Jailhouse Hooch Led to Outbreak of Botulism, Study Says

Jailhouse Hooch Led to Outbreak of Botulism, Study Says

By Shawn Dwyer 12/19/13

Eight inmates in a Utah prison were hospitalized after consuming homemade wine laden with bacteria from a potato skin.

prison cell.jpg
Maybe it wasn't just the potato...
Photo via Shutterstock

According to a recent case study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, eight prisoners from an unknown Utah jail were rushed to the emergency room after complaining of weakened muscles, slurred speech, double vision, and difficulty breathing.

Dr. Megan Fix, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Utah hospital, was first on the scene when the prisoners were treated. She noted that the first inmate had difficulty speaking and breathing, and was unable to control his muscles. “That’s why he was so scared,” she said. “His brain was working but he couldn't control what was going on. He knew he was getting weaker and weaker."

It turns out that the inmates had been stricken with botulism after brewing jailhouse wine, also known as pruno. Apparently, one of the inmates decided to add a baked potato to the recipe as an experiment – a fateful decision since the skin of the potato was tainted with Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that leads to botulism infections.

Three of the prisoners were bad enough that they were put on ventilators for almost two months as the toxins worked their way out of their nervous systems. “It can take weeks to months. You have to just wait it out,” said Fix. “The nerve endings will have to wake up. ... Essentially your nerve endings have to make a new receptor.”

While certainly not an epidemic, there are on average 145 botulism cases reported every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 15% are food-borne, while most occur in infants.