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Ketchup, a main ingredient in some moonshine recipes.
The Lowdown

Prison Moonshine

How it’s made, how it smells, and why ketchup is involved.

It’s no surprise that alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited in all jails and prisons. Exceptions, though rare, can be made for religious ceremonies like communion or Shabbat for which a small amount of wine might be permitted (pending warden approval, of course). So inmates have invented cell-room bootlegging techniques that result in strong, though not always delicious, brews.

Pruno, hooch, brew, juice, jump, raisin jack, chalk, buck…

Prison moonshine goes by many names and comes in many flavors. The most basic recipes call for a couple of oranges or a tin of canned fruit mixed with water and sugar and left alone in a warm place for at least several days. But in some places, the brewing bug has spread too successfully, and prisons are clamping down on access to easily fermentable goods. In Los Angeles, for example, commissaries no longer stock fruit. As a result, moonshiners have turned to less obvious ingredients. Many recipes require ketchup; a surprising source of sugar. Hand sanitizer has also been used. When the gel is mixed with salt, it separates into its primary ingredients: alcohol and glycerin. Using a paper towel or a sock, the glycerin gets filtered out, and a potent alcohol remains.

What Everyone Gets Wrong

While prison hooch has widely been called toilet wine, fermentation doesn’t actually happen in bathrooms. The process requires a well-sealed container, like a bag or sock, and those containers need to be kept in a warm location well hidden from view, to avoid detection by corrections officers.

The Insiders’ Perspective

No matter how well guarded a batch might be, the fermentation process is a foul-smelling one. A prison nurse likened the stench to baby poop. According to William Faneuff, warden at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Connecticut, if an inmate so much as opens a bag of alcohol to check on its progress, he or she risks detection. “If you’ve smelled it once, it would hit you like a brick wall,” he says. “Even through a closed door.” Faneuff claims that brewing incidents have dramatically declined since his early days as a corrections officer 23 years ago. He remembers discovering 25-gallon batches of alcohol; these days, when he does come across it, it’s by the cupful.

Brews Gone Bad

In 2012, a maximum security facility in Arizona had two outbreaks of botulism — an illness caused by spoiled foods that can lead to paralysis or death. Prison staff suspected the flare-up was the result of a bad batch of alcohol, and the substance was sent off to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for analysis. The CDC testing traced the problem back to a baked potato that had been smuggled out of the cafeteria and stored for several weeks before being used as an ingredient in the batch. Since the incident, mashed potatoes have been struck from the menu.