Rotten Fruit And Hot Pots: The Secret Techniques Of Cellblock Cuisine

Rotten Fruit And Hot Pots: The Secret Techniques Of Cellblock Cuisine

Prison is a sad, cold and horrible place to be. What reminds you of home more than a hot, home-cooked meal? Nothing. Since these prisoners can’t go home– Maybe ever–they have to bring home to the cell block.

Meet Richard Alley. I call him Chef Richard Alley. He was the most charming and gregarious man we met at San Quentin. He’s a murderer. I’m willing to bet that this Richard Alley is not the same Richard Alley who was incarcerated in the mid-1970s, but then, thirty-something years will do that to a man. The man and the deed seemed diametrically opposed, and it was hard to wrap my mind around. You’re looking at a man who is famous in San Quentin — not for being tough or dangerous or hard. He’s famous for the pies he “bakes” in his cell — without the benefit of a kitchen.

To be fair to Chef Alley, we surprised him. We’d heard he was a master pie-maker, and he found out we were coming about 10 minutes before we arrived. He didn’t have a lot of the necessary supplies, most importantly fruit. A pie ain’t a pie without filling. I wish we’d known sooner, because by all accounts they are delicious.

It’s important to note that these pies are entirely legal. Everything that goes into them is from the canteen or the food hall, and baking one of these pies doesn’t require any banned appliances or tools. The clear hotpot heats the fruit, which is cut with the lid of a can. Nice n’ clean.

The flip side of that coin is alcohol, which most definitely not legal or sanctioned in any way, even though all of the items that go into it are. There are two main types of prison alcohol: pruno and lightning. Pruno is far more common and much easier to make. It’s essentially prison wine. Lightning has been referred to as prison whiskey, but really prison moonshine is much more accurate.

Prison wine (pruno), just like wine on the outside, can be of the delectable $US100 a bottle variety, or the $US2 rotgut variety; it all depends on how good the guy who’s making it is (thought the latter is more common). Rarely are two batches of pruno exactly the same, but here’s an abbreviated how-to (If you want a very detailed and very funny description I recommend checking out Eric Gillin’s post at The Black Table.):

  • Inmates save a bunch of fruit such as apples, pears, peaches, they get from their bag lunches. They stockpile for a while, or get some friends in on it.
  • They mash those up as best they can, and put them in plastic bags (which are provided to inmates). By some accounts they let the fruit rot first. Sweet Jesus.
  • They add in any other sweetening ingredients they can find. Powdered drink mix, sugar, canned fruit cocktail, even tomato sauce. That’s right. Tomato sauce. I’m sure a master pruno chef would never, but then what do I know?
  • The magic ingredient they add is bread. Why? Because it has yeast in it. They toss in a handful of slices (depending how big the batch is), and that yeast gets to work lapping up that sugar and peeing out alcohol.
  • They heat the bag as much as they can with warm water from their sink or hotpot, but generally they just leave it sealed in a dark place. There is a lot of off-gassing in during this process, so they have to “burp” the bags or a regular basis or they’ll burst. Living in a tiny cell that reeks of rotting fruit is even less fun than regular living in a tiny cell.
  • They let these bags ferment for three to five days (or a week or two, depending who you ask).
  • Once they think it’s done they strain out the solids using a shirt or socks, and there you go, prison wine. I heard the taste described as “rancid”, “vomitous” and “like alcoholic bile”. Sounds like a treat. I’m guessing that’s not the work of a master pruno-smith, though.

According to Officer Eric Patao, they find bags of pruno on a weekly basis:

We usually do sweeps around the holidays. Some of these fools have straight up liquor stores. Inmates will come by cells with a cup and pay a few dollars a cup. Inmates will have a box rigged on top of their lockers and have a tube fixed to the bag. They basically use gravity and the tube to serve it up. People on the outside think ‘Who cares? No big deal.’ However, a handful of these guys are not friendly drunks.

They get into fights with other inmates or officers. Officers responding to a drunk inmate may get hurt in the process. Just like anything that impairs a person, they lose judgment, and crime follows. Especially when you have thousands of felons corralled together.

Indeed. In North Block, where we spent most of our time, roughly 80 per cent of the 850 or so inmates were there for violent crime. Not the sort of crowd you want to be at a kegger with.

Pruno is generally 2-14 per cent alcohol, again depending on who makes it. Lightning, on the other hand, can be around 80 per cent (that’s twice as strong as most whiskeys or vodkas). Luckily it’s also far more rare. In seven years at San Quentin Officer Patao can only remember seeing lightning (sometimes called white lightning) twice. It’s much harder to make.

Basically guys have to be able to build a mini-still in their cells and not get caught doing it. That ain’t easy to do. They need a container of pruno, all ready to go, and a heat source (generally a hotpot). Then using various pilfered supplies, they have to seal the pruno off, heat it, run the vapour through a tube of some sort and have it come out in a second container. It takes a long time and while these guys have time aplenty, officers regularly patrol the corridors and it can’t be easy to hide something like this, if only because of the smell of heated pruno.

Both of these libations are extremely dangerous, but for different reasons. Lightning is dangerous because it’s so insanely strong. Half-a-cup can get a very large felon blackout drunk, which is obviously bad for a number of reasons. Pruno is dangerous because, essentially, you’re drinking rotting fruit, which is liable to have all kinds of mould, bacteria and other pathogens. Best case scenario with pruno is you get a bad case of the shits and a roaring hangover. Worst case, you could end up in the hospital and die.

The lesson through all of this, though, is that we humans are suckers for creature comforts. We’ll make a bakeless pie in a plastic tupperware bowl to remind us of a better, more innocent time. A time before we had everything taken away. We will make alcohol, risking severe punishment, if only to experience the smallest escape. This why mammals, and homo sapiens specifically, have taken over the world: adaptability. If there has been a running theme throughout this week of stories, it’s that.

Human beings can be put in the most adverse of circumstances, and they will adapt to survive. We buy things to make us more comfortable. What we can’t buy, we make. When we have to, we defend ourselves. We reach out to our friends. And when we can, we’ll enjoy ourselves, as we saw today.

This rounds out our week of stories on prison technology. We may append an odd or end to it, and maybe we’ll even return to the big house someday, but for all intents and purposes prison week is over. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. Now go outside, because you can. Buy a beer or use a microwave. Too often we take these things for granted. We might just enjoy our lives more if we didn’t.

Special thanks to Terry Thornton, Dana Toyama, and Sam Robinson of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation for facilitating this visit. Thank you to Sergeant Don McGraw, Officer Eric Patao, and Officer Gino Whitehall for all of their time and help. And thanks to inmates Sam Johnson Sr, Richard Lawrence Alley, Shahid, and Marvin Caldwell for sharing a slice of their lives with us.

Video by Bill Bowles, Woody Allen Jang and Brent Rose