Monitoring and policing the nearly 200,000 inmates in California prisons has long been a challenge for authorities. Officials constantly struggle with controlling contraband such as drugs and weapons, but now they face a new challenge: a rise in "prison cheese." Department of Corrections Media Relations Director Byron Hadley explains:
"For years we had problems with pruno, a fermented wine-type beverage that inmates would make in their toilets with fruit from the dining halls. Gradually, some inmates switched from produce to dairy, and now we increasingly have inmates producing cheese in these same cell block toilets."
Referred to by inmates as "milk rot," this homemade cheese has led to an increase in black market activity both in cheeses and cheese making supplies. Last month, a group of guards at Pelican Bay was arrested as part of black market ring that sold rennet tablets to inmates.
The problem has become so widespread in the system that different prisons are associated with different types of cheese. Ig Jenkins, director of the Department's new Contraband Cheese Task Force (CCTF), explains, "When we recover a cache of illegal cheese, we can tell where it comes from, which gives us clues to the lines of operation between different prisons in the system. For instance, Corcoron is a big cheddar producer. Solano is only a stone's throw from all of those Sonoma County goat farms, so if we see a chevre, we know there is a 95% chance it originated there."
But California's most notorious prison is also its most notorious source of contraband. According to Jenkins, "Pelican Bay is a cesspool of illegal cheese. I've seen everything you can think of come out of there, epoisse, livarot, guryere, ricotta salata, even feta."
The CCTF is up against great odds, but Jenkins believes the Task Force's approach needs to use a carrot as well as a stick.
"We can bust hundreds of illegal milk rot mongers, but until we give inmates an option beyond USDA Loaf Cheese in the dining halls, we're going to have to deal with this problem."