Although a small number of prisons – mainly in the high security estate – do allow prisoners access to kitchen facilities on wings or units, the vast majority of our 84,800 inmates get nothing more than a travel kettle and plastic cutlery with which to create culinary delights in their cells. Various ex-cons have written on the subject of ‘cooking in a kettle’, however I thought a few personal reflections might be of interest to blog readers.
|Typical in-cell kettle|
It’s also worth remembering that those prisoners who can actually afford to buy extra food from the weekly canteen sheet are the lucky ones. In our most of our overcrowded establishments there is a shortage of jobs or places on education courses, so large numbers of cons don’t actually get the chance to earn money to spend on canteen goodies. For those who have financial support from family or friends (or income from personal sources or a private pension), then the canteen can be their oyster… so to speak, but most inmates aren’t in that fortunate position.
I once knew two ex-soldiers who shared a pad in a Cat-B local. They were resourceful and had plenty of active service experience to rely on when it came to catering in the field. The canteen sheet at that prison included packet jelly, Bird’s Angel Delight, tinned cream, tinned fruit and digestive biscuits. From these ingredients, the two lads could create the most amazing ‘cell cakes’ which they would have ready for their tea at weekends (when the evening meals were dire - usually a stale sandwich and a small bag of crisps).
|Essential ingredient for cons|
My own speciality was nicknamed the ‘Kempinski pudding’ (after the famous chain of luxury hotels). First you boil full fat milk and pour it onto plain porridge oats. Next you mix in raisins and mixed nuts. Finally you top it off with golden syrup. All of these ingredients were available on the canteen sheet. It might sound like a breakfast treat, but my Polish pad-mate and I used to eat it in the evenings when the hunger pangs really started to kick in. It gave us a very welcome hit of carbs.
The evening meal in most prisons is served very early – often around 5pm. This means that – like most adults who eat so too early – we really started to feel hungry at around 8 pm. When you’re locked in a tiny concrete box, you can’t just pop down the road or order in a pizza, so we had to make do with what we could afford to buy. Luckily, I was never really without a prison job, usually as an Insider (peer mentor), as well as often working in education departments helping other cons with literacy or numeracy. Also, most of my pad-mates had some kind of income, so although money was never abundant we could usually afford to stock up on basics to keep us going.
|Half for you... half for me!|
Every prison’s canteen sheet is slightly different. Some items that you get used to purchasing in one jail won’t be available at your next prison. One nick will allow cons to buy butter and cheese, another nick won’t, citing food storage concerns in cell where there is no refrigeration other than the windowsill by an open window.
|Quick snack... but pricey|
Prisoners can become adept at surviving on whatever food is available. Some become quite creative. If fresh eggs are available on the canteen sheet (or can be ‘procured’ from the kitchens or the staff mess) then various egg dishes can be created, including scrabbled and boiled varieties.
The small travel kettles provided in each cell can be used as a cooker in different ways. We used to save an empty metal golden syrup tin and fit this into the top of the kettle. The boiling water beneath heated up the can and enabled us to be a bit more inventive when it came to heating food up, including boiling milk or making decent porridge – rather than the dreadful institutional variety made with hot water and milk powder.
|Some of our ducks are missing|
Apart from this instance, I suspect that tales of cons cooking rats or other small creatures are basically urban legends, although of course I may be wrong. Awful though it is to relate, I have seen hungry prisoners rummaging through wing rubbish bins in search of edible food or else hanging around by the bins at mealtimes and begging scraps from fellow inmates who were about to throw the remnants of their own meals away.
|Bins: real desperation|
Like quite a few older prisoners we learned fast to take anything and everything that was offered at mealtimes. Even if we didn’t want it, there would be a penniless, hungry lad somewhere on the wing who would be very grateful for our surplus food.
Just one of the problems of long hours of cellular confinement is boredom and this can encourage snacking – usually of junk food which is always available to buy on the canteen sheets, such as crisps or chocolate. Where fresh fruit or vegetables were available from the canteen, they tended to be very expensive, so the system also seems to discourage healthy eating.
|Worth cooking up for any prisoner|
Once the first few cons returned looking very satisfied after polishing off their large plates of bacon, eggs, sausage and fried bread, or roast chicken with all the trimmings, there was a very predictable scramble to volunteer for cooking lessons across the whole nick. On our wing alone, over 100 lads signed up for the next course! Much better than anything we could have rustled up in our little travel kettles.