Fruit mush and hidden stills: Homemade alcohol a big problem in prison

Federal corrections facilities in Canada make thousands of drug and alcohol seizures, with homemade alcohol the largest problem.

Almost half of all drug, alcohol seizures in Canadian prisons are homemade alcohol

Of the thousands of drug and alcohol seizures in federal corrections facilities in Canada, the most common is homemade alcohol. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Ketchup or fruit, bread and a lot of time — that's all you really need to make brew behind bars.

Lee Chapelle spent 21 years behind bars in prisons across the country and says, although he was never one for alcohol, that didn't stop him from getting caught with an alcohol distillery in his cell while at Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ont., about 27 kilometres from Kingston.

"The still was kept inside of my desk fan, which I was able to fit it in there, screw it back in so that it absolutely didn't look like it had ever been taken apart, and there was this still inside of my fan," Chapelle told CBC News.

Addictions are a contributing factor for a lot of Canadians who end up behind bars, and continue to be an issue after they are incarcerated.

Lee Chapelle says addictions are common in prison and so is access to homemade alcohol. (Submitted)
Almost two-thirds of male offenders report using drugs or alcohol on the day of their current federal offence, the Correctional Investigator of Canada's annual report said in 2016, and that addiction doesn't end when they go behind bars.

Federal corrections facilities in Canada make thousands of drug and alcohol seizures, with homemade alcohol the largest problem. 

From January 2012 to February 2016 there were nearly 10,000 seizures and almost half were alcohol. Of those, only 27 were of store-bought alcohol, according to documents from Correctional Service Canada showing all drugs and alcohol seized at all federal penitentiaries obtained by CBC through an access to information request. 

"You have a group of people who are 24/7 putting all their time and energy and creative intellect towards doing this stuff and you find ways to do it," Chapelle said.

'Ketchup, tomatoes, potatoes, peas'

Chappelle said his life story is common among offenders. His birth mother struggled, so he was placed into care right after he was born. He was adopted into a Scarborough family, but started getting into trouble when he was a teenager and ended up living in a group home.

After some break-ins and property-related offences, Chapelle landed in the youth justice system.

"The crossover part is where you go from the system — marginalized backgrounds and poverty and child welfare system — and cross over to criminalization, which, as you know, fills our prisons," he said. 

Chapelle moved into the adult correctional system and spent 21 years in institutions across the country.

He finally left when he was 42 and now does prison consulting through Canadian Prison Consulting Inc.

It's part of the food products and kitchen products that are in our pens.- Lee Chapelle, former inmate, now a consultant

Drug and alcohol consumption inside prisons changed a lot during Chapelle's time behind bars, he said.

In the 1980s, alcohol and valium were more common, but things changed quickly when crack cocaine became popular in the '90s, he said. People ran up debts they couldn't pay and gangs established a bigger presence.

To deal with drugs inside, urine analysis was put in place in the federal system in 1994. Marijuana and other drugs can stay in your system for days, sometimes weeks, so inmates switched their habits back towards alcohol.

"Alcohol became a little more attractive again because it's out of your system in 12 hours and it's really only based on sugar content," Chapelle said.

Between January 2012 and February 2016, there were nearly 10,000 drug and alcohol seizures across Canada, and almost half were for alcohol. (CBC)

The price of drugs was also a major issue for inmates, and brew can be made for free.

"It's part of the food products and kitchen products that are in our pens, so you can do it with ketchup, tomatoes, potatoes, peas. I mean, there are so many various ways of producing alcohol creatively," he said. "That is stuff that is on our daily menu and you could never take all those things away."

Over the past 15 years another thing changed — Canada adopted a tough-on-crime mentality. That meant a lot more people with mental health and addictions issues were in jail, with a reduction in services and programs for inmates, Chapelle said.

Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, was passed in 2012 and brought overcrowding, unhappiness on the front lines and waning aspirations for parole, Chapelle said. The closure of farms, reduced work programs and changes to food, including switching from real milk to powdered milk, have caused inmates to feel as if there is "nothing left to lose," he said.

Facilities in the Prairie region of Correctional Service Canada, which includes Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, saw about 30 per cent of the total drug and alcohol seizures in the country from 2012-16, and houses about 28 per cent of the total inmate population.

Over the past six years, the region has seen a slow increase in alcohol seizures. In 2011, there were 280 seizures; that rose to 383 in 2013-14 and dropped a bit to 375 in 2015-16, says data provided by Correctional Service Canada.

"Alcohol inside our system is always a problem. It is not candy, it is a problem," said James Bloomfield, the regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. "If they get it, it was a bad, bad night and very, very dangerous."

There were nearly 4,300 alcohol seizures across Canada from 2012-16. There were around 2,670 tetrahydrocannabinol-related seizures, including marijuana and hash, in the same time. There were also 606 opiate-related seizures, the data from CSC says.

Bloomfield said there are spikes in the volume of homemade alcohol when drugs get low in jail, particularly after guards have done a lot of seizures. When people have addictions, they find a way to get a fix, he said.

"In some cases, it's literally drinking just fermented mush that's been strained through socks and really is the most basic of that alcohol," he said.

"In other cases, they will find very, very ingenious ways of creating stills, micro-stills that will literally run through a toilet — the cooling portion hose will run through the toilet water to cool it off — and you have clean alcohol coming out the other end of it. You really do catch anything and everything that you can think of as far as ways to make it and things to make it with inside."

While it might seem like a distiller would be easy to spot, Bloomfield said the people who are master brewers are also experts at hiding, particularly in facilities that are more than 100 years old.

"Stony Mountain is 140 years old. It's a very old building and it has a lot of nooks and crannies and all sorts of different places to hide," he said. Stony Mountain Institution is in Stony Mountain, Man., about 26 kilometres from Winnipeg.

Stony Mountain Institution is 140 years old, making it easy for inmates to hide homemade alcohol, says James Bloomfield of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. (CBC)

In addition to updating facilities to help battle drugs and alcohol behind the prison walls, more guards, a body scanner for visitors, health-care access and programming for inmates are needed, Bloomfield said.

"We can definitely dramatically improve in the area of basically coming down off of drugs. I mean, right now we don't have the capacity to bring people in and deal with them in a clinical settings and bring people slowly off of the opiates, off of methamphetamines and bring them over to stuff like the methadone program," he said, adding that the Correctional Service Canada Prairie region has gone from having nurses available 24 hours a day to just eight or 12 hours a day.

All of that requires funding. In 2012, CSC was told to trim $295 million as part of the former Conservative government's deficit-reduction program. The only increase, he said, has been the implementation of drug-sniffing dogs.

He's also critical of the Corrections Service move to reduce use of administrative segregation or solitary confinement. He said it has removed deterrence and instead of "nothing left to lose," prisoners are thinking "why not?"

Deterrence not only answer: watchdog

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger said segregation doesn't promote prison brew — it's more likely to cause further mental health issues.

Guards have other options, including disciplinary segregation, which has a time limit, to deal with inmates making alcohol, he said.

Deterrence can't be the only answer when dealing with a population that's struggling with addictions, he said.

"The inmate population, in general, when they get into CSC, upon admission, have a rate of about 80 per cent have a history of substance abuse," Zinger said, also pointing to the statistic that says two-thirds of inmates were intoxicated at the time they committed a crime.

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger says there needs to be investment in services that help people with addictions in order to reduce demand. (Alan Dean Photography)
CSC has spent millions on more than 15,000 random urine samples each year, but tests are still coming out positive and drugs and alcohol are still being seized, he said.

"In our view, you should ensure that you spend as much money and effort in reducing the demand by addressing substance abuse, which is a chronic issue with the inmate population," he said. That will cost some money, he added.

Zinger said if you are in the corrections business, your goal should be to correct, and the best indicator of success would be a reduced recidivism rate.

"That can be only done by recognizing that those who are in jail, for the most part, have significant addiction issues, often mixed with mental health issues that you also have to address. They often come from vulnerable and stigmatized populations," he said.

When offenders go in with an addiction and keep fuelling that addiction behind bars, there's less hope that things will change when it comes time to reintegrate into society, he said.

"I think you are much better to look at rehabilitation and safe reintegration and providing the services to trying to address those underlying issues."

It's been around seven years since Chapelle left the justice system and had to find out how he could fit back in with society.

He'd spent two decades "with a mask on," not really being himself or letting his guard down so he could survive, he said.

Now, he works with inmates and former inmates and tells them to take responsibility for their actions — but he understands why some people turn to brew to pass the time inside.

"Right now it's an environment that is entrenched with intimidation, dehumanization, abuse. This is kind of where it's at," he said.

"The difference lies in whether you want to see criminals reform their behaviour or simply suffer for it."   


Kelly Malone


Kelly Geraldine Malone is a journalist based in Winnipeg. She worked for CBC Manitoba and was a University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs Fellow in Global Journalism 2016-17.