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Jail search turns up contraband

Cell by cell, the Merced County Main Jail in downtown Merced was being searched Monday by correctional officers following a Saturday night fire that smoked up the building, Undersheriff Bill Blake said.

Members of the sheriff's department Sheriff's Emergency Response Team (SERT) were looking for contraband that prisoners could use to set fires or make a homemade alcohol concoction called "pruno." No one was hurt in the 10:49 p.m. fire set in two plastic 30-gallon trash cans.

About 10 SERT officers were checking each cell at the jail at 700 W. 22nd St. Prisoners were placed in the exercise yard one block at a time while their cells were searched for combustibles, matches, lighters, tobacco or the ingredients used to make pruno, according to Cmdr. Rick Thoreson, Jail Division commander.

The jail is under state mandate to provide fruit for prisoners' diets, Thoreson said, but these ingredients often get put aside to make the improvised high alcohol-content beverage. SERT officers said during their search they found several bags of pruno, dampening a potential New Year's Eve celebration.

Blake said individual cells are searched intermittently but this the first facility-wide search in a while. Sugar, oranges, bread, dehydrated banana chips and frozen fruit cups often are smuggled out of the dining area into individual cells where they are used to make pruno.

No damage was reported and no prisoners or correctional officers were injured when the trash cans were set on fire late Saturday. Correctional officers put out the fire with fire extinguishers, and city firefighters were called to clear the jail of the resulting smoke.

Five prisoners in cellblock 3 are suspected of setting the fire but no one was charged in the incident, which remains under investigation.

The jail was placed on a 30-day administrative lockdown, which means no prisoner visits, loss of commissary privileges and other restrictions.

Monday's search affected about 190 prisoners in about 35 cells, Blake said. He called the search a precautionary effort to head off other potential prisoner disturbances.

"We ruined their New Year's Eve," Thoreson said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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