Prison is a sad, cold, 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 ten 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 chow 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 $100 a bottle variety, or the $2 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 ketchup. That's right. Ketchup. 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 handfull 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-percent of the 850 or so inmates were there for violent crime. Not the sort of crowd you want to be at a kegger with.