Feds: Old potato behind Utah prison-brew botulism

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Associated Press

Posted on October 9, 2012 at 4:35 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A weeks-old baked potato was blamed for a botulism outbreak at a Utah prison where inmates drank alcohol brewed in cells, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The outbreak sickened eight maximum-security inmates at the state prison in Salt Lake County on October 2011, making it the largest incident of botulism tied to prison-made brew, often referred to as "pruno," the CDC said in a report released last week.

Botulism is a rare but serious illness that can cause paralysis and even death. Symptoms include double vision, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness.

The CDC said the inmates made several batches of the brew with fruit, water and sugar, but only one contained the potato believed to have made inmates sick.

The inmate who made the brew said the potato was taken from a meal tray and stored at room temperature "for undetermined number of weeks" in a plastic bag or jar, according to the report. The inmate peeled the potato with his fingernails.

In all, 13 inmates who drank the brew reported being sick, but only eight were diagnosed with botulism. Some still complain of side-effects a year later, including weakness, loss of mass and difficulty swallowing. Some also report difficulty sleeping and anxiety, the CDC report said.

"We can't speak to each individual's particular medical situation due to privacy issues," said corrections department spokesman Steve Gehrke. "However, a few of the offenders are experiencing lingering effects, and those complications could continue indefinitely."

Gehrke said the inmates in question were charged administratively, and the ones who were found guilty were punished by being placed in isolation, fined and required to pay restitution to the state.

The outbreak turned out to be costly for Utah taxpayers, with hospital charges of nearly $500,000, the CDC said.

In Arizona, four federal inmates were diagnosed with botulism in August, also because of a potato used in a cell brew, the CDC said. However, the agency said the association between botulism and pruno is not well known.

After the outbreak in Utah, staff members posted fliers throughout the prison letting inmates know about the dangers of botulism and its link to pruno, Gehrke said.

He said inmates are banned from storing perishable food items that can be used to create illicit substances, and officers search cells for such materials just as they do for cellphones and drugs.

Gehrke said there have been other instances of inmates making prison brew since the outbreak.

"Candidly, this is a continuing issue inside any prison or jail facility. Where an offender has access to basic food items, there will be potential for abuses," he said. "We simply must be mindful of that and be diligent in efforts to head these issues off before they elevate to this level."

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