No doubt based on the use of the term ‘doing porridge’ as a popular English euphemism for serving a prison sentence, there is a widespread misapprehension that porridge forms a substantial part of a jail diet. I’m sorry to shatter these illusions but it doesn’t – at least not any more. One of the readers of this blog has requested some information on food in prison, so this post aims to provide an overview.
|Not often on the menu these days|
These are pretty much standardised across the prison estate and consist of a clear plastic bag containing four loose tea bags, four small sugar sachets, four packets of whitener and a tiny bag of cereal, muesli or porridge oats. Most closed nicks also provide a 0.25 l carton of semi-skimmed milk, although if you’re unlucky the porridge oats will have had a sachet of whitener put in it already and then you don’t get any milk.
I’m told that a few nicks still provide hot toast in the morning, but out of the six jails I’ve been in, only one actually still did so. There is still a D-cat (open) prison in England that continues to provide a full cooked breakfast seven days a week. There is hot porridge on offer at the servery hotplate, as well as eggs served in various ways, plus a sausage and either beans or tomatoes. It’s pretty good, too.
I won’t name this jail because then the Daily Mail will no doubt rush to publish a vicious article all about ‘pampering’ cons to the secret delight of all the Outraged of Tunbridge Wells types who will red arrow away online to their hearts’ content. In fact, one of the reasons this jail continues to lay on proper breakfasts is that the establishment in question runs extensive farms and kitchen gardens, as well as having pigs and laying hens. In theory, it could be self-sufficient, as well as selling off its surplus to local businesses.
|A UK prison farm from the air|
The midday meal in most prisons now consists of a pre-ordered sandwich or ‘baguette’ (no relation to the tasty French bread of the same name), sometimes with soup as an additional offering, but often not.
Tea (served around 5.30 pm in many nicks) is usually the main meal of the day, although at weekends some nicks serve the sandwich in the afternoon, with the lunchtime offering being cooked. In theory, this is supposed to be hot food, although salad options are often available. These meals range from pretty good, to truly inedible. Often the catch is inconsistency. One week, the shepherd’s pie will be very good, the following week it will taste as if one of the shepherds has contributed his oldest pair of sweaty socks to the ingredients. You could liken it to playing culinary Russian roulette.
|Shepherd's pie: including his socks?|
The meal ordering system in most prisons now consists of an A4 paper sheet that lists five choices per day for the full week. You get this posted under your door a week or so before the actual week in question. Then it’s a case of ticking the boxes that appeal, although it should be pointed out that the description on the order sheet sometimes bears no resemblance to the actual portion served on the day.
Pre-ordering also allows the prison kitchens to cater for prisoners on special diets (for medical or religious reasons), as well as for vegetarians and vegans. All prisons are supposed to provide a daily piece of fruit, although I’ve been in one nick that definitely didn’t and I had one six-month period during which I never ate a single piece of fruit. This prison also didn’t allow the purchase of fruit from the canteen sheet.
|A rare sight in some nicks|
In closed prisons meals are usually eaten in pads (cells), although some do make arrangements for cons to eat at fixed tables on the landings. Some pads are so small that they can only accommodate one metal-framed chair, so in a shared cell one prisoner will have to sit either on the lower bunk or on the closed lid of the toilet (assuming it has a lid). I did this myself every single day for over six months in one B-cat nick.
However, some prisoners are claiming that the actual figure spent on food can range from £1.50 per day down to £1.15, depending on how efficient and creative the catering managers can be. There is an interesting academic study of UK prison catering here.
Of course, many cons do complain about the food served in the nick, both on grounds of quality and quantity. It is true that portion control can cause serious problems for younger prisoners, particularly those still in their teens who are growing. Although the daily budget for food is higher in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) to take account of this fact, as well as the provision of compulsory physical education in some establishments, Young Prisoners (18-21) who are held in adult prisons get exactly the same food as older cons, so they definitely suffer much more from real hunger.
The hungriest I’ve ever been in my life was when I was down in the Block (segregation unit) at my first nick. The two food choices each day were ‘take it or leave it’. You had to stand at attention inside your cell while the screw opened your door. Then an orderly placed a tray on the threshold of the seg cell. He moved away and you were motioned to pick it up. Then the door slammed and was locked and double bolted.
|The Medieval way...|
Food served to cons in the Block follows in that noble English tradition. I really lost weight on a daily basis until I could hardly keep my prison issue jogging bottoms up. I was constantly hungry until my stomach started to shrink, so I used to try to drink water in a bid to reduce the discomfort. I think it is fair to say that I have never been so famished in my entire life.
There are also reliable reports of food being used as ‘unofficial’ punishments. The most notorious recent case was documented at HMP Bristol in May 2013 when inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) made an unannounced visit to the nick. They discovered that: “We also witnessed the arbitrary punishment of a prisoner outside of formal disciplinary arrangements, in which a member of staff decided to prevent a prisoner (who was on the Basic regime and locked up all day) from having his full meals.” In fact, it appears that the con in question was slowly being starved as a form of punishment, in addition to having been put in solitary confinement. You can find the HMIP report here.
|Great place for a crash diet|
So what are the other options open to hungry inmates? Well the canteen sheet is the only legitimate source of food, but that requires money in a con’s prison ‘spends’ account. If a prisoner is unemployed because there aren’t any jobs available or there are no vacancies on education courses then he will face an uphill struggle to buy much with just £2 per week in ‘bang-up’ money unless his family or friends send him in some cash. Obviously no food can ever be posted or handed in to cons for security reasons.
Otherwise, a really desperate lad can hang around by the wing rubbish bins at meal times begging for scraps from other cons or even fishing discarded food out of the trash. And yes, I’ve seen this for myself many times. It’s shocking, degrading and as a nation we should be deeply ashamed when this level of deprivation is reached, whether inside our prisons or outside in the community, where there is also serious poverty.
|Feeling like chicken tonight?|
Some cons who have money do prepare simple meals for themselves using ingredients purchased from the canteen sheet (or knocked off from the prison kitchens). There are various recipes for ‘cell cakes’ made from digestive biscuits, dried fruit, cheap bars of chocolate and other bits and bobs. I knew one pair of pad-mates, both ex-Army, who used to produce amazing trifles for Sunday tea using very basic items. However, such delights definitely require spending money that most prisoners simply don’t have.
If this sort of thing interests you then there is a humorous guide to in-cell cuisine (and other prison-related issues) on Twitter entitled Cooking in a Kettle - @cookinginakettl – written by an ex-con. His posts are definitely worth a read!