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Homemade alcohol gives 12 prison inmates botulism

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UTAH STATE PRISON — A dozen inmates at the Utah State Prison recently became sick with botulism after consuming homemade alcohol brewed inside a cell, according to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

Eight of those inmates were receiving treatment Wednesday at local hospitals while four were under observation at the prison.

"This is definitely a fatal disease and, as I said, three of those patients are critical," said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

This is definitely a fatal disease and, as I said, three of those patients are critical.

–Dr. Dagmar Vitek, SLVHD

Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the homemade brew was made by at least one inmate who was hoarding food from the meal trays served to him in his cell. But the way the food was stored was apparently the cause of the problem, he said.

The first affected inmates came down with symptoms on Sunday, Gehrke said.

Symptoms of food-borne botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness, according to the health department. Health officials say the condition is rarely fatal and is not contagious from person to person.

While the material is considered contraband, Gehrke said the department's emphasis at this time was making sure inmates who may have consumed the bad brew come forward and get the treatment they need.

There are recipes for "prison wine" or "toilet wine" on the Internet. Most of them include a mixture of leftover fruit, sugar, ketchup and sometimes moldy bread.

Botulism in the U.S.
In the United States, an average of 145 cases of botulism are reported each year. Of these, approximately 15 percent are foodborne, 65 percent are infant botulism, and 20 percent are wound botulism. Adult intestinal colonization and iatrogenic botulism also occur, but rarely. (Source: CDC. gov)

"I would never want to taste what they are making in prison," said Dave Watson, who works at Utah company that sells supplies to home brewers. He says what the inmates made, isn't anything like home-brewed alcohol.

"The problems they were having in the prison were not fermentation problems, no inherent problems in producing alcohol" Watson said. "They are starting out with toxified products, and so garbage in, garbage out; poison in, poison out."

He says prison alcohol is made in unsanitary conditions with less than ideal ingredients.

"People do produce alcohol in prison. It happens," Watson said. "It's not something you are going to want to drink. It's something that is consumed out of desperation or boredom."

It's also something prison officials vow to stop.

"We know that this homemade brew occurs from time to time, and we do our best to do cell searches to look for it," Gehrke said.


Written by Pat Reavy and Sam Penrod.

Pat Reavy
    Sam Penrod


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