Prison

Prison

Monday, 8 September 2014

Prison Food… Glorious Food?

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
According to the prison rules, all prisoners are supposed to receive three meals a day, of which at least one must include the option of hot food. Most nicks have abandoned any pretence of serving breakfast as a specific timetabled meal. Instead, cons get issued with what is very grandly called a ‘breakfast pack’. 

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
Moreover, if you are expecting cons to do hard physical labour in the fields and farmyards from morning until evening – the animals have to be fed etc – then you can’t feed them a small bag of cereal. Most other prisons have ditched the idea of self-sufficiency, so there isn’t much hard physical labour still available in the nick. Breaking rocks went out of fashion about 60 years ago.

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?
I gather from fellow inmates that some of the lifer establishments do encourage cons serving long stretches to buy, prepare and cook their own food in little wing kitchens. However, in most nicks there just aren’t any facilities for this sort of thing, nor is fresh food generally available to buy from the canteen system, although some prisons do allow cons to buy fresh fruit.

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
The rapid rise in the number of Muslims in the UK prison system has led to most prisons offering complete halal diets, including special arrangements for the fasting month of Ramadan. This can range from the provision of containers to keep the food warm until the end of the fast in the evening, right through to nightly meals served in the main dining room when all non-Muslim cons are locked behind their doors.

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.

Prison kitchen
So what is prison food really like? It honestly ranges from excellent to absolutely dire, depending on the nick and the catering staff. According to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the daily budget for prisons in England and Wales in 2013-2014 is £1.96 per day. Back in 2006, the sum was £1.87.

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...
Although food in the Block is officially supposed to be the same as on the wings, I can definitely state from first-hand experience that it isn’t. There is a long tradition of nicks using food as a disciplinary tool, dating right back to the Medieval monarchs who slowly starved their enemies and rivals to death down in castle dungeons. The Victorians introduced ‘hard diets’ and bread and water to add to the pains of confinement. 

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
Now, I’d be prepared to bet good money that this was not an isolated case and that the practice being described in the report was far more widespread than the inspectors actually uncovered. I say this because I’ve been in two different nicks where prisoners on Basic regime were ‘forgotten about’ at meal times and were just left locked in their cells. I’ve witnessed it myself, so the fact that the case at Bristol seems to have been very similar in character leads me to believe that withholding food to punish individual cons does happen, even if it is technically illegal.

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?
Occasionally, the tabloid media will run a colourful tale of prisoners in UK prisons allegedly catching and cooking rats or other vermin. The only cases I know to be true are some Vietnamese cons at one prison who used to catch ducks and pigeons by various inventive means, then prepare them and cook the birds in their little travel kettles in the cell. It was strictly prohibited, but they still tried to get away with it whenever they could. 

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!

18 comments:

  1. I read something about Prison food complaints in the Mail and Mirror at the end of July. The complaints included a lack of parsley sauce with fishcakes, no couscous on the menu, lack of ready salted crisps and downgrading mothers pride to hovis bread. One lifer complained his room service at breakfast time was 90 mins late!

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    1. I would wonder how much of this is a set of comedy leading questions from the Daily Heil in order to generate a good story...

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    2. The story has been written already.

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    3. Thanks for your comments. I remember the Daily Mail story, which is very similar to a number of articles this tabloid ran previously. The problem is that - unlike The Guardian which employs an ex-con as its prisons correspondent - no-one on the DM has a clue about what really goes on inside the nick. Most of it is fantasy and smear tactics.

      As far as the complaints about food are concerned, some of these are probably down to that particular prison putting something on the pre-order menu that then never materialised on the day. It happens fairly regularly.

      It's rather like the Sky subscription story which the DM ran and which was also raised in the House of Commons. That was a complete and utter lie from beginning to end. No public sector prison ever allowed such subscriptions (in fact the rules explicitly ban them), but it was seen as a great smear story and has lingered on in the public consciousness. Ironically, the private sector prisons - that Chris Grayling is so fond of - still allow a full range of 100+ Freeview channels, while public sector nicks can only offer nine in total for which cons pay a weekly TV rental charge!

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  2. I'm guessing no-one comes out obese after a 2+ year sentence.

    The only 'prison' food I've eaten was at 'The Clink' inside one of the Banstead prisons, and to be honest it was very close to Michelin star level and very reasonably priced. I highly recommend it (I think they've got a few locations and the fact that 'graduates' apparently have a lower recidivism rate isn't surprising as I'm sure they could work in top level restaurants.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Perhaps surprisingly, obesity is a rising problem in prisons. In part because the prison population is ageing and more overweight and obese cons are coming into the system. Prison food is cheap and often very unhealthy because carbs are used to fill people up.

      Another problem is that the canteen sheet only offers incredibly unhealthy food - packet noodles, crisps, cheap chocolate bars, biscuits etc - so even those cons who have money in their prison accounts can only buy these very sugary and/or salty processed snacks. When many inmates are now locked up for up to 23 hours a day and gym access is being limited waistlines start to bulge. Prisons are storing up a public health nightmare for the future. The eventual cost to the NHS will be significant.

      I'm glad to learn that you liked 'The Clink'. It's one of the better training projects and does make a significant contribution to rehabilitation. My only surprise is that Chris Grayling and his ilk haven't destroyed it yet. Still, they have time before the next general election...

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    2. I know of cons who used to buy protein powder inside I had assumed other `health' foods were available for those that could afford them.

      Y. Bill

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    3. Thanks for your comment Bill. Yes, most prison canteen sheets do include protein powder, but it is pretty expensive so only those cons with private cash in their prison account can afford to buy it. That's an example of where you really see the two-tier society operating in the nick. The haves and the have nots.

      The only other health products I can recall being available were vitamin tablets, indigestion tablets and paracetamols (although not in every establishment). Three prisons did offer fresh fruit but it was expensive and the quality often left much to be desired: small, bruised and battered!

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  3. Thanks for your reply; I'm surprised the canteen sheet doesn't have more 'choice' and I'll be honest, although I was aware through a previous post about the lack of gym time it had slipped my mind that you can't really do 'bodyweight' exercises in your pad as shower access is limited. (Another stereotype destroyed, I always comforted myself that if I was ever wrongly imprisoned then at least I'd come out (once cleared) fitter than I'd gone in)

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    1. Thanks for your comments. The problem with canteen sheet goods is that most of them have to be processed or long-life because the vast majority of prisoners don't have access to fridges or cooking facilities.

      Each prison makes decisions about what it will have on the sheet (sometimes with consultation with cons or at least wing reps and equality reps). They feel the need to include a few items to tick the vegan or vegetarian boxes, some items for Muslims, etc. Since each nick canteen sheet varies, you can be transferred from a prison that allows you to buy fresh fruit to another that won't allow it.

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  4. Is a special meal provided at Christmas?

    Peter.

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    1. Thanks for you question Peter. Yes. In each of the nicks I spent Christmas in there was a special Christmas lunch. Some were better than others!

      At one prison the meal was a wafer thin slice of processed 'turkey' with a blob of stuffing the size of a marble. At another, however, it was actually pretty good for institutional food. I also remember my amazement when we were once given a 'goodie bag' containing a Mars Bar, a can of Coke, a mince pie and a slice of fruit cake... best Xmas gift I received inside!

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  5. Is there anything we can do on the outside to help? my son is inside for a year, fingers crossed, he had a kidney transplant 3 years ago aged 18, his immune system is very low due to all the anti-rejection drugs, and is constantly given mouldy food ,especially the 'un-French baguette' also food that's not cooked properly, he's only been in there a couple of months, and his kidney function has already deteriorated!! I thought prison was to reform and help people back in to society yet they cant even give you decent food, its in-humane! my sons hospital have contacted the prison as I keep the transplant team up-dated, so what can we do??

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  6. Hi, I know this is an old post but I just have a few questions,
    A lot of the time when someone goes to prison they come out with a bigger build than when they went in, I know they have there food and obviously would need to work out, I'm just wondering what sort of diet these guys use when inside, would it be realistic to use this diet on the outside with a full time job ?

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  7. I guess there are no deaths from malnutrition in British jails? If this is correct what is the problem? If you prefer to choose your own food then don't break the law - simple.

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    1. You are an ass, prisoners are human beings too. Its quite possible for any person to end up in jail given the wrong set of circumstances, a poorly judged decision while driving for example. Take your judgemental vindictive attitude and place it where the sun don't shine.

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