In With the New, Out With the Hooch

An inmate at the Denver County Jail wants something to drink to celebrate New Year's Eve, and he wants something with a little more punch than Kool-Aid.

First he swipes a plastic trash bag while he's on cleanup duty by folding the bag flat and slipping it into the heel of his shoe. Then, at breakfast, he palms an orange, maybe an apple, too. Still acting on the sly, he fingers a few packets of sugar from the coffee station and slides them into his waistband. When he returns to his cell, he tosses it all, along with some water, into the trash bag, which he has cleverly pinned beneath his bunk. At dinner he pockets a roll and adds it to the bag; the yeast from the bread will encourage fermentation.

The result? A fiery batch of moonshine, or "hooch," as it's called on the inside.

If it had been summer, the mephitic firewater would have been ready to drink in a few days; if it had been a normal winter, it would have taken about a week. But since it was Y2K, it didn't happen at all.

In anticipation of millennial celebrations, Denver County Jail officials clamped down on the in-house hooch industry. Beginning on December 24, whole fruits such as apples, oranges and bananas were banned from the commissary and replaced with four ounces of mashed fruit cocktail. It's a little more expensive, says division chief Fred Oliva, but it's an annual price increase he's willing to pay -- especially if it keeps his jailhouse dry. "It's hard to carry fruit cocktail back to your cell," he says of would-be brewmeisters, "and they only have one pocket, anyway."

In the final week of 1999, DCJ guards shook down cells and managed to confiscate twenty gallons of hooch, most of which was still fermenting in trash bags. Some of the transparent or rose-colored alcohol was found, ready for holiday consumption, in quart-sized plastic Tang containers. According to what Oliva has heard, when made properly, jailhouse hooch has the alcohol content of crude mouthwash and the throat-shredding flavor of nail polish. "I've never tasted it, only smelled it," says the chief. "I don't want to go blind."

A little hooch (also known as "pruno" and "raisin jack," for other possible ingredients) can go a long way, however -- and it can cause big problems, Oliva reminds. "Our main concern was that somebody may get a little rambunctious," he says. "That's why we searched for the booze. Alcohol tends to give a person courage."

So true: In 1996, two inmates in the Morgan County Jail in Martinsville, Indiana, traded punches after debating the rightful ownership of a batch of hooch. When prison guards tried to stop the fight, other inmates jumped in and caused an all-out brawl. Four guards were seriously injured, resulting in a new jailhouse policy; now, when a Morgan County guard enters a cell block to stop a fight, he must encase himself in full riot gear.

And in September 1998, at least twelve inmates at the Cascade County Jail in Great Falls, Montana, capped an evening of hooch-guzzling by thrashing their cell block. The inmates broke windows, vandalized cells and started fires. Jail officials tallied the damage at $8,000.

Yet even though fewer inmates spend their nights in Denver's jail during the holiday season (there were 1,778 on New Year's Eve, down about 200 inmates), hooch production goes up, and guards have to keep an extra eye out for amateur brewers, just as they do during other special events.

On Super Bowl Sunday in January 1998, inmates in Baron County, Wisconsin, hoped to watch their Green Bay Packers wrassle with the Denver Broncos on TV. When the request was denied, furious inmates tore apart their cell blocks, ripping down shower curtains and pulling out phone cords. During the cleanup, guards found a bucket stuffed with fruit that was soaking in a sugar-water solution. The incarcerated "chemist" had been given the bucket to soak his infected feet nightly, per doctor's orders. He later confessed that the hooch was for the game.

Aside from temporarily restricting whole fruit, other jurisdictions have taken prompt action to skunk out the sauce. In 1999, all jails in Santa Clara County, California, banned cigarettes, coffee and sugar, the critical hooch ingredient. In Boscawen, New Hampshire, jail officials also banned sugar last June after discovering a batch of hooch.

But Oliva says the DCJ has no plans to remove sugar from the jail. "Everybody loves to have sugar in their coffee in the morning," he says. "I know I do." Whole fruits were returned to the commissary on January 3.

Overall, the Big Evening in the Big House was calm and subdued. But just in case, there were 39 extra armed guards and two horsemen circling the perimeter. Jail officials feared that computerized booking programs might fail and that power outages could lead to trouble. Along with most Y2K fears, however, theirs went unfounded.

Instead, inmates were treated to a special dinner of baked chicken and mashed potatoes, then returned, sober, to their cells for a viewing of the coming-of-age flick American Pie.

With no clocks in their cells and without the benefit of watches, inmates had to guestimate the precise moment the new year arrived. Oliva says bar-rattling and shouting began about five minutes before midnight and lasted for about twenty minutes. There was no countdown, and only a few lonely streams of toilet paper flew through the air.

"Just because an individual is in jail," Oliva says, "doesn't mean he's forgotten what the holidays are like."

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Justin Berton

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