Pubdate: Mon, 23 Dec 2002
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2002 Los Angeles Times
Author:  Richard Fausset


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

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 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 the year, 102 
assaults on staff and 122 inmate-on-inmate violent incidents were reported.

"With a lot of our serious incidents, the inmates are drunk," Nipper 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 long-term 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, Sacramento asked wardens to crack down on pruno, arguing 
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% of the state's 160,000 inmates were 
addicted to drugs or alcohol when they committed their crimes, state 
corrections spokesman Russ Heimerich said.

In the last seven years, the department has increased from 400 to 8,500 the 
number of prison beds set aside for substance-abuse treatment. And while 
some prison guards once turned a blind eye to drunk inmates, they are 
increasingly realizing that substance-abuse treatment and tougher 
anti-liquor enforcement may help reduce recidivism rates.

"The idea is to get them free of what they're addicted to," Heimerich said. 
"And people who are clearheaded are more likely to make more rational 
choices -- including whether to commit violent acts."

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 in the fermentation process.

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 of 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. Because of a 
number of recent violent incidents, some of the yards have remained locked 
down for months, which means that for now, some prisoners receive all meals 
in their cells.

Though under normal conditions prisoners would no longer have fresh fruit 
in their living quarters, they still receive fruit at cafeterias during 
breakfast and dinner. It's a solution, Nipper said, that avoids any 
conflict with the Corrections Department's guideline that prisoners receive 
15 servings of fresh fruit each week.

They are also hoping the policy helps them avoid a problem that occurred at 
Salinas Valley State Prison earlier this year. When officials there 
replaced fresh fruit with canned juices and fruit cocktail, inmates invoked 
the 8th Amendment, citing its ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Fruit Back on Menu

The state inspector general's office conducted an investigation in March 
and sided with the inmates, forcing officials to reintroduce fruit on the 
menu, state officials said.

At San Quentin, officials rely on cell searches to combat pruno production. 
They also keep sugar and yeast -- which speeds the fermentation -- away 
from inmate prison workers, said spokesman Lt. Vernell Crittendon.

Even at Lancaster, corrections officers concede that it will be difficult 
to stop pruno production. 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.

In his self-published book, "The Alaskan Bootlegger's Bible," author Leon 
Kania offers a pruno recipe that calls for sugar, water or juice, baker's 
yeast and raisins or grapes.

San Quentin death row inmate Jarvis Masters calls for fruit cocktail, 
oranges, white sugar and ketchup in his 1992 poem "Recipe for Prison Pruno" 
- -- a PEN award-winning work that intersperses precise brewing instructions 
with Masters' execution sentence.

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, though Roger Howard, a former inmate of the Oregon 
state prison system in the 1950s, said he was able to produce a few 
pleasant pruno vintages.

By the time Howard, who grew up in a family of bootleggers, was sent to 
prison in 1952, he had already learned the tricks of his parents' trade. He 
made his pruno in the prison boiler room, where he was assigned to a work 
detail. He and fellow inmates would smuggle it back to their cells in their 

Howard, now 67, still recalls the effects of pruno, which may help explain 
its enduring popularity. "It'd get you up and running. You'd just lay back 
and make sure you have a cellmate, someone to [talk] with, and not let the 
guards catch you. You know -- you sort of had an out, there, for a little bit."

Charles Hughes, a corrections officer at Lancaster, said pruno consumption 
in state prison mirrors drinking habits on the outside, with increases at 
Christmas, Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo.

In the state system, inmates caught with alcohol can receive a number of 
punishments, ranging from criminal charges to a loss of good-time credits.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Rick Adams, who heads the Men's Central 
Jail in downtown Los Angeles, said that pruno is a bigger problem than 
drugs at the 6,800-inmate facility. For years, the jail has been so 
overcrowded that it is too dangerous to serve meals in cafeterias. Because 
all meals are delivered to cells, pruno is everywhere, he said.

"The searches are ongoing. But you know how they have to paint the Golden 
Gate Bridge? They have to start painting at one end before they're done 
painting at the other. That's us. We're constantly finding gallons of the 
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