How to Drink in the Clink
By Ransom Riggs
With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, our American readers are more likely than most to spend some time in jail at some point in their lives. Given the fact that two-thirds of Americans drink, and consuming alcohol is strictly verboten in American jails, getting schnockered while you're doing time presents unique challenges. Furthermore, wardens have started to catch on that it's pretty easy to ferment the sugars in fresh fruit, and in some California prisons, fresh fruit has been banned outright -- but there are other ways to make Pruno, or prison wine, and darned if our creative inmates won't find a way somehow.
According to Jim Hogshire's handy instruction manual You Are Going to Prison, this is how you make Pruno:
Prison hooch can be made in your cell toilet (as long as you don't mind using other people's toilets or finding some other solution), or more often, in plastic trash bags. The recipe is simple: make a strong bag by double or triple-bagging some plastic trash bags and knotting the bottoms. Into this, pour warm water, some fruit or fruit juice, raisins or tomatoes, yeast, and as much sugar as you can get ahold of (or powdered drink mix). Now tie off the top of the bag, letting a tube of some kind protrude so the thing won't explode while it gives off carbon dioxide. Now hide the bag somewhere and wait at least three days. A week is enough. One of the problems you have right away with making wine in prison is the difficulty getting yeast. It's a strictly forbidden item and you might not be able to get any. In this case you can improvise the by using slices of bread, preferably moldy (but not dry) and preferably inside a sock for easier straining. If you choose to brew your wine in your cell, you'll need to hide it behind your bunk and do what you can to hide the smell. Burning cinnamon as incense is one way. Spraying deodorant around is another. Normal wine takes at least a month if not six weeks to make at all properly -- but in hell, this is all you get.
As vile as Pruno can taste (Steve indelicately describes its scent as "rotten eggs tucked into the anus of a dead cat"), it doesn't rank much higher than other "street" or "bum" wines like Thunderbird, Night Train or "Mad Dog" 20/20, notable for their high alcohol content (18-20%), low cost and their availability in prodigious quantities (and in plastic shatterproof bottles). They became popular during the Great Depression, when folks had plenty of troubles to drink away but not much money. The American Wine Guide describes their rise:
Prohibition produced the Roaring Twenties and fostered more beer and distilled-spirit drinkers than wine drinkers, because the raw materials were easier to come by. But fortified wine, or medicinal wine tonic—-containing about 20 percent alcohol, which made it more like a distilled spirit than regular wine--was still available and became America's number one wine. Thunderbird and Wild Irish Rose, to name two examples, are fortified wines. American wine was soon more popular for its effect than its taste; in fact, the word wino came into use during the Depression to describe those unfortunate souls who turned to fortified wine to forget their troubles.
For years, these brands tried mightily to shake their lousy reputations, hiring people like James Mason to shill for them. It has an "unusual flavor," he claims. I'm sure he's telling the truth.
But what's that old saying about lipstick on a pig? Even an opera star can't make me excited about Gallo:
Eventually, brands like Thunderbird settled on marketing to an "urban" market, and that's where their focus has stayed. Here's a Disco-inspired Thunderbird spot from the 70s: