europe’s footsteps once more. In Italy, the inmates of Gorgona—an island prison off the coast of Tuscany—don’t have to bother with pruno. They’re too busy making the real thing. Under the guidance of winemaker Lamberto Frescobaldi, the inmates have been learning to make wine—in this case, a blend of vermentino and ansonica—using organic farming practices, and according to a recent story from NPR, their recidivism rate has plummeted ever since. So let’s go, America. San Quentin is only 38 miles south of Napa.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Jennifer Cacicio is a Boston-born, LA-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Bust, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Boston University, where she also taught Creative Writing. She is at work on a novel, a cookbook and a television series. In her free time, she bakes a lot of pies.

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