Prison Food - HMP

Nobody wants to eat prison food. No one. Society at large appears to be caught between two wildly differing and equally inaccurate perceptions. There are some who apparently believe that prison food consists of a bowl of lukewarm gruel, Dickensian style (of course, there are others who believe that if it isn’t gruel, then it should be). On the other hand, there are those who would you believe that prison is akin to dining on the banks of the Seine. All steak dinners and fine cuisine, the reality is of course firmly between the two.

According to ex-prison Governor Bill Robinson in his blog, Prison Food Past and Present, “Part of the rehabilitation process is to teach prisoners how to eat healthily and look after themselves after release.” In theory, this involves the prison regime actively educating its inmates on the benefits and how to go about leading a healthy existence. This is achieved by structuring an inmate’s day with work or education and meal times that supposedly mirror societal conditions, including what balanced diet should look like.

While the policy exists on a theoretical level, the de facto situation in our prisons is somewhat different.  To give an example, the government’s much vaunted (and largely successful) “Five a Day” program, simply isn’t possible with the resources available to our prisons. According to the National Offender Management Service's figures for 2014-15, the amount per head a prison catering manager has to play with is just £2.02 a day, a figure that includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Furthermore, according to the National Offender Management Service; prisons are also required to publish “a multi-option, pre-select menu that meets the religious, cultural and medical needs of all prisoners, including a minimum of one substantial hot meal choice per day to be provided for the lunchtime or evening meal”. Try and remember the last time you managed to feed yourself healthily for £2.02 a day, consider that the average male requires around 2,5000 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, and the scale of the task facing prison caterers becomes apparent.

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian’s Weekend magazine, Gordon Ramsey professed to be “astounded” by the five meal choices offered to inmates at London’s Brixton prison. Admittedly, the phrase does conjure up images of inmates queuing up gourmet buffet style, but the reality is not quite so charming. Even though two out of five menu options were usually edible, the other three were, more often than not, Dickensianly vile. This is not to pour scorn upon the efforts of the caterers, who are increasingly required to be creative with meagre budgets. According to a study by the Foodservice and Applied Nutrition Research Group at Bournemouth University, the actual figure spent per head varies greatly, dropping as low as £1.20 per day in some HMPs.

My own experience of the food itself was of a system of "dinner roulette", which sounds vaguely humorous but soon gets old when it begins to affect your health. The meal ordering system usually consists of an A4 list of the five choices for each day of the week ahead, it’s then a case of ticking the options that sound appealing, or in the very least, those with the smallest margin for culinary error. In theory, this is a sensible and efficient system, in reality, its characterised by its inconsistency. The shepherd's pie may resemble foul emetic gloop one week, and fine home cooking the next. Likewise, on some occasions, fruit and vegetables may be available, on others not. 

During my time in B and D cat prisons, I do not recall fresh vegetables ever being available. Nutrition was usually provided in the form of one frozen vegetable Monday to Thursday alongside carbohydrates such as pasta and rice, with Friday to Sunday being the reign of chips over the menu. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that the “five choices” which provoked such indignation in Mr Ramsey are not choices in the usual sense of the word.  As the Prison Reform Trust states, “one meal option must be Halal, one must be vegetarian, one Caribbean option, one must be vegan, one will be red meat, another will be fish or chicken”. It is catering for restricted diets, a by-product of Britain’s ever increasing multiculturalism (and the large and growing population of Muslims in our jails), which necessitates the choice, not (as certain sections of the media would have you believe) an insidious program to turn our prisons into holiday camps. Is anybody really suggesting prisons should be offering their Muslim inmates Haram meats, with the threat of inmate unrest and the obvious human rights abuses that entails?

As for the rest of the day’s meals; most prisons have long abandoned a timetabled breakfast. Instead, issuing the rather optimistically titled "breakfast packs", which conjures up images of the sort of thing handed out on the coach on high school trips, but in fact is a fairly sparse offering. A “breakfast pack” typically consists of a clear plastic bag containing four sugar sachets, four loose tea bags (no coffee), four packets of whitener (often in lieu of milk) and a small bag of porridge oats, cereal or muesli. On a good day, inmates are provided with a 200ml carton of milk for consumption with the “breakfast pack” or anything else you may want milk for in a day.


Lunch was ordinarily one baguette, sadly a distant cousin of the French incarnation, tough as a sponge, and a filling in a quarter cup Styrofoam container. It contained such luxuries as watery cheese and coleslaw or watery tuna. Sometimes there would be a packet of crisps, sometimes not. Although there was soup on the menu it rarely appeared. Fruit was handed out in the evening but the last hundred people regularly did not get any fruit at all.

Then again, you were fortunate if your order was as expected. Meal allocation is often handled by fellow inmates, with a “call out” system akin to your local fast food outlet in place. This, of course, leaves the process open to abuse. It isn’t unusual to turn up at mealtimes and find that the meal ordered has been given to one of the inmate’s friends or just kept back for themselves. Annoying if you’re hungry but potentially deadly for inmates with specific dietary requirements and a potential flashpoint for those constrained by religion. Theft of food by inmates is also incredibly common, I witnessed on three separate occasions a group of inmates pick up the week’s case of fruit and walk away with it. All this in full view of the four or five prison officers tasked with overseeing the evening meal.

Thus far, I may have come across as a little self-pitying and this piece may read as a list of gripes with food quality in our prisons. However, I’ve done so to illustrate how difficult access to quality, nutritional food is for someone like me, for whom there was a safety net of help from family and friends, the vast majority of inmates are not so fortunate.

As a result of the difficulties outlined, many prisoners are forced to buy their own food from a limited and expensive canteen list. The canteen list is provided by an external supplier, which effectively enjoys a localised monopoly over the supply of food to prisoners. The result is perhaps inevitable; a captive market and the high prices that come with it. Frances Crook, of The Howard League for criminal justice, tweeted about this very subject recently: “DHL charges prisoners more than double for an apple or banana what we pay in a supermarket.” During my 12 month stay in a D-cat, I like most inmates, could not survive on what food I was given. I had to supplement every meal with food from the canteen list. If I hadn't, I would have had no fruit, no breakfast (breakfast packs only contain about a cup full of rice crispies or corn flakes). There was no bran or high fibre alternative for cereal, or for that matter, a low sugar option (I’m a diabetic). HMPs do not give out juice or coffee (I don’t drink tea), and in a prison where the tap water tasted like an over-chlorinated swimming pool - no water. I had to buy in water filters or buy bottled water, if not, my throat would have swollen to the point I couldn’t talk which is what happened in my first week.

Money was tight.  We could spend, on an enhanced regime, up to a maximum of £25.50 per week on the canteen. That maximum, of course, included wages (for most inmates somewhere between £10.00 and £12.00). The difference between the wages and the maximum was made up from funds sent in by family or friends. Not all inmates were lucky enough to have people who could send money in to top up their spends account. Whatever amount you ended up with, it needed to stretch to cover phone calls, tobacco, laundry, haircuts, coffee, water, fruit, cereal, tinned food, juice, milk, toiletries and any sweets you wanted. Money does not go very far for most inmates, how can it? There were no fridges so the rule was use it or lose it.

Those inmates who can’t afford to supplement their diet from the canteen list simply can’t afford a healthy and nutritional diet, the consequences of which are potentially severe. In his excellent blog Prison UK: An Insider’s View, former inmate Alex Cavendish reports seeing on several occasions prisoners begging for scraps by the kitchen bins and eating the leftovers from other inmate’s plates. That this happens in a 21st-century prison, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth is shameful, sickening and a damning indictment of our justice system. Is it any wonder there is a direct correlation between length of sentence and deterioration in health?

Perhaps more worrying is the growing body of evidence that some prisons are still using food as “unofficial punishments” and as a disciplinary tool. A random visit by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) to HMP Bristol in 2013 revealed the punishment of a prisoner beyond normal disciplinary action. The inspector reports having 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.” 

Sadly, the use of food deprivation and starvation as a form of coercion and punishment by prison staff doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident. Former inmate Alex Cavendish speaks at length about his time in solitary confinement and the likeness of his experience to the “hard diet” of bread and water meted out to unruly prisoners in Victorian jails. Cavendish reports being “forgotten about” at mealtimes and purposely being left in his cell during dinner, losing a such a dramatic amount of weight in the process that his clothes no longer fit.

It should come as no surprise that such arbitrary punishment of prisoners is illegal, in direct contravention of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment), and a gross violation of the duty of care prison authorities owe their inmates. Yet until the issue becomes more widely publicised prisons appear to be getting away with it.

Food in prison is a serious business and it can put lives at risk. Northumberland HMP, run by the private firm Sodexo (ironically, founded as a catering company), came close to a riot in February 2015 when the prisoners were not properly fed. There are few things in a day that prisoner looks forward to more than meal. When the caterers alter the menu, the meal runs late, or the quality is poor, people are quite literally put at risk. Consequently, one of the few times when prison officers maintained a highly visible presence (by which I mean more than two guards in any one place), was at mealtimes. 

2016 has seen a raft of prison violence with riots in HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November) and HMP Birmingham (December), the latter the worst since the infamous Strangeways riot 25 years ago. Time and again the same catalysts to inmate violence arise; poor management and treatment of inmates, and lack of adequate staffing levels. If the government is to avoid a potentially lethal event in the coming year, it would do well to begin looking at causes rather than symptoms and addressing the key flashpoints in our prisons, of which food is one.

So, what is to be done?

Perhaps the greatest issue with how the government feeds our prisoners is a financial one. In a time of austerity and swingeing cuts across the public sector, it's inevitable that the prison service suffers. However, a greater understanding of the false economy of cost cutting and regime enforced austerity is needed.

There is a symbiosis between our prisons and the some of the most economically deprived regions of the UK. Failing to feed prisoners properly, or educate them about the benefits of healthy eating is simply deferring the issue. The health issues suffered due to poor diet by inmates, while in prison and when they return to their communities are likely to have huge ramifications for the NHS in the long run. It’s utterly myopic to shun the opportunity to tackle some of the strain on the NHS from those from low socioeconomic backgrounds at source, all for the sake of a few million shaved off prison budgets.

On this note, the food economies of prisons themselves make little sense. In an era defined by cost cutting, buying in food from expensive and poor quality independent contractors runs contrary to the government’s goals. A move towards self-sufficient “producer” prisons would require greater initial outlay but would likely save costs in the medium to long-term. To give an example, while researching this subject I came across a D category prison (which will remain nameless to spare the hysteria of our press) where a full English breakfast is still served every morning. The Reason? The prison maintains its own supply of food through crops and its own livestock, which the inmates themselves are responsible for the upkeep of. The result, fresh healthy food and prisoners who are engaged from early morning until early evening and tired when they return from a day’s work. The benefits of which should be obvious.

Furthermore, the prison can sell any surplus it creates back to the local community, which amounts to (shock, horror) a prison which makes money without the exploitation of its inmates. This role for prisons as a positive in their local communities is something we should be working towards, the 21st-century prison should contribute to its community with something other than recidivism, crime rates, and drug addiction.

Another way in which the prison can contribute to the wider community is by turning out healthy ex-cons. A greater emphasis on “food education”, that is educating inmates on how to prepare and the benefits of healthy meals, and the health benefits they bring, should, in turn, reduce the strain on NHS primary care providers in the local community. On a wider scale, with prisoners more likely to originate from the same low socio-economic backgrounds where obesity is most prevalent, working to combat the causes of obesity within the prison walls and providing education to prisoners could contribute to the national battle against obesity.

Thirdly greater emphasis needs to be placed upon “food security” it’s been interesting to note how little space is given in academic research on prison food to the issue of inmates not having access to the food they’ve ordered. Most research concludes that prisoners are receiving a balanced and nutritional diet, which may well be the case were they receiving the food intended for them. As previously mentioned, food theft was a huge issue during my time in prison, a program of providing healthy food to prisoners only works so far as the prisoners are eating said healthy food. Better safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are receiving the nutrition they require. This will likely involve increasing staffing levels but the cost to staffing budgets will be offset by savings in healthcare provision.

Finally, a simple proposal, but one which often provokes incredulous reactions; communicate better with the inmates about their concerns on important day to day matters, like food. For many this is treating prisoners a little too much like citizens, however, the proposal is rooted firmly in logic. Inmates are much less likely to riot or become violent if they feel their concerns are listened to and acted upon.

It should be noted that the NOMS have already attempted this; through policy, requirement prisons are required to provide prisoners with systems and procedures by which to record their views on food and meal delivery.  There are several different ways in which this is implemented e.g. wing comment logs, individual comment slips, food bulletins, consultative committees, consumer questionnaires and food service meetings. For all that, I sat on the “prison council” during my time in a D-cat and found the experience to be largely fruitless. Even minor requests such as the provision of salt at mealtimes were met with Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy and requests were very rarely followed by resolution.

The present system risks alienating inmates further and precipitating tensions through the frustration it causes. Rather than giving inmates a voice on an important issue, it often serves to leave them feeling ignored. This needs to change if prisons are to avoid the tension and escalation we’ve seen in many prisons over the past year.

The battle to provide a healthy, nutritional diet to our prisoners is not an easy one, but it is a vital one. If we’re to reverse the societal trends of declining adult health, obesity and food poverty in our poorest communities our prisons are a good place to start. Furthermore, as long as our prisons continue to prioritise profit over the health of their inmates, tensions within them will continue and the events of the last year may in time become commonplace. For the sake of the inmates themselves and the staff of our prisons, that cannot be allowed to happen.

Written by Rob Stafford and Kreg Mills

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