Thursday, 8 September 2016

Food in Prison

Much has been written over recent months concerning serious problems within the prison estate in England and Wales, caused principally by the unwise decision to reduce staffing levels, but other factors play their part, including food. 

I notice that the prison inspectorate has just published a 'findings' paper on the subject and it makes for mostly very depressing reading. Over the years, during prison visits, I've always made a point of asking prisoners about food and this report confirms my anecdotal evidence that things have got much worse over time and that shouldn't be surprising when the daily budget can be as low as £1.87. In particular, I've found it sad to witness long-term prisoners become unhealthly over-weight and lose their teeth as a result of having to live on extremely poor diets for years on end. 

Here are some highlights from the report, but I'm fairly sure the recommendations will be completely ignored. According to the BBC website the official response was akin to two fingers as follows:-
"The Prison Service said all prisoners are provided with three healthy meals a day which meet government and Food Standards Agency guidelines."

 1.3 Food plays a crucial role in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Much of human social interaction is centred on food, and we use food choices and eating habits to construct our gender, ethnic, cultural and personal identities. Food also represents an opportunity to indulge, communicate affection, and to experience religion and tradition. In prison, mealtimes are a focal point of the day. They break up the monotony of daily life in custody, and provide opportunities for association with others. 

1.4 The majority of what prisoners eat in prison is determined for them. Unlike in the community, prisoners do not have the freedom to decide what or how much they want to eat, nor are they able to choose when they eat the majority of their meals. 

1.5 Having a limited ability to determine what, when, where or how much they eat, means that prisoners lose control over aspects of their health as well as this important part of their social autonomy. For some, this deeply affects their self-esteem and sense of identity. For these reasons, food is a considerable source of frustration and anxiety amongst prisoners, and thus extremely important to understanding life in custody. As recognised by the World Health Organisation, ‘an understanding of the role of food in correctional settings and effective management of food systems may improve outcomes for incarcerated people and help correctional administrators to maximise the health and safety of individuals in these institutions.’

1.6 While there is some variety across the prison estate, Prison Rules and Prison Service Instructions (PSI) set certain requirements for meal provision, to be followed by every establishment. Prison Rule 24 states that prisoners must be provided with three meals a day, and these should be ‘wholesome, nutritious, well prepared and served, reasonably varied and sufficient in quantity’.To provide variety, establishments are required to operate on a menu cycle of four weeks or more, and prisoners normally select their preferences in advance. Establishments are referred to the Food Standards Agency guidance for guide on nutritional content. 

1.7 Neither the Prison Rules nor the PSI stipulate minimum daily calorific targets for prison meals. The Food Standards Agency guidance gives the average daily requirement for men and women between 19 and 74 years old, as 2,225 kcals, but the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) does not measure calorific content of individual meals provided. 

1.8 PSI 44/2010 states that NOMS has a responsibility to meet, not only nutritional, but also cultural and diversity needs. This means providing meals that meet medical as well as religious or ethical dietary requirements, such as Halal, kosher, vegetarian and vegan meals. 

1.9 Spending on food in prisons has been decreasing. In 2014–15, the total expenditure on food in prisons was £54.1 million, down from £55.1 million in 2013–14 and £59.6 million in 2012–13.8 The basic catering budget allowance per prisoner per day was previously £2.02. All prisons now have the autonomy to set their own food budget dependant on local requirements and in some prisons as little as £1.87 per prisoner per day was spent. In a handful of prisons, this is supplemented by produce grown at the prison, for example, at the open prison HMP and YOI Hollesley Bay (2015), where produce grown in the gardens is used in the kitchens and offered to prisoners to use in self-catering. However, to put this into perspective, the average daily spend per patient on in-patient food services in hospitals in 2014–15 was £9.88, which is almost five times higher. This same basic prison catering budget needs to be used to purchase special-requirement meals (such as religious, vegetarian or vegan diets, but excluding medical diets), which can cost several times more than basic prison fare. It is also the funding source for celebration of religious festivals such as Eid, and for providing refreshments for family visits, which leaves establishments with very little to spend on the average prisoner meal. 

1.10 Poor nutritional provision can, not only have a lasting impact on the wellbeing of an individual in custody, but it is also costly to the custodial estate. Various medical complications that arise from poor nutrition, including nutritional deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high cholesterol, add burden to prison health resources. Food can also affect security resourcing and safety in prison, as frustration over food can serve as a catalyst for aggression and dissent. Studies have also found that nutritional supplements reduce disciplinary incidents, aggression and violent behaviour, pointing to the importance of nutrition to safety in prisons. 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. 

1.11 In addition, instilling healthy eating habits aids in rehabilitation and reintegration into the community after release. A large proportion of prisoners may have led chaotic lifestyles in the community that put their health at risk. A major part of rehabilitation is education about and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, and a crucial component of this is a healthy, balanced diet.

Menu and quality

1.16 Recently visited establishments normally provided at least one hot meal per day. Breakfast usually consisted of breakfast packs, which contained cereal, milk, whitener, tea/coffee sachets, and in some cases some preserves. These were usually packed centrally and transported to establishments, often arriving in unappetising condition. We considered the quality and quantity of these breakfast packs to be inadequate on their own. (Important issues surrounding the timing of their distribution are discussed in the next section of this report.) 

1.17 Good practice regarding breakfast was observed at HMP Lowdham Grange (2015), where we reported that the quality and quantity of food were generally good, with a more substantial breakfast than we often see, which included plenty of bread and cereals. Breakfast packs were also supplemented with toast at HMP Rye Hill (2015). Cases like these were rare, however. At North Sea Camp (2014) a cooked breakfast was provided, which prisoners appreciated. However, the commencement of activities for prisoners, along with with staffing pressures, meant that there was little room in the regime to provide this at other establishments. 

1.18 Prisoners were generally offered around five options for lunch and the same for dinner. A typical prison lunch consisted of a sandwich, wrap or portion of pasta, served with a piece of fruit or crisps/biscuits. Typical dinners included a choice of curry, pie, baked fish or casserole, accompanied by rice, vegetables, potatoes, and a choice of dessert or fruit. Fruit available in prison is often limited in variety to inexpensive and easy to store items such as apples and oranges. 

1.19 At some establishments, on weekends the daily hot meal was served at lunchtime, with the evening meal consisting of a sandwich, for example. This meant that prisoners could go without a hot meal for more than 24 hours on weekends. This was the case at HMP Low Newton (2015) where women continued to have a cold evening meal on Fridays and weekends. A hot brunch was served at 10.30am at weekends, which meant women waited 24 hours between hot meals from Saturday to Sunday, and even longer between hot brunch on Sunday and hot dinner on Monday. 

1.20 Our inspections generally found the food served at prisons and YOIs to be of reasonable quality and quantity. However, only 29% of prisoner survey respondents described the food they received as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Many prisoners commented negatively on menu content and food quality. Examples include: ‘There's not a good variety of fruit and veg at all. No greens in veg. No oranges, etc. We get apples only.’ ‘It's all chips or potatoes.’ ‘Too much fat and carbohydrates and not enough protein. Too much salt and processed food. Vegetables boiled to death. A poor and unbalanced diet that does nothing to promote or sustain a healthy mind or body.’ 

1.21 In recent years, food quantity has become a prominent issue for prisoners. A number of letters to Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, refer to food at dinnertime running out on a regular basis, or portion sizes being too small. Many prisoners commented about receiving insufficient food in our prisoner survey. For example: ‘If there isn't seconds of food then I'm still hungry. I received seven chips, one sausage and a spoon of beans yesterday for my tea. I'm 6’2" and that won't fill up a kid.’ ‘More food. We don't get enough. It's terrible how little.’

Meal times 

1.32 Food being served early was a problem we consistently found in the establishments inspected. In some establishments lunch could be served as early as 11:10am and dinner at 4:15pm. Serving dinner this early, coupled with meagre breakfast provision, sometimes meant there was a gap as long as 20 hours before the next substantial meal. Prisoner comments included: ‘The food is served too early. Not hungry at the meal times but then hungry in the night.’ ‘The portions are small, the last meal is at 4pm which means we go the rest of the night until breakfast the next day hungry.’ 

1.33 Breakfast packs were normally distributed with the previous night’s dinner, or at a handful of establishments, as early as lunchtime the day before they were due to be eaten. As mentioned above, this has been driven by the pressures of the core day and reductions in staffing. We have heavily criticised the timing of the distribution of breakfast packs, as some prisoners, particularly young adults, told us that they ate these when they were hungry during the night. This left them starting the next day on empty stomachs. HMP Peterborough (men, 2015) was an example of good practice, distributing the packs on the morning they were to be eaten. At HMP Spring Hill (2014), an open men’s prison, breakfast was served every morning, although the meal was often delayed, which meant prisoners had little time to eat before leaving for work. 

1.34 Between meals, little or no food is provided. Prisoners can purchase a limited selection of snack items, in advance, from the prison canteen with their own funds. However, the majority of these foods are unhealthy sweets or snack items high in fat, salt and sugar. In addition, these items are more expensive in prison than in the community, and it is not necessarily easy for prisoners to buy them on prison wages, which are often very low (for more information, see our findings paper, Earning and Spending Money). Survey respondent comments included: ‘Too much of my “spends” go towards supplementing a very poor menu and standard of food.’ ‘Very fattening high-carb food. I eat as little as I can and try to get some of the healthier foods if I can. Spend more on food from canteen.’ 

1.35 In our survey, about two-thirds (65%) of prisoners said they were offered something to eat when they first arrived at the establishment. At HMP and YOI Holloway (2016), reception stocked microwave meals specifically for women arriving late to the establishment. In other establishments, prisoners could go hungry on their first night (for more information, see our findings paper, The First 24 Hours in Prison). 

Conclusions and recommendations 

1.52 Food is very important to prisoners in a number of ways, providing not only nutrition and sustenance, but also opportunities for interaction with others and something to look forward to during what can be a mundane and difficult day. Although many establishments are making commendable efforts with the resources available, too often the quantity and quality of the food provided is insufficient, and the conditions in which it is served and eaten undermine respect for prisoners’ dignity. This does little to improve what for many prisoners, is a history of an unhealthy lifestyle. It also potentially jeopardises prisoner and staff safety. 

1.53 Food budgets are very low, and we have consistently found that this is a major barrier to improving food in prisons. However, we believe that within current budget constraints more can still be done to provide variety, improve food hygiene, and prevent bullying and contamination. 

Recommendations To NOMS 
  • 1.54 Minimal specific nutritional values and the conditions under which food is eaten should be set out by NOMS in a binding PSI regulation, based on advice from the relevant professional bodies. 
  • 1.55 NOMS should ensure that new prisons are configured in a way to ensure prisoners can eat out of their cells communally, and ensure that governors fully utilise opportunities for prisoners to do so. 
  • 1.56 NOMS should ensure that governors place greater emphasis on providing opportunities for self-catering, particularly for long-term prisoners. 
  • 1.57 NOMS should ensure that governors arrange meal times to reflect what is considered the norm in the community.

The editor is off to France for a week and although on this trip I will have a tablet and some internet access, clearly the blog will have to mostly run on autopilot until I return. I have prepared a number of blog posts in advance to keep things going, but clearly my ability to update and edit will be severely curtailed. I will leave it up to readers to use their judgement in drawing attention to anything that might 'kick-off' in my absence. Please be considerate and understanding towards each other.        


  1. There are many studies that link poor nutrition to aggressive behaviour for instance.

    If Liz Truss really wants to make our prisons a safe place I suggest she starts in the kitchen.

  2. It's prison. What about old people home and hospitals. Is the food any different. No.its food produced at the lowest cost to maximise profits it's just business

    1. Clearly you haven;'t realised that one mistake and you too can be sampling the food at Her Majesty's pleasure. It's remarkably easy to end up in prison which a lot of people simply don't realise. Bet you'd be the first person screaming blue murder about the awful food. And never say that you would never end up there because I saw far too many people who made a mistake whilst driving for example and killed someone and ended up inside.

    2. The old 'let's treat prisoners worse than old folks and military veterans' argument!! How about we make sure everyone has enough to eat before we spend another 90 million on a footballer?

  3. Ah Holloway. Spent 3 months there and didn't see a green vegetable in all that time. Dr in healthcare told me to make sure I was eating a lot of green leafy veg to make up for lack of time outside & other deficiencies and was astounded when I told her that the kitchen didn't serve any. Prison food is generally disgusting and usually has way too much salt and pepper in it presumably to try to cover up the poor quality ingredients used. Astounded to hear that some prisons use the veg grown on site as both Bronzefield and East Sutton Park refused to do that as the veg didn't come from "an approved supplier" so NOMS wouldn't allow them to use the stuff grown organically feet away from the kitchen which would have been much better for the prisoners. At Bronzefield it got thrown away and at ESP it was sold in the farm shop. The whole centralised system of suppliers contributes to the awful quality of the food.

    1. More profit for The Caterers, of course. Sodexo et al are in a Win, Win, Win, Win, Win scenario. Own the CRCs, bully Govt into handing over vast sums of public money via simplistic 'magic' contracts which transform overnight when not favourable; own prisons, get paid when CRC clients reoffend; supply the catering, get paid, etc etc etc ad nauseaum.

    2. The word totalitarian springs to mind. All we need now are Sodexo cops!

    3. Just for the sake of completeness, I can confirm that Sodexo are appalling caterers as well as doing everything else badly. The cause is the same. Too few staff, poor working conditions etc.

    4. How jobsworth do you have to be, to decide that food you have grown yourself is not coming from an approved supplier? That kind of decision can only be made by a person who has the option to eat somewhere else.

  4. Despite the fact that five times more is spent on hospital food, the report still concluded that more can be done for prisoners within existing budgetary constraints. Yet a healthy diet costs three times more than a junk food diet.

    The food costs for feeding prisoners are closer to those for feeding a dog and probably lower than the daily costs at London Zoo.

  5. From the ever trusty (!?!) Mail in 2011:

    "The biggest percentage drop in spending was 62 per cent over five years at the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in West Sussex. The amount spent per day went down from £10.97 in 2004-05 to £4.11 last year. A spokesman said the cash only covered the cost of three main meals and a drink.
    There was a 61 per cent cut at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospital, down from £23.67 to £9.06 per patient per day and at Ealing Hospital, London, down from £10.37 to £4.
    At the Royal Brompton and Harefield Trust, covering hospitals in London and Hertfordshire, there was a 58 per cent cut in spending, from £16.56 a day to £6.89.
    Even less is spent at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, down from £13.85 in 2004-05 to £6."

    1. From yet another reliable, impartial source (!?!) aka the Express, in 2007:

      "Patients and crime victims last night slammed the disparity. Kathryn Murphy, from the charity the Patients’ Association, said: “How can we justify spending £12 a day on food for prisoners who have committed a crime when someone innocent who has fallen ill gets only a few pounds a day spent on their food?"

      The comparison made was £12 daily for prisoners in police cells versus £3 daily in hospitals.

    2. Here's a morsel from 2013 (newspaper precis, Telegraph I think ) when MPs allowances were discussed in a committee:

      "At a House of Commons administration committee hearing, Kevan Jones, a shadow Labour defence minister and MP for North Durham, said that MPs are only given £15 a towards their evening meals while civil servants get about £24."

      So presumably Noms staff eat quite well?

    3. 'Averages' are always a problem as they mask huge variations, so the average quoted in the report is true, but the devil is in the detail. The state needs a minimum standard for anyone they have a duty of care towards.

  6. We follow the US on everything. Here's the future for the UK.


  7. Blog - Lyn Romeo

    "Insights, updates, and personal reflections from Lyn Romeo, Chief Social Worker for Adults at the Department of Health."


    "Come back to social work – for an even richer experience

    Lyn Romeo, 7 September 2016

    Social work is a constantly evolving profession, with new challenges arising every day. As social workers we adapt to these changes, using our knowledge and practice wisdom to help families and individuals tackle the complexities and stresses of modern life.

    Some of us step away from the profession for a variety of reasons; maybe to take a career break, or to focus on family. Many people who take time out will want to return to practice but may not have the confidence to do so."


  8. Probation Journal

    OnlineFirst articles for the period 31 August 2016 to 7 September 2016


    ‘It’s all considered to be unacceptable behaviour’: Criminal justice practitioners’ experience of statutory housing duty for (ex)offenders

    Vickie Cooper

  9. The Inspectorate said: "Our inspections generally found the food served at prisons and YOIs to be of reasonable quality and quantity." Not entirely consist with your claims of prisoners living for years on "extremely poor diets".

    1. How did they find the food so? Those who ate it said: 'However, only 29% of prisoner survey respondents described the food they received as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. What the Inspectors said about quality would have more authority if they had eaten the food themselves. Why the hell, didn't they??

    2. In my experience, Inspectors form a view on the quality of food by eating it...

  10. A survey by Oxford University in 2002 giving some prisoners vitamin supplement pills and others placebos found those with the supplement pills had their violent incidents reduced by 35%.. NOMS informed the BBC they would not be repeating the experiment, but the results have been verified elsewhere.

    Liz Truss in her interview with the parliamentary select committee stated the priority was to reduce violence in prisons. With less violence they can recruit and retain more Prison Officers, then they will have enough staff to undertake more rehabilitative activities. Some commentators here don't realise that locking a bad guy up in prison, making him worse then letting him out, which is what we do too often is a very expensive mistake. Obviously if proper nutritional food will reduce violence by 35% and violence is an impediment to reform, then reducing violence by improving nutrition is a vital first step to take. Then the prisons can reform offenders, not doing that makes prisons a huge waste of time and money