A dayroom in a shuttered wing of Osborn Correctional Institution Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Incidents involving pruno, a kind of improvised alcohol, have roughly tripled inside Connecticut prisons since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in a problem officials say is an unintended consequence of operational changes meant to mitigate spread of the virus. 

Across the state’s prison system, incidents involving intoxicated incarcerated people jumped from 51 in 2018 and 39 in 2019 up to 99 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, according to statistics provided by the Correction Department. They have continued to increase since then. In 2021, there were 138 alcohol-related incidents and there were 146 so far this year.

Officials attribute the spike in drunken incidents at least in part to a change in the way incarcerated men and women are fed at many of the state’s prisons and jails. Where meals were traditionally served in large chow halls, many facilities shifted their operations to send food directly to housing units and cells. 

The change allowed for more social distancing and less intermingling of otherwise separate housing units. It also allowed the delivery of the ingredients for pruno — mainly fruit and bread —  directly to the living quarters of many incarcerated people.

“One of our efforts to stop the spread of the pandemic permitted individuals to eat in less crowded areas within their housing location versus the traditional centralized location,” Ashley McCarthy, a spokesperson for the DOC, said in an email. “As a result, individuals had greater access to ingredients used to manufacture alcohol, which was previously restricted to kitchen areas.”

McCarthy said that DOC staff members were mindful of the increased availability of alcohol in prisons and were on the lookout for evidence of alcohol production. 

However, some staff members believe the prevalence of booze in state prisons has made already dangerous situations more volatile in recent months. 

In a joint statement, the presidents of the three AFSCME Council 4 unions representing state correction officers said their members had witnessed the spike in incidents firsthand. 

“We become deeply concerned for our safety and the safety of inmates when these issues arise,” Collin Provost, Mike Vargo and Sean Howard said. “The safety of all individuals is paramount in our industry, and we hope to work with the agency on finding solutions.”

Alcohol seemed to have been a factor in a Sept. 18 incident at the state’s high security MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield. According to daily supervisor reports obtained by CTNewsJunkie, the altercation began with an incarcerated man urinating through a food port in his cell door and culminated an hour and half later with another man forcing the evacuation of the housing unit by lighting his cell on fire. 

“Verbal intervention was attempted and unsuccessful at which point all inmates in the recreation room began to bang on the room glass, covering their faces as they stood on the tables,” a supervisor wrote. “The inmates then proceeded [to] stack the tables up against the doors [so] staff could not open it. An inmate then threw his tablet at the window causing it to break. The inmates appeared to be under the influence of an intoxicating substance.”

The incident and the subsequent cell fire were apparently contained without injuries.

Although incidents have risen, McCarthy said alcohol in prison was not a new issue for correctional staff. 

“Homemade alcohol, known as ‘pruno’ has been part of prison culture for generations and remains one of the potential hazards our staff may experience during their daily duties,” she said. “As part of training, our staff learns the investigative tactics needed to locate and dispose of alcohol, while also being given the tools to safely de-escalate an intoxicated individual.”

New Haven University Associate Professor Michael Lawlor, a former criminal justice advisor to then Gov. Dannel Malloy, said the problem may stabilize as operations in prisons return to their pre-pandemic conditions.

“You can make booze in your cell if you have a couple of basic ingredients and it was harder to do when everybody ate in the dining halls. It’s easier to do now,” Lawlor said. “Maybe that will change as soon as people are not eating in their cells.”