Prison Food Past and Present
The Best of British - prison food, past and present
A short article on past and present prison cuisine
By Bill Robinson, HM Prison Governor (retired)
I have always had an interest in food and cooking and it came as a particular delight when in my last five years of service, I became head of an Investigation and Audit team in one of London's biggest prisons. Part of the team's task was to inspect and report on conditions in prison kitchens. To enable me to undertake the work, I had to do a great deal of research and knowledge gathering to enable me to carry out this function. Food handling and hygiene being just one of the basic areas to cover. Food preparation techniques, balanced diets, specialist medical diets and religious diets are all part of the daily life of a prison, or indeed any other type of institutional kitchen.
Every prison in Britain is inspected by an independent body, HM Prison Inspectorate, on an irregular basis. Therefore, it is essential that every prison kitchen is organized, maintained and managed at the very highest standard at all times. In the late 1980's, HM Prison Service lost the safety of, “Crown Immunity". This prevented any form of prosecution through the courts for any infringements of the law. The ‘Crown’ could never prosecute itself - The Crown verses The Crown. In effect, it meant that a prison could now receive severe sanctions for poor performance in any area, particularly Health & Safety and catering. It could also mean that the prison kitchen could even be closed down if found to be in a poor state of management, maintenance or hygiene. This was highlighted very clearly in September of 2009 when 370 prisoners at London's largest prison, HMP Wandsworth, were struck down with salmonella poisoning. If a prison kitchen were suddenly ordered to close down, you can imagine the chaos this would cause. HMP Wandsworth is the largest prison in Western Europe and holds over 1,600 prisoners. How do you provide over 4,800 meals a day at very short notice? The only hope of keeping the roof on the jail is to ensure that the Emergency Contingency Planners have done their homework and an alternative system can be brought on line with immediate effect.
Wandsworth Prison was built in 1851. It was one of the earliest London prisons and was originally called the Surrey House of Corrections. Mayhew & Binney, in their 1868 edition of, “Criminal Prisons of London", describe vividly the life inside the London prisons in the 1800's. Food did not seem very high on the agenda of the prison system at this time. Containment seemed to be the priority. The Surrey House of Correction was indeed built to help to reduce overcrowding at the Houses of Correction at Brixton, Guildford and Kingston, where “jail fever" was rampant and prisoners were dying. When inspecting the Surrey House of Corrections in 1862, Mayhew and Binney noted the menu and diets of the various classes of prisoners held at the prison. Convicted prisoners employed at ‘hard labour’ for terms exceeding 21 days were allowed the following meals:
Breakfast 1 pint of oatmeal gruel and 6 oz of bread
Dinner Sunday & Thursday 1 pint of soup and 8 oz of bread
Dinner Tuesday & Saturday 3 oz of cooked meat without bone 8 oz bread ½ lb potatoes
Dinner Monday, Wednesday & Friday 8 oz bread and 1 lb of potatoes
Supper Same as breakfast
As you may well imagine, the low calorific and nutritional values of such a diet would lead to serious health problems - jail fever.
When I worked at High Down High Security prison in Surrey, we presented the Lord Lieutenant of the County with a framed copy of the recipe for Gruel. The Governor of the prison at the time, Stephen Prior, took the Lord Lieutenant and his wife home for dinner, and guess what was first on the menu - prison gruel. He actually loved it! So much so that he instructed his own chef to add it to his dinner party menus to impress his guests (I bet it did!).
This is the original recipe from the Surrey House of Corrections kitchen circa. 1862:
Ingredients for Soup and Gruel: The soup to contain, per pint, 3 ounces of cooked meat, without bone, 3 ounces of potatoes, 1 ounce of barley, rice, or oatmeal, and 1 ounce of onions or leeks, with pepper and salt. The gruel to contain 2 ounces of oatmeal per pint. The gruel on alternate days to be sweetened with three quarter ounces of molasses or sugar and seasoned with salt.
In seasons when the potato crop has failed, 4 ounces of split peas made into a pudding may be occasionally substituted; but the change must not be made more than twice in each week. Boys under 14 years of age to be placed on the same diet as females.
The female diet was the same as the male prisoner diet with the exception that where the male received 8 oz of bread the female would receive 6 ounces.
For those prisoners serving less than seven days, the menu was very basic:
Breakfast 1 pint of gruel
Dinner 1 lb of bread
Supper 1 pint of gruel
These prison diets lasted well into the 1900's and bear no comparison to today's prison food. Modern prisoners wouldn't stand for it and the authorities could never allow it. Even the punishment diet of bread and water was removed from the Prison Rules in the 1960's. The term, “Doing Porridge" still remains an avid description of someone who is in prison, referring of course, to the old diet of oatmeal gruel.
How it is now
Modern man requires around 2,500 calories each day to maintain body weight, women require slightly less. In the prisons of the 1800's, a prisoner was lucky to obtain 500 calories per day without any opportunity to increase his intake. Overcrowding - three to a cell built for one and hard labour, soon consumed what little energy the prisoner had. Poor health, body lice and unsanitary conditions all led to the onset of jail fever - epidemic typhus.
Today, as well as obtaining a balanced and healthy prison diet, a prisoner can supplement his diet from the prison shop. Many prisoners are housed in single cells or dormitories and the overcrowding problems of the 1800's no longer exist in our modern prisons. Modern health care programmes, physical fitness programmes and modern sanitatary conditions have all been introduced in recent years.
In the UK, a prison catering manager has about £1.87 ($4) to provide food for each inmate every day. Young offender institutions are allowed double this amount at £3.81 ($8) per day. The modern prison service of day has placed an emphasis on rehabilitation, although how successful this has been is debatable. Part of the rehabilitation process is to teach prisoners how to eat healthily and look after themselves on release. For the prison service's part, new dietary regulations have been introduced in recent years which avoid the onset of health problems which ultimately reflect in the prisons health care budget. Long term prisoners are particularly at risk by poor diet and poor health care regimes. Diabetes, stroke and obesity-related illnesses are of particular concern.
Special diets are catered for now and include Muslim, kosher, Caribbean, diabetic and other medical diets are also provided. Catering managers are now specially trained to prepare these special diets.
In many of the establishments I worked in, we even had Muslim and Jewish prisoners working in the kitchen to ensure that the food was cooked and prepared in the appropriate way. For the feast of Eid, the local mosques would deliver specially prepared food as a gift for Muslim prisoners. Likewise, the rabbi would arrange for kosher food to be delivered whenever Jewish feast days were celebrated. This would never have happened fifty years ago. It is also curios to note, the number of prisoners who convert to Islam when Ramadan is approaching.
So how have the diets and menus changed over the years. Health and nutrition remain a high priority in today's prison kitchen. There has been a vast reduction in fried foods over recent years. Chips with everything no longer applies. An increase in fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain products and an increase in fish products, including oily fish have been introduced into prisons not only in Britain but in European and American prison establishments as well.
One of the best fed prisons in the world is in Italy, where prisoners work to produce organic fruit and vegetables, including olive oil. The prison has its own state of the art food production areas for manufacturing wine and orchard management. The whole operation is supervised by a professional management team. The prisoners benefit by eating all their own home grown food and are even allowed a small wine allowance to help reduce cholesterol levels and may even increase the ability to prevent some forms of cancer. Now, is that progress or what?
There seems to be some confusion as to what exactly prison food entails. As far as the general public is concerned, some of them still believe that gruel, bread and water is still the main prison diet. There are still many more who say that it should be.
They could not be further from the fact. As we have already stated, vast improvements have already been made to the prison diet. In most prisons in England and Wales, the supply of catering facilities has been privatised. Prisoners now have a choice which they can preselect on a weekly basis, usually with a choice of three or more main courses. The Christmas menus have improved immensely over the years and now provide prisoners with a much better Christmas dinner than they ever would eat outside prison. In many of the lower security prisons, local pensioners are invited into the prison to eat Christmas dinner with the inmates. After all, prisoners are still human beings and many take great pains to ensure that ‘granny’ and ‘granddad’ have a nice Christmas dinner.
So how might a modern prison menu look? First, the breakfast menu. In all English prisons each prisoner receives a breakfast pack which is issued the evening before for use the next morning. This will include a breakfast cereal, milk, tea bags, coffee whitener, sugar, brown or white bread, jam and margarine or butter type spread. They will also receive a weekly allowance of teabags and sugar to make themselves a cup of tea whenever they want to. Each cell will have its own kettle. The daily issue will also include special packs for vegans, vegetarians and various religious groups.
For the midday and evening meals, nearly every prison now uses a pre-select system where a list of different meals are displayed for each day and every prisoner can order whatever meal he prefers. There are usually five or six alternatives to choose from. Fresh vegetables and fruit are served separately when each meal is collected.
The following is just a sample obtained from the London prisons where the pre-select system has successfully been in operation for nearly ten years:
Midday meal Evening meal
Vegetarian Pasta Bake Vegetable supreme
Chicken & Mushroom pie Chicken Supreme
Halal Jamaican Beef Patti Halal Chicken Curry
Corned beef & Pickle Roll Grilled Gammon
Jacket Potato & Coleslaw Pork pie salad
Vegetable Pancake roll Bean & Vegetable curry
Breaded fish Chicken Chasseur
Cheese & Beano Grill Halal Beef Casserole
Cheese & Tomato Roll Fish in Parsley Sauce
Jacket Potato & Tuna Vegetable Quiche Salad
Vegetarian Sausage & Egg Soya Lasagne
Bacon, Sausage & Egg Minced Beef Lasagne
Halal Sausage & Egg Halal Beef Italienne
Turkey Salad Roll Rice & Bean Stuffed Pepper Salad
Jacket Potato and Curried Beans Cheese Salad
The pre-select system has progressed a long way since its introduction. Prisoners now have the opportunity to select from a range of choices. In the early days if you were not a registered vegetarian, you could not have a vegetarian meal. If you were not a Muslim, you couldn't select a halal dish. Now, things have changed Prisoners can select whatever dish they prefer. They may eat vegetarian one day, halal the next. Its their choice. In general, all prisons have now attempted to embrace the Balance of Good Health model (Food Standards Agency 2001) and are providing a nutritionally balanced, and healthy diet.
We have progressed a long way from the days of bread and water and a cup of gruel. Prisoners are not dying of typhus and malnutrition any more and prisons are much more comfortable and healthy paces to work in - both for prisoners and staff.
What will be the next phase? Will we see the introduction of self catering for prisoners? Each prison having its own supermarket. All prisons have there own version of the ‘corner shop’ where they can purchase food supplements and little luxuries to make life more bearable. It is not too much of a step to provide a supermarket and the means for prisoners to prepare their own food. Most of the catering facilities and prison shops are already privatised. I am sure that ASDA or Sainsbury's or Walmart would jump at the chance of having an in-prison store with a captive clientele of nearly 2000 every day.
LATEST BREAKING NEWS: How about a gourmet restaurant with rock bottom prices, excellently reviewed by the financial times food critic Charles Campion? Well, it's happened. High Down Prison near London has become the first prison establishment to open a gourmet restaurant inside a prison - and its open to the public. All the kitchen staff are prisoners under training to be chefs ready for release and finding employment in the catering trade. Check it out. You will be surprised.