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Default Prison hooch guards' bane - California State Prison Los Angeles County in Lancaster

This story appeared in the Tuesday, December 24, 2002, Antelope Valley Press.

LANCASTER -- Since the late 1850s, California has been carving its niche as one of the top five wine producers in the world. Though some may argue it's really all about the cheese, inmates at California State Prison Los Angeles County in Lancaster aren't risking their good-time credits to bootleg a sharp-flavored cheddar.
Prison inmates everywhere long have been known for their ambitions in the connoisseurship of "pruno" and corking -- a problem that has been an ongoing challenge for prison officials.

These homemade, or prisonmade, not-so-fine wines are coaxed from such premium ingredients as hard candy, fruit cocktail and raisins -- even ketchup. Inmates keep the "kicker" ingredients in plastic bags, stashed beneath piles of clothing under cell cots for warmth to promote the fermenting process. In as little as two days it's ready. Add some water and inmates are sipping in no time. The beverage has a probable alcohol content equivalent to beer, according to Ron Nipper, spokesperson for the prison.

"It's enough to gag a dog on a gut wagon," said Barbara Little, prison advisory board member. "They'll use anything with sugar in it."

Little admits she never actually has seen the prison blends. But, she said, she has heard enough about it to know she doesn't want to. Nipper, however, sees it far too often. For prison officials, high on the list of difficulties is how easy pruno is to make.

"On any given day, if you were to come here to the institution we could probably go into any of the housing units and find a couple gallons of it," Nipper said.

Determined inmates transport the ingredients from the cafeteria to their cells by whatever method gets it there most discreetly. Often, said Little, they just bring it back in their mouths.

Nipper said yeast is a hot item to steal among kitchen workers.

Still, despite awareness by prison officials over how and where inmates are engaging in these "bag-your-own" winemaking exercises, reducing their production levels hasn't been simple, even with consequences.

With more than three-quarters of the state's inmates battling the insatiable longings of drug and alcohol addiction, their determination to get high hinders prison officials' efforts.

Pruno is even more popular than cigarettes, according to Nipper. Prison officials say it is a factor in many of the criminal incidents that take place in their facilitiesx.

"It's not a losing battle," Nipper said, but it's a battle just the same.

Fresh fruit is the "kicker" ingredient, and while the obvious move would be to eliminate fresh fruit from the prison menu, state regulations require that inmates receive 15 servings a week. Trying to work around that guideline, in October, prison officials in Lancaster stopped serving inmates fresh fruit in their cells, instead serving it only for the meals they eat in the cafeteria, Nipper said. Whether or not that has made a difference is too soon to tell, he said. Occasional lock-downs, when all meals must be served in the cells, curb the effectiveness as well.

"These guys are very clever, and they will expend an inordinate amount of energy to do those kinds of things," Little said. "It's one of the constant battles you fight in any area of confinement. They do it every chance they get."

The discovery of pruno is a serious violation, Nipper said. In the discovery of illegal drugs, prison officials are required to have the substances tested. With pruno all it takes is the unanimous vote of the prison officials' senses to warrant consequences.

"It's the worst-smelling stuff you've ever smelled," Nipper said.
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