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What Women Eat In UK Prisons

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Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Sophie is so passionate about eating well that listening to her talk about her diet isn’t dissimilar to hearing a food blogger sing the praises of going gluten-free or cutting down on dairy. “I really watch what I eat,” says the 30-year-old, “No processed food or additives, no sugar – nothing like that” she says proudly. However, Sophie didn’t choose to eat this way because of what she read in the latest bestselling recipe book. Her diet is a direct reaction to the three years she spent in prison. “The food was so shit inside that it just completely turned me off anything processed or poor quality”, she explains.

Since the mid '90s, the female prison population has almost doubled – jumping from 1,979 in 1995 to 3,935 in 2015. With more women in jail and less government money in the pot for prison spending, things are tough. While MP Chris Grayling held the post of Justice Secretary, between 2012 and 2015, there was a 38% rise in deaths in UK prisons, according to The Guardian. But among the news stories about overcrowding, prison violence and suicide, rarely do you hear what prisoners in British jails eat.
A recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons has shed new light on the subject, however. We may have come a long way since prisoners were served stale bread and watery porridge but the report, entitled Life in Prison: Food, suggests there’s still a long way to go.

The report inspected both men’s and women’s jails, as well as young offenders’ institutions in England and Wales. It found dissatisfaction across the board – only 29% of prisoner survey respondents described the food they received as “good” or “very good”. Food being served below temperature, lack of communal dining due to staff shortages and low nutritional quality feature prominently in the findings. It was even suggested that frustration with their diets had caused prisoners to behave violently and disruptively; last year, one inmate at HMP Northumberland staged a protest on a high railing after being served a cold meal.

Women are fed up. Only 2% of females in HM Prison Holloway labelled the food as “very good”, with a 34% majority calling it “very bad”. “Meals did not have sufficient portions of fruit or vegetables” reported one inspector at HMP Low Newton – a problem that seemed to crop up continuously.

So what exactly are our prisoners eating to cause such low approval ratings? Sophie was in prison for three years and, in her faintly sarcastic words, “Had the pleasure of experiencing three different menus” after getting kicked out of two prisons for “naughty behaviour”.


She explains that breakfast always came courtesy of a pack that was handed out at dinner the night before. A carton of UHT milk, tea bags, sugar, coffee whitener and cornflakes (“Occasionally you’d be lucky and get Coco Pops”) were the usual suspects. Chips, pasta, soup or a sandwich made up lunch and something along the lines of a stew or curry with some form of carb was served for dinner. So far, not bad. Sunday was a roast: “I don’t know how they cooked their potatoes though,” says Sophie, “When you tried to cut into them, your plastic knife would break or bend.”

Rock-solid spuds aside, prison food sounds akin to school dinners before Jamie Oliver brought about change in the form of cabbage slaws and courgette focaccia. However, over the course of hours of unoccupied time inside a cell, the need for nutrition and lack of fresh, fruit-and-veg-filled food takes on huge significance.

“You know when you have a weekend off and eat pizzas, beers and stuff and you feel crap,” says Sophie, “Imagine feeling that way for three years – and it being completely out of your control. I put on about five stone when I was in prison. During my last year when I was on home leave, I remember leaving prison and the first thing I did was pop into Morrisons and buy a shitload of salad and chicken breast. I made up a little salad on the train back and ate it straight away. Even now I absolutely love salad because I just didn’t have it in prison.”

Sophie’s sudden weight gain and craving for salads or lighter meals isn’t an isolated case. For women, controlling their weight while inside can feel like an impossible task. Perri Northage is an advisor for the charity Women in Prison. She spends her time working with women in prisons across the country and cites nutrition as a regular topic of frustration she hears time and time again.

“If they’re unable to get regular exercise and they’re eating a lot of carbohydrates, saturated food and snacks, then controlling their weight can become an issue,” Perri explains, “It then feeds into their self-esteem. Either their clothes don’t fit them or it’s just another layer of ‘I don’t feel good about myself’.”
Low self-esteem can be crippling at the best of times – when you add mental health issues, a history of domestic violence or substance abuse into the mix, the result can be devastating. According to Women in Prison, women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health condition than a woman on the outside, and 46% of women in prison have previously suffered from domestic violence. 52% of women surveyed by the charity said they'd used heroin, crack or cocaine in the four weeks prior to custody.

When you are dealing with the welfare of some of society’s most vulnerable, providing them with food of high nutritional value arguably becomes a matter of great urgency. Even the report highlights the need, stating: “Studies have also found that nutritional supplements reduce disciplinary incidents, aggression and violent behaviour. In other words, prisoners eating well is not just a matter of prisoner wellbeing but is also of practical and financial concern to the prison service."

Financially, like the majority of the UK’s institutions, food spending is tight. Spend per day, per prisoner on food is around £2, compared to £10 in hospitals. Perri suggests that more money may be needed to improve food. “I imagine quality food comes at a price” she says – but Sophie disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s funding” she says, “They need to teach the women cooking to actually take pride in the food they’re serving. A few times we had dish cloths served up in the food from where something had spilt in the kitchen and they’d just been told to scoop it up and chuck it back in the tray.”

Talk to anyone about the issue of prison food and the same question crops up: Why should we feed our prisoners well when they’re supposed to be getting punished? Unlike children or patients, these are individuals who have committed crimes or disrupted society, often at the expense of others.

But with prison suicides and assaults at a 10 year high, something is obviously going wrong with our prison system. And it would be ignorant to rule out prisoners' diets as a contributing factor. If simple, cheap, nutritional food, packed with fresh fruit and vegetables has transformed our country’s classrooms in the last 10 years, surely there’s an argument for doing the same in the UK’s prisons.

Until that happens, however, prisoners are finding clever ways of feeding themselves the good stuff. Sophie remembers “Keeping the seeds from the tomatoes of the very occasional salad we had and planting them, in the hope I’d get tomatoes.”


A few of her friends took things a step further, drawing inspiration from Orange Is The New Black and converting to a new religion in the search for better food. “They decided to become Muslim because the food they got during Ramadan was amazing, or Judaism, because the Kosher food was fantastic.”

These radical attempts by female prisoners to get their hands on a decent meal suggest an existing interest in quality food and cooking. One organisation has seized that interest as an opportunity. The Clink Charity aims to reduce reoffending simply by teaching prisoners how to cook. It runs four restaurants within the walls of four different prisons; the most recent opening, at women’s prison HMP Styal, has increased the number of prisoners the charity trains to 160 per day.

With an 87.5% success rate in reducing reoffending, the prisoners prep, cook and serve restaurant-standard meals to the paying public. A far cry from cornflakes and pasta bakes, Styal’s menu features everything from mushroom dust to plum gel and a chicken wing lollypop. The Clink has even had food critic Giles Coren’s stamp of approval, with restaurants now booked up notoriously far in advance.

Christopher Moore, Chief Executive of The Clink believes the kind of skills these prisoners learn is invaluable, particularly for women. “Providing the women prisoners with the skills to cook both benefits their career and personal life,” he says, “It allows them to go back home and bond over a family meal while also learning a trade that is highly sought-after, especially as the hospitality industry is experiencing a major skills shortage.”

It’s without doubt that initiatives such as The Clink are generating positive change. But this year’s food in prisons report highlights that the daily reality is far removed from the free-range beef and handmade ravioli of HMP Styal. Improving prison food, it indicates, has the potential to transform the way prisons function in the UK, not to mention the wellbeing of the women who spend time in those prisons.

For now, the future of prison food is as unclear as the future of our prisons, with Theresa May's new Justice Secretary Liz Truss seemingly backtracking on plans that were made under David Cameron's leadership to undo Grayling's damaging work and attempt some sort of reform. Yet while the system remains in a state of flux, Sophie and Perri believe there’s no better time to look to our prison kitchens for a solution.

“If [women prisoners] are eating food with no nutritional value whatsoever then of course that replicates what they feel about themselves,” says Perri. “Whereas, if you give the women something that has been carefully planned, carefully created and looks appealing... it can have a dramatically different effect."
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