Alcohol has been with us since the beginning of civilization, in the best and worst of circumstances.
It has survived countless attempts to limit and ban it and, through man’s ingenuity, it has prevailed. No matter what the situation, men have always found a way to beg, borrow, steal or manufacture their own alcohol. Nowhere is this irrepressible spirit more evident than in prison. Which makes sense. Alcohol is great for stress, after all, and there are fewer stressful environments then lockup.
Homemade prison alcohol goes by the a multitude of names, including juice, jump, raisin jack, brew, chalk, buck, hooch, and pruno (a once popular ingredient was prunes, but the name now applies to any fruit-based homebrew), and the industry probably started flourishing about a week after history’s first prisoner was led to his cell. And try as they may, the Man has never been able to stop it. It’s become such an entrenched part of the culture of incarceration many wardens have accepted it as part of the gig.
Reggie Kray, of the Kray brothers, England’s most infamous crime family, was recently denied parole after 29 years in prison because “he had failed to refrain from drinking alcohol in prison.” He refuses to stop and the authorities apparently can’t make him. So he remains in prison.
It’s nearly impossible to stop because, one, the prisoners will go to great lengths to get it, and two, alcohol is remarkably easy to make. All you need is a little knowledge, something that will ferment, and time. And there’s plenty of all three in any prison. Most recipes involve fresh fruit and wardens at some prisons have went so far as to ban fruit from prisoners’ meals in hopes of curtailing production. The convicts, ever resourceful, were later found to be making pruno from cake frosting, bread, jelly and milk. Which goes to prove, where there’s a will, there’s a way to get smashed.
To discover how easy it is to make pruno, we assembled two teams to attempt separate recipes. The first is a proven classic, the second a modern variation.
Recipe #1: Classic Pruno (by Hank Soboski)
This recipe is part of prison folklore to the extent it was described in detail in a famous poem called Recipe For Prison Pruno by prison poet Jarvis Masters. (See bottom of page.) Using nothing but the poem for reference, I proceeded.
What You’ll Need:
A Sealable Bag (Ziploc or a heavy-duty garbage bag with rubber bands)
10 Peeled Oranges
1 8oz Can of Fruit Cocktail
50 Sugar Cubes
6 Teaspoons of Ketchup
I combined the oranges and fruit cocktail in a large Ziploc bag, sealed it tightly, then spent fifteen minutes squeezing and mashing it lovingly until it was the consistency of a pulpy paste. I added 16 ounces of tap water and resealed the bag.
I ran hot water over the bag for fifteen minutes, then wrapped it in three towels to insulate the heat and start the fermentation process. The bag ends up being the size, weight and temperature of a newborn infant and you may start having tender feelings for the cute little beast. This is normal. Especially when this realize when this baby grows up he’s going to get you drunk. I hid my baby in safe, dark place and let it sit undisturbed for forty-eight hours.
I unwrapped the towels to discover my baby had ballooned up nicely. This, I surmised, was due to the gasses given off by the fermentation process. I opened the bag and it gave off a light scent of, well, rotting fruit. I added fifty cubes of sugar and six packets of Heinz Ketchup. After resealing the bag, I waited for the sugar cubes to dissolve, then kneaded the pulp a little to ensure a good mix. It struck me that I could have very well used uncubed sugar. I ran it under hot water for thirty minutes to make things pleasant for the bacteria, then rewrapped my baby in towels and put it back in a safe dark, place.
Day 4 and Day 5
I kept a close eye on my prodigy. The sugar accelerated the fermentation process and by Day Five it looked as if my baby was thinking about exploding into something I didn’t care to clean up. I opened a corner of the bag and let off a little gas.
Day 6 through Day 8
I reheated the bag in the sink for fifteen minutes every day, then rewrapped it in towels. I noticed a floating colony of mold that had taken up residence was growing very nicely. Was my baby sick? Was this normal? Was there no hotline I could call? I put it back in its safe place and hoped for the best.
Gripped by a mixture of anticipation and dread, I unwrapped the bag and opened it. As a precaution, I had scented toilet paper stuffed up my nose, but the bouquet still came on like a rotten gauntlet across the snout. My baby had mutated into some form of Frankenstein creature with very bad personal hygiene. I quickly ladled out the large pieces of rotten fruit and the spectacularly successful mold colony, then strained the remainder through a tea strainer.
The Taste Test
I had to fight hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution and instinct to get down the first swallow. Even with my nose stuffed with toilet paper, my first instinct was to vomit out what my lizard brain told me was deadly poison.
But I remembered that I reacted the same way to my first taste of whiskey and carried on. I fended off the idea of mixing it—with drain cleaner, gasoline, anything.
I forced down a cup’s worth, expecting it to eventually get easier. It didn’t. Each new swallow was a fresh insult. I added ice in hopes it would mask the taste or at least kill some of the bacteria. Aside from tasting like moldy and rotted fruit, it tingled against my tongue as vast bacteria colonies rose up and counter-attacked.
When I’d fought and gagged my way through half the first pint, my stomach started rebelling. I could imagine what it was thinking: “Great God, we’re being poisoned! And, get a load of this shit, the fucker keeps sending more down! Are we committing suicide? Did I miss a fucking meeting?”
To put it bluntly, classic pruno tastes like a bottle of Thunderbird filtered through a dumpster full of rotted garbage. Also, a stray dog laps it up from the alley floor and vomits it into a dirty hubcap.
Did it get me drunk? A pint of pruno earned me a mild buzz. Not a “snifter of brandy on the balcony” buzz. But rather a wretched, stomach-churning, sour-mouthed buzz. The equivalent of back alley sex with a toothless crack whore. It’s sex, yes, but you feel more horrified than satisfied.
I’ve never felt a great deal of sympathy for our nation’s prisoners, but I do now.
Recipe #2: Rich’s Orange Jack (by Nick Plumber)
I acquired this recipe from a recently paroled friend of mine, Rich, who’d experimented extensively with cell-brewing while serving out his debt to society.
What You’ll Need:
A Sealable Bag
3 Containers of Orange Juice Concentrate
1 ½ Cups of Sugar
3 Dinner Rolls
The dinner rolls, Rich informed me, are are added for their yeast content, which explains why this recipe takes a third less time than the classic version. While incarcerated he’d mixed this mash in a trash bag ensconced inside a plastic jailhouse footlocker. Lacking such, I used a trash bag and a five-gallon plastic bucket. I combined all the ingredients and I tied off the bag leaving plenty of room for the gasses to expand into. According to Rich’s system I would let it sit for five days, “burping” the bag once a day to let off the gasses. Rich suggests that the best time to do this is right after lights out, since the guards won’t be by for a while and the odor of fermenting juice is pungent and unmistakable.
I didn’t notice much activity. The bag wasn’t filling up with carbon dioxide and I fretted that I hadn’t added enough sugar to get the yeast kick started. I decided to be patient.
The bag was slightly swelled, but not enough for me to burp it.
The bag was starting to bloat, so I opened it slightly and squeezed. A strong smell, like a screwdriver with the hint of rising bread, filled the room. According to Rich, this was a good sign.
I burped the bag again. The odor was getting very sour. Rich had warned me of this, so I added another ½ cup of sugar and retied the bag.
The moment of truth. I assembled a panel of tasters, opened the bag and peeked inside. A foamy mess of soggy bread floated on top of a thick orange liquid. In the interest of keeping the procedure as authentic as possible, we strained the brew through an old t-shirt. We served it on the rocks with a twist of morbid dread.
The Taste Test
Ivan, after smelling it, refused to drink it until we called his manhood into question. He had a sip, ran straight to the bathroom and threw up.
Not a good sign, to be sure, but the rest of us were made of sterner stuff. It smelled like rotten underwear and looked like Satan’s venereal urine, but this was for drunkard science, by God.
Counting to three, the remaining tasters and I took a drink simultaneously. We grimaced in unison. It tasted exactly as bad as it looked and smelled. Like a screwdriver that’d been sitting in the sun for a week. Baker put his down and refused to have another drink. Dignan took one more tiny sip, shuddered and surrendered.
Which left it all up to me. Bracing myself, I downed the rest of the glass. Remarkably, It stayed down. I sensed that there was a decent amount of alcohol in it but was there enough to give the kind of buzz that would make me forget a five to ten year stretch of hard time?
Sneering with disdain at the shattered panel of tasters, I calmly filled another glass. In the big house they would all be my bitches. I added more ice and let it sit for a moment— chilling it could only help. I tried to put myself in the mental state of a prisoner: I haven’t had a drink in months or longer, and this is all there is. There are no liquor stores, no bars, no bottles of scotch hidden under my roommate’s bed. Nothing. Just monotony, brooding danger and a powerful urge to get out of my head, even for just an hour.
I expelled all my breath and sucked down another glass. Vinegary, yeasty, with a rusty shank of an aftertaste. I was feeling a slight buzz, but I didn’t think I could stomach another glass. It was booze all right, but two glasses was my non-incarcerated limit.
To reward myself I poured a nice glass of whiskey to wash my mouth out and ruminated upon the experiment: It works, yes, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it in any but the most desperate of conditions.
Recipe For Prison Pruno
A poem by Jarvis Masters
Take ten peeled oranges,
Jarvis Masters, it is the judgment and sentence of this court,
one 8 oz. bowl of fruit cocktail,
that the charged information was true,
squeeze the fruit into a small plastic bag,
and the jury having previously, on said date,
and put the juice along with the mash inside,
found that the penalty shall be death,
add 16 oz. of water and seal the bag tightly.
and this Court having, on August 20, 1991,
Place the bag into your sink,
denied your motion for a new trial,
and heat it with hot running water for 15 minutes.
it is the order of this Court that you suffer death,
wrap towels around the bag to keep it warm for fermentation.
said penalty to be inflicted within the walls of San Quentin,
Stash the bag in your cell undisturbed for 48 hours.
at which place you shall be put to death,
When the time has elapsed,
in the manner prescribed by law,
add 40 to 60 cubes of white sugar,
the date later to be fixed by the Court in warrant of execution.
six teaspoons of ketchup,
You are remanded to the custody of the warden of San Quentin,
then heat again for 30 minutes,
to be held by him pending final
secure the bag as done before,
determination of your appeal.
then stash the bag undisturbed again for 72 hours.
It is so ordered.
Reheat daily for 15 minutes.
In witness whereof,
After 72 hours,
I have hereon set my hand as Judge of this Superior Court,
with a spoon, skim off the mash,
and I have caused the seal of this Court to be affixed thereto.
pour the remaining portion into two 18 oz. cups.
May God have mercy on your soul.