Prison Moonshine: A Desperate But Profitable Business

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Movies and TV shows have a tendency to romanticize, or humorize, the making of illicit moonshine.

Bootleggers were breaking the law, sure, but only to provide a product consumers desperately wanted and enjoyed. How dare the sheriff come in and bust up that crazy-looking still and deprive the community of its white lightning!

“I’m sure with the right lens, the making of prison moonshine would be viewed just as whimsically,” says Christopher Zoukis (http://www.prisonerresource.com), a prison-reform advocate and federal prison expert who is serving time at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia.

“Good moonshiners in federal prison are highly sought after and enjoy a healthy respect from fellow prisoners as true craftsmen.”

While those who make prison wine – often called hooch or gut rot – can reap the rewards from their creation, there is also a potential heavy price to pay if they’re caught. Here is a closer look at the prison craft of moonshining.

• The product. Prison wine is made by combining water, sugar, citrus fruit and a little bit of bread. A common recipe consists of using several cans of V8 or orange juice, a pound or two of sugar (or several bottles of honey), pieces of fruit (oranges, pineapple, etc.) and a piece of bread for the yeast. A bottle from a prior batch, often called a kicker, can be used to jumpstart the brewing process. A batch can be ready in as little as three days, or – without the kicker – up to a week.

“It typically takes two bottles of prison wine to get visibly drunk,” says Zoukis.

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• Making a profit. Regular prison wine is sold in 16.9 or 20-ounce water bottles, or a similar amount is placed in a tied-off piece of a plastic trash bag. Each bottle or bag sells for about $5. Prison moonshiners take the craft a bit further by distilling it using a stripped piece of wire plugged into a wall socket – known as a stinger – to heat the wine. A bottle of prison moonshine (called clear) goes for about $50.

“Generally, it takes only half a bottle to become visibly intoxicated,” says Zoukis. “It’s stiff stuff, brewed to burn.”

• Possible consequences. Being found under the influence or in possession of prison alcohol is a serious violation of Federal Bureau of Prisons’ disciplinary regulations. Anyone caught is escorted directly to the solitary confinement, aka the hole, where he will sit until he sees the discipline hearing officer. When he finally has his hearing – the wait can be more than a month – he will be sanctioned to more time in solitary and will lose certain privileges, such as using the phone, commissary or visitation. He’ll also be placed on the hot list for two years, which means he is periodically subjected to a breathalyzer screening.

To get away with this type of operation under the watchful eyes of the guards, prison winemakers hide their containers in their lockers, bury them in the recreation yard or hide them in supply rooms or behind tile walls for the few days it takes to brew.

“It’s a dangerous business, but a very lucrative one,” Zoukis says. “In a place filled with lawbreakers, many of them substance abusers, there will always be someone willing to pay for that quick high and someone ready to help them scratch the itch.”