Inmate - ArtWork

Jailhouse Pruno

Homemade booze: it’ll kill you.

     As a free man, just 23 years old, I worked as a club/party promoter in Southern California. Spent seven nights a week around hot babes, loud music, and the best assortment of alcohol money could buy. With a $200-a-night bar tab, compliments of the club owners, I often treated all the right people to drinks, so they would come back as repeat customers.
     Looking back to that time, I can now admit I was an alcoholic. Always had a drink in my hand, buzzed beyond the legal driving limit. I wondered sometimes how the hell I ended up home in bed. Did I really get behind the wheel? I drank to be social, but also because of a heavy workload. More money, more problems. I was successful, but having too much of everything was overwhelming. Alcohol took off that “edge,” allowed me to manage the major responsibilities I had, and not take things so seriously.
     The night of my arrest in 1993, a sting operation occurred where FBI agents and local police recorded conversations I was having with a business partner, who happened to be a paid FBI informant wearing a “wire.” I was buzzed, drinking a tall neck Heineken running my mouth, story telling.
     Mere words, spoken while under the influence, put me away for life. And when I entered jail and prison, I figured I’d never be able to drink again. I was wrong.

     I was transferred in 1995 from the reception center in Delano, California, to New Folsom prison, a Level IV maximum-security prison near Sacramento. Folsom was high concrete walls, multiple levels of barbed wire, electric fences. After a couple weeks of moving from cell to cell, trying to find a decent cell partner, I finally settled in with an old-timer convict named “DOG,” who was serving life for killing his wife.
     Dog was from Southern California, a 59-year-old Hispanic man with a moustache like the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and the cold dark stare of a killer. He spoke in Cholo slang with a rasp to his voice — a smoker.
     “Hey Holmes, watcha, can I get those apples you got in your locker?” he said, as he took another hit from his cigarette.
     “Sure, take ‘em all,” I said, handing him a clear plastic bag which contained six apples.
     Later that night, Dog obtained a large clear plastic trash bag. At first, I figured he was going to make a water bag to work out with — many convicts do this to remain strong and muscular. But Dog had another purpose.
     He started mashing up an assortment of fruits he had accumulated in a cardboard box underneath his bottom bunk — oranges, apples, grapefruits, fruit cocktail. He placed them all inside the bag, pouring water and small cartons of orange and grape juice, which we received with our morning breakfast. He finally finished by pouring a pouch of TANG inside the bag.
     “Watcha, Homie, this is how I come up. I just want to let you know that if the placas (cops) come in and find this, I’ll take the rap. I’ll say it’s mine, so don’t trip.”
     “Sure, okay,” I said, going along with the program.
     Dog double-bagged it and cut off the top of a shampoo bottle, using a razor, tying off the top of the bag, and used the shampoo top as a “breathing” apparatus to allow air to enter or be released. He placed the bag underneath his bunk, in the far lower corner, and surrounded it with other boxes of property, so it was not in plain view.
     Every night, for three days, he pulled out the bag, which reeked of alcohol, to check on the status. Due to fermenting, each night the bag had expanded like a blown up balloon. He frequently opened the shampoo lid to let out air, supervising the process like a chemistry teacher. By all means, Dog was making something out of nothing.
     This was his prison hustle.
     On the third night, he took a sock, using it as a strainer, and began to pour the bag contents into sock, and out came a pure orange liquid, which streamed into a big jug placed below. The result was jailhouse pruno.
     “Hey, Homie, have a tumbler, it’s FIRME (delicious).”
     He took my tumbler from my locker and poured me a full cup. I hadn’t drunk any alcohol in nearly two years. The smell of pruno took me back to the clubs, the great memories. Anxious and curious, I grabbed the tumbler and took a few sips. It was delicious, tasted like a wine cooler!
     One tumbler turned to two. Two turned to three. Dog made about 2 gallons from that batch and had carefully measured it all, so he could distribute eight tumblers worth. An inmate porter came by and Dog slid small plastic bags filled with pruno underneath the small crevice below the cell door; each bag contained a tumbler, and sold for $2 a piece.
     Dog turned up the volume of music on his small portable cassette radio, which played a Chicano band from the ‘70s called MALO, playing the song, “Suavecito.”
     “Hey, Holmes, you like the ROLLAS (music)? I got more. Check out my collection. I have Zapp, Tierra, Rick James …”
     The pruno began to take its effect. I was soon talking my ass off, as Dog was, reflecting on memories from the past. The happy days of cruising Whittier Blvd., taking a chick to the drive-in, smoking a little blunt while out with the fellas at the Lowrider car show. I was beginning to have a good time for the first time in my imprisonment. Able to let my guard down and not act the tough-guy role.      After two years of being treated like a number, I felt human again. We stayed up until about 2 a.m., and then called it a night. When I woke up the next morning, I had the most terrible hangover I’ve ever had. A terrible stomach ache. I must have taken five dumps that day.

     Weeks later, after evening chow, Dog and I returned to our cell only to find it had been searched by unit officers. It was a total mess, our property mixed together, as if a tornado had struck. Blankets on the floor, sheets taken off the mattress, legal papers taken out of envelopes. Our precious photos of family were on the cell floor with a large footprint of a guard’s boot on them.
Dog immediately searched underneath his bed, and saw that his pruno bag was gone.
     “Fuck … those PINCHE PLACAS, that GARCIA is an asshole. I bet you he did this. He is probably going to write us up.”
Dog called over a Chicano inmate porter and told him to get Officer Garcia to come to the cell. Within minutes, Officer Garcia showed up. He was a short Mexican young man, about 5-2, perhaps 23 years old, skinny, looked like Bart Simpson. He was a rookie cop looking to earn some bones, so he could become a sergeant. He always wore a secret service-style earpiece to look important. He for sure had a Napoleon complex. I’ve run into these types before.
     “What’s wrong, inmate, you mad at your pruno?” he said, as he peeped into our cell window, talking to us through the crack of the door, as he spit tobacco chew into a styrofoam cup in his hand.
     “Fuck you!” replied Dog, who was extremely pissed off.
     “Why did disrespect us by throwing our property everywhere?”
     “You got it coming, inmate. You know that manufacturing pruno is against the rules. Every time I walk this tier, it smells like a hole-in the wall bar. Your Homies brought heat to us when they acted a fool last night, fighting in the dayroom. You all brought the heat on yourselves.”
     “All is ask, Holmes, is that you don’t disrespect the cell. I’ll write your ass up if you do it again!”
Officer Garcia walked off laughing and Dog started venting. “That mothafucka is going to write us up, I know it. This is going to be my third write up. I’m going to lose my yard privileges this time.”
     Sure enough, the next day, we were both given CDC 115 disciplinary write ups for “manufacturing pruno.”
     “Hey, Holmes, I am a man of my word, I’ll take the rap. When they call you for the hearing, don’t make a statement," said Dog in a convincing tone of voice.
     Three days later, I was paged off the recreational yard and told to report to the Watch Office. I was told to enter the lieutenant’s office, which smelled of the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.
     “Mr. Valdez, I’m Lt. Campbell. I’ll be the hearing officer for this disciplinary write up. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”
     “Not guilty.”
     Lt. Campbell was in his late 50s, a white officer with a beer belly, balding head, moustache and mirrored shades. He had the look of a typical cop portrayed on any crime television show.
     “Do you have any statement you want to make, any witnesses you want to call in?” he asked, while sipping his cup of coffee.
     “I have nothing to say.”
     “I interviewed your cellie before I called you in and he says that the pruno was his, so based on this, I’ll be dismissing your 115. Let me give you a word of advice.”
     “Sure, tell me.”
     “I can tell by looking at you that you are a first-timer. Pruno is something you don’t want to be messing with. We have had inmates die due to drinking a bad batch where botulism poisoning set in. Long-term drinking leads to liver problems. If you live with someone who manufactures, it’s in your best interests to move out, or else you could face disciplinary action.”
     I didn’t know that pruno was such a big deal, so I was curious, wanted to know more. “Tell me, lieutenant, what else is there to know about pruno?”
     “I’m gonna shoot straight with you. For decades, we have dealt with the pruno problem. We know some inmates make it to earn money. We know WHO makes it and WHO buys it. We aren’t fools when we walk the tiers and smell jailhouse pruno vapors coming out of cells. We don’t care if inmates drink pruno; it’s only when people start acting like fools that the higher ups send word to us that we got to do our jobs and confiscate it.”
     “If pruno is such a problem, isn’t there any way to stop it?”
     “There is no way to stop it. You inmates use everyday ingredients that, by law, we’re mandated to provide to comply with daily nutritional standards — syrup, raisins, prunes, fruits, sugar, Kool Aid, etcetera. If we were to take away these items, I’m sure you inmates would come up with some other way to make it. You will find that the majority of officers don’t enforce every rule, because there is no way we could regulate and enforce them — too much paperwork.”
     “Okay, thanks. Is that all? Can I leave?”
     “Yes, we are finished here. The only reason we hit your cell last night is because there was an incident in B section, next to yours.      Two inmates fought while under the influence. You all fronted yourselves off. You look like a decent guy; my advice, stay away from pruno.”

     I haven’t drunk pruno since 1995. I am tempted, though, on special occasions like New Years Eve. There is a new popular brand of pruno, which is expensive, but looks like vodka, clear like water, and from what I hear tastes great with soda. It’s called WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s more potent and takes about a week to make. The leftovers of pruno contents, left in the sock and bag, are heated to vaporize, the liquid drops then collected. At $25 a tumbler it’s sure to give you a buzz out of this world.
     I recognized that if I ever want to get out of prison, I must not cloud my thinking or judgment, even for special occasions. Anything can happen while being under the influence. And since manufacturing or possessing pruno is subject to disciplinary action, there is always the chance a rogue officer like Garcia will come in the cell to take it. Then there is the disciplinary write up.
     Each disciplinary write up adds eight points to an inmate’s classification score. Just one write up could mean transfer to a higher-level facility or denial of a parole date for up to five years by the Board of Prison Terms.
     Fortunately, some prisons have self-help groups like AA, which I am proud to be part of. Sharing experiences with former fellow alcoholics tends to keep me on a straight alcohol-free path.
     Unfortunately, the desire to drink is still there. Just one tumbler of pruno could help ease the misery I endure at times when I feel like my life is being flushed down the toilet.
     Drinking in free society is legal. In prison, it’s not. That alone is enough to discourage me from drinking entirely. If I were confronted with the opportunity to drink real alcohol, while locked up, I honestly don’t know what I’d do.
     Staying alcohol-free and out of trouble got me to the lowest level security I can be housed at. Doing time in minimum security has its perks. It’s the closest thing to being free. No electric fences, no high cement walls, lots of open space on the yard. I can see the freeway with real cars, just a few hundred yards away. There are real cats and dogs, which come around looking for food, animals I can pet and feed.
     I couldn’t possibly throw it all away just for a drink.
     Even if Hustle Man, the man who can get you anything you want in prison, comes around with the latest merchandise.
     “Hey, amigo, I got a pint of real Bacardi 151 on the market today — $250. You know you want it!”

 

Written by Tito David Valdez Jr. while doing time in California.

PEN PAL ROSTER


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