If there’s one thing prison does for guy like me, it’s teach—though the lessons are learned the hard way.
Early on in my bid, I got caught up in a conversation with a buddy of mine about finding a way to kill the hunger pangs we were both regularly suffering from. True, the Department of Corrections provides three meals a day, but most would probably be turned down by a starving child. Not to mention the 12-hour gap between dinner and breakfast, which is where he and I were at in this moment.
“Yo, what you got to eat over there?” I remember him asking.
“All I got is two soups to my name, bruh.”
“Dang—and we got a lil minute before we get to go to the store.”
“Yeah, I know right,” I said. “This bi-week is kicking our ass right now.”
A bi-week is a period during which your unit doesn’t get to shop for two weeks, placing you in a situation where your hunger becomes your brain. I’m not exactly sure as to the purpose of this “rule,” but what I do know is that it’s a tough one to navigate alone, without family members to send you some eats.
And unfortunately, my incarceration had at this point in time put a strain on the relationship between my family and me. They were justifiably upset—let’s just say they’d chosen to exercise some tough love.
“We gotta get a hustle,” my friend said.
“Whatchu got in mind?”
He paused. "The cheapest route for us to go would be to put on a batch of wine…”
Most of you can probably guess that in prison, the drug trade is the most lucrative way to earn money. But coming in a strong second is making wine, or hooch, as we call it. Contrary to what you’ve seen on TV, it’s not brewed in a toilet, not anymore at least. And it can be just as potent or even more so than the wine and liquor you buy at a state-run store, when done right.
Yet even though my friend’s logic was sound, I didn’t dive right in. Truthfully, I was scared to take such a risk. Not so much of the immediate punishment for being caught, but the possible effect it could have on my parole date from prison. Couple that with the fact that I myself am not a drinker, in here or on the outside, and one could understand why I wasn’t exactly juiced to make the juice.
“I’ont know bruh ... That ain't my lane … ”
"Well, we need to figure something out and soon,” he said.
I shared in my buddy’s frustration with our situation in more ways than he probably even knew. At the time, I had a couple of vices, namely cigarettes and gambling, that held tremendous sway over my life. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where I was headed.
All it took was for me to be approached by the dorm wino, some odd weeks later, about where he could find his own vice of choice.
“Ay bruh why don’t you make wine?” he asked, unaware that I’d just been thinking about it.
This wino looked and carried himself more like an NFL linebacker than the alcoholic he was. If it was that easy, I thought to myself, why wasn’t HE doing it? I wanted to lie to keep from coming across as lame, but I’ve learned it’s best to just keep it real in these situations.
“I don’t know how,” I replied truthfully. “Plus, I’m not tryna get caught with it.”
He did the classic look-around to see if anyone was listening before saying, “Well, I could tell you how to make it…”
It sounded promising, but I have trust issues. This was technically a stranger, after all. So at first I shrugged off his suggestion and went about my day.
But I soon found myself in an even worse position financially than before, and my desperation was at an all-time high. Pretty soon, if I didn’t find a decent hustle, I feared I would resort to more degrading and aggressive tactics, such as stealing, bullying or extortion.
So I tracked down the dorm wino again and went through a Hooch-Making 101 crash course—and came away feeling ready to become the jailhouse Jack Daniel’s.
Sugar, tomato paste, water and time were my main ingredients for making a decent batch of liquid courage, and three days later I possessed all four. The science behind making hooch isn’t as complicated as one would think. I mixed about a pound of sugar to every half-pound of paste with some hot water, let it sit for about three to five days, and voilà, hooch.
You make it in whatever plastic bag or container you can get your hands on. I chose an old laundry soap bottle due to the fact that it gave me the ability to hide my endeavor in plain sight. With desperation my motivation, I abandoned my fear of consequences and was ready to start my winery.
The first batch tasted like sweetened soap, but that didn’t stop me from selling both quarts to the dorm wino for their normal eight-bucks-apiece going price, which netted me about $5 profit after costs. That may not seem like much, but in here it can go a long way.
Excited by the money and how easy it all was, I now wanted to improve my product by getting rid of the soap taste, which proved to be a bigger challenge than expected. The method of successive cold water rinses seemingly was effective.
Meanwhile, in my earlier convo with the wino, he’d told me a rule of thumb was that the longer I let it sit, the better. Reason being, the main ingredient, sugar, needed as much time as possible to “cook off” in order to increase the hooch’s proof. Another vital instruction he gave was for me to “burp” the container regularly, to keep the pressure from building up and potentially exploding.
With all this under my belt, batch two was such a hit that I was able to charge an extra couple bucks per quart.
I was now feeling like a “hooch master” and riding a wave of success. I hadn’t seen the chow hall in a little over a week, because I could buy my food now, and I was also able to invest in more product to increase my profit. All seemed to be right in my world, so naturally, I wasted no time putting on batch three.
I’d be lying if I said I knew why the wino, or anyone for that matter, loves to drink so much. Maybe it’s the thrill of breaking the rules in prison, or it helps him escape mentally. What I did know is that his eagerness fueled my eagerness to fulfill his orders sooner rather than later. With a potential $40 to be made, my mind raced to figure out a way to speed up the process. In here, after all that’s about two weeks' worth of food.
I finally came up with the idea of the “shake and burp.” For whatever scientific reason I can’t explain at the moment, shaking the bottle sped up the brewing enough to where, if I continued doing so all night, I could cut my wait time practically in half.
Or at least that was the theory.
Count time had come and gone and bedtime was on the horizon. It had been at least an hour since my last shake-and-burp, and I figured I’d get one more in before going to sleep…. But then—suddenly—a shotgun-like sound. I was now wearing my product, my amateurism on full display. The bottle had exploded.
My best guess as to what happened is that the pressure had built faster than anticipated, causing the geyser-like explosion and ultimately my ridiculous and unfortunate circumstance.
Panic was pretty much my initial reaction. It was lights out, and had the C.O. walked past at that moment, my original fear of punishment would’ve become a reality. I quickly gathered myself and put a clean-up plan into action, starting with my precious TV. In the dark, I cleaned myself and my entire cubicle, in record time.
But in the midst of trying to get rid of the wine smell from my area, the guard did make his round, and stopped in front of my cube. I froze like a deer in headlights as I watched him sniff the air and look at me. Finally, he left to go about his business, leading me to believe I was in the clear.
“Is that you, bruh?” some muscular, tatted-up white dude with glasses asked with concern, a few minutes later
“What?” I said, trying to play dumb. I’d seen him around, but like I said earlier, I got trust issues.
“Is that you that got the whole block smellin’ like Martha’s Vineyard?” he asked with a chuckle. I don't know if it was his tone of voice or his approach altogether, but something told me to go with it.
“Is it that obvious?” I said, embarrassed.
“Yeah. Don’t worry though, I gotchu.” He turned to leave.
It was in that moment I remember wondering if this was sign for me to quit while I was ahead. But the white guy returned a few seconds later, breaking my train of thought, and began sprinkling baby powder on the floor from one end of our row to the other. It looked like the floor of a bakery when he was done, and oddly enough, it masked the smell completely.
“That should keep you in the clear until tomorrow,” he said, and gave me the rest of the baby powder to toss around in my cube.
“Good lookin’ out,” I said.
For a few days, my debacle had the dorm sergeant sniffing around like an ATF bloodhound looking to bag whoever was responsible, but I didn’t care. I was officially done with making hooch. If it’s one thing I hate, it’s being scared and nervous.
Later that day, I found the dorm wino and let him know that it was over. When he asked why, I told him what had happened. He laughed at me for a minute and said, “Now you see why I don’t make it.”
My bootleggin’ days are long gone now and probably shouldn’t have begun in the first place. I have a better outside support-system these days, and my new hustle as a jailhouse chef is one I don’t have to risk my freedom for—and it gets me paid and fed at once! There will always be desperate situations one is faced with throughout life, but the key is to not make desperate decisions. Told ya I learn stuff the hard way.
Olethus Hill Jr., 32, is incarcerated at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, where he is serving a 16-year sentence for burglary and kidnapping with a three-year firearm enhancement.