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How Prisoners Make Moonshine

Alcohol helps to send millions of Americans to prison, but you'd think it would be hard to keep drinking once you got there. Not so, inmates explain to The Fix.

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Shine on.
All art: Jesse Anderson

By Seth Ferranti

02/12/13

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Drinking problems drag many people to jails or other institutions—it's a weary story of alcohol impairing self-control and morals, over and over again. Most of us can testify how much more prone we are to doing something reckless, out of character, or even criminal when we're on the "liquid courage." The impact on incarceration rates is huge: A 2008 Pew Center report indicated that 5.3 million imprisoned adults in the US—36% of the total at the time—were drinking at the time of their offense. And 2007 Bureau of Justice stats showed that over 20% of victims of violent crimes perceived that their attacker was under the influence of alcohol.

"You have to have the wine to make the shine."

DUIs, for example, are familiar news fodder. But when you live on the inside like I do, you hear plenty of variations: "My dude got in a fight at a bar when he was plastered," one fellow prisoner tells me. "He got his ass beat, so in his alcohol-induced haze he decided to get a gun and go back to the bar. When he got there, the dude who beat him up wasn't there. But the cops were; he got arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun, and is now in the feds with me." But as with many inmates, the human ingenuity that cravings can inspire means his drinking doesn't have to end here: "What we like to do is make moonshine."

The first thing about making prison moonshine—or "white thunder"—is, as the prisoner puts it, "You have to have the wine to make the shine." The Fix has previously reported on how prisoners brew hooch. "It's just a different process," our man continues. "Basically, take five gallons of wine and strain it off." That means getting all the fruit or vegetable pulp out of there: "The potatoes, tomatoes or fruit, whatever you used to make the wine, you want all the heavy chunks of stuff that will burn from the stinger removed so you only have the liquid."

A "stinger" is vital; it's just a basic heating element with a cord used by inmates to boil water—or any other liquid. With that—plus a five-gallon bucket, some rubber bands, plastic bags, ice, a rubber hose and some pieces from a ripped-up sheet—you're all set to make your own still.

"Put the five gallons of wine into the bucket after you drain it off," says the prisoner. "Take two big white trash bags, set the bucket with the wine down inside them, and pull the bags up over the bucket tight. Take the ripped strips off a sheet and tie them around the top edge of the bucket, securing the plastic bags also. Open the bags back up, drop in your stinger to where it's floating four inches off the bottom, and pull the bags back up tight around the stinger cord."

"Then insert a drain hose off a washing machine into the top opening of the bags," he continues. "Make sure the hose is six inches off the wine. Rubber-band the hose, stinger cord and bags together, so that it holds together in the center and everything is wrapped up tight."

Most prisoners set up the makeshift still in their cell, at a time when it's less likely to be observed. "Set the bucket at the end of the bottom bunk, tie a sheet across the top bunk, then run the hose up and hang it on the sheet," goes the advice. "Put a latex glove on the end of the hose and secure it with a rubber band. Then plug in the stinger and cook." When the stinger heats up the wine, it gives off steam and will blow up the plastic bag like a balloon. This first step takes about one and a half hours.

"When the bag blows up, let the pressure off it by removing the glove from the hose; repeat this several times because it gives the alcohol time to separate really good," the prisoner says. "Then after it's good and hot, you unplug it so it stops cooking—you remove the glove and attach a small garbage bag to the hose. Set that bag in the sink on ice and run cold water over the ice slowly. Then plug the stinger back in. As you wait, make sure the hose doesn't collapse when the liquid starts running up into the bag in the sink."

The liquid going into the bag in the sink is moonshine. This process takes about 30 minutes; you have to set your clock and let it drip. It can be repeated several times. "Attach a new bag to the hose when the first one fills up and repeat the same process for 20 minutes," says our prisoner. "Then do it again for 15 minutes. Give the second one a burn test to see if the liquid is burning blue and still has a strong alcohol content."

In this way, out of his original five gallons of wine, an inmate can make six-to-eight pints of moonshine. A pint takes about five hours to complete and goes for $50 a pop. "There is damn near nothing different between the moonshine people make on the street and the moonshine we make in here," he says. "It is 80% to 90% pure alcohol and dudes like to drink it mixed with Kool-Aid or soda. Some drink it straight. It takes a half pint to get you well and truly lit. Motherfuckers do some crazy shit on shine, but I love it."

So being in the feds does little to prevent you from drinking—and it does nothing to protect anyone from the consequences of binging, which can be extreme. "One time the DC Blacks and the Tennessee boys had a big championship basketball game on the yard," another longtime prisoner recalls. "Both teams and their homeboys had been drinking shine up on the unit before the game and when they went out to play, shit got hectic real quick. The game was intense and heated and most of the players were smashed. So what started out as a championship ball game with the whole compound watching turned into a big slugfest, with dudes getting stabbed and everything: blood on the court, dudes laid out. Shine makes dudes want to fight straight up."

Most problem drinkers in prison are just trying to escape a reality they don't want to face, which is something that could be said of alcoholics in general—though doing years of your life in the pen does put special pressures on your mental state. But if being incarcerated won't necessarily end an alcohol problem, any more than it will a drug problem, neither does it mean that there's no hope of a solution: Both AA and NA meetings are available inside, and so is RDAP. Still, the problems run rampant and most prisoners don't get the help they need.

Seth Ferranti is serving 25 years for drug trafficking. He's a columnist for The Fix. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Seth's new book, Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available. 

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