Battling production of prison `wine'

Calif. corrections officials halt distribution of fruit, but inmates are creative

January 01, 2003|By Richard Fausset | Richard Fausset,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is a full-bodied wine with a bouquet redolent of moldy peaches and a finish that can evoke anything from all-purpose bathroom cleaner to uric acid.

In prisons, it is known as pruno - cellblock wine made from fruit, sugar and mess hall punch. It is potent, easy to brew and has been around for ages.

But officials at Los Angeles County's only state prison have come up with a plan to make pruno as rare as a 1945 Chateau Latour Bordeaux.

In October, the maximum-security lockup in Lancaster, Calif., removed fresh fruit - the preferred base for pruno - from the boxed lunches delivered daily to the cells of its 4,000 inmates. The goal, prison spokesman Lt. Ron Nipper said, is to reduce violent incidents at the institution. In the first nine months of 2002, 102 assaults on staff and 122 inmate-on-inmate violent incidents were reported.

"With a lot of our serious incidents, the inmates are drunk," he said. "We've got to put a serious damper on making alcohol."

The crackdown is not only an attempt to make the prison safer but also part of a push by the state Department of Corrections to make prisoners healthier and reduce medical costs. Since 1999, the state's 33 prisons have been phasing in standardized "heart healthy" menus that feature balanced meals, low-fat foods and fresh fruit.

But this year, California wardens were asked to crack down on pruno, on the basis that dietary health gains are nullified when prisoners consistently get drunk and turn violent.

The move is also part of a broader campaign to treat inmates with substance-abuse problems. About 85 percent of the state's 160,000 inmates were addicted to drugs or alcohol when they committed crimes, state corrections spokesman Russ Heimerich said.

State corrections officials are considering taking the fresh fruit ban systemwide. Prisons already are prohibited from serving three popular pruno ingredients - oranges, raisins and sugar packets. But a state report determined that creative prisoners can make pruno from yams, flavored gelatin, honey, hard candies - anything with sugars that can be converted into alcohol by fermentation.

Frustrated prison officials say they can't ban everything.

"Some institutions have tried, and they've found that about the only thing they can serve is meat," Heimerich said. "You can make [pruno] out of ketchup. Some inmates were even using the frosting off cakes. It's pretty much an unwinnable battle."

Lancaster prison officials say it's too early to tell whether the new regulation is having a direct effect on pruno production. But they concede that it will be difficult to stop. The basic recipes are simple and require only a rudimentary knowledge of the fermentation process, in which sugars are broken down into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide in the presence of yeast.

Most prison brewers let the ingredients ferment in a plastic bag, then share the potent results with cellmates who have contributed their fruit to the mix. The end result, by most accounts, is best gulped quickly while holding one's nose.

Richard Fausset is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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