January 22, 2019

Jailhouse Wine: Compost Pile Aroma with a Finish of Botulism

Prisoners who drink jailhouse wine are often among the small number of Americans sickened by foodborne botulism each year. Batches of jailhouse wine, sometimes called pruno or hooch, are ideal breeding grounds for the bateria that causes botulism, a life-threatening disease that paralyzes muscle groups starting at the head and working its way down.  When the nerve toxins reach the muscles that control breathing, botulism is fatal without medical intervention.

PrisonA recent study looked at a 2011 outbreak at a Utah prison that sickened eight people. The prisoners became ill after drinking the pruno. In three of them, the disease had progressed to the muscle groups affecting their lungs. They were intubated to prevent respiratory failure.

Botulism cannot be spread from person to person. Symptoms, which usually develop within 12 to 36 hours of exposure, include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness beginning with facial muscles and moving down.  Recovery can take weeks or months. For several of these prisoners, all of whom recovered, symptoms persisted for eight months.

The antitoxin for botulism is controlled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Once administered, it prevents the nerve toxin from progressing, but does not reverse paralysis in muscle groups already affected. Those areas just have to wait it out until the toxin wears off.

On average, about 20 Americans are sickened by foodborne botulism each year. In addition to the eight prisoners in Utah in 2011, prison hooch sickened 12 prisoners in two separate outbreaks at the same Arizona prison in 2012, one prisoner in California in 2005 and four prisoners in California in 2004.


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