Several inmates from the same housing unit have come to nursing sick call with complaints of feeling generally unwell, blurred vision, and some difficulty breathing. Since they are all from the same unit an infectious condition is considered. This is flu season so it could be the flu virus….but maybe something else?
Ours is a clever patient population. When confined in a secure setting with little in the way of resources, they are able to manufacture a wide array of items for personal use or barter on the prison underground market.
Homemade alcohol is one such commodity and is fairly common in the US prison system. Local names for prison alcohol products include hooch, pruno, juice, buck, chalk, brew, raisin jack, and jump. The brew is most often made from fermented fruit but any food source will work.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported on five outbreaks of deadly botulism from prison hooch in the Arizona, California, and Utah prison systems. Although the botulism bacteria can be introduced through any fresh food item, potato peels were identified as the source in several of the CDC investigated outbreaks. Botulism is caused by a toxin produced when a bacteria commonly found in soil is placed in an oxygen-deprived environment – like the closed containers used for DIY alcohol production. The toxin is produced during the fermentation process if no heat is applied to kill the bacteria.
Signs that Trouble is Brewing
Correctional nurses must be aware of the symptoms for botulism if their patients have a propensity to create their own moonshine.
It is important to act on early signs of botulism as the nerve paralysis caused by the bacterial toxin can quickly move to the respiratory muscles and lead to death. Often the first signs involve the eyes with double vision, blurred vision, or drooping eyelids. Slurred speech and dry mouth can follow along with general muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing. Botulism can quickly progress to respiratory failure.
Poisoning from botulism toxins through prison hooch can happen in a few hours or take up to 10 days to appear. A medical evaluation of symptoms is necessary to rule out other possible causes of progressing paralysis. Information about the potential of drinking homemade alcohol is important for a quick diagnosis and response. Question the patient and housing officers in a suspicious situation.
So, if home-brewing is a popular hobby at your facility, be particularly alert for signs of botulism poisoning among those who make and partake of this beverage. It may seem like a harmless way to keep the prisoners peaceful and preoccupied – but it also has potential to brew up some trouble.
Do inmates in your facility create their own drinking alcohol? Share your experiences in the comments section of this post.
Some material for this post was originally published for my health care column over at CorrectionsOne.Com.
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