Lucy Vincent Food Behind Bars Prison Photography Bex Day

Instant noodles and cereal packets: prison food from the inside out

Lucy Vincent has spent the last three years campaigning for an improvement in prison food. Here she explains the impact better meals could have and shares the insight of three ex-offenders.

I’m sat in the catering manager’s office in one of London’s most notorious prisons. There’s a government Eatwell Guide” poster on the wall opposite me with its yellowing corners peeling off. Next to it is a whiteboard with the month-on-month food spend for the prison. I notice that the numbers seem to be going down.

In front of me is a man who’s run this kitchen for 25 years. Things have just gotten worse here” he says, jaded by the environment, burnt out by the steady decline in the prison system over the last decade or so. He stirs some UHT milk into my instant coffee. Fresh milk doesn’t exist in prison – not even for the staff.

It’s been almost three years since I threw myself into the proverbial prison food pot, launching my campaign, Food Behind Bars, when I stumbled across a government inspection report entitled Life in Prison: Food.

Prisoners eating well is not just not just a matter of prisoner wellbeing, but is also of practical and financial concern to the prison service,” it concluded. And I became hooked on the subject. What do prisoners eat? How does food affect them? How does their diet impact the running of the prison? Could healthier food positively influence prison life? 

Attempting to convince society that feeding convicts their five-a-day might just lead to better behaviour, improved mental health, less violence and a potential decrease in reoffending is a bit like taking chips off the Friday lunch menu: pointless, with the potential to lead to mass disruption. Every time I appeared on TV or radio to promote the cause, each supportive comment was met by ten more suggesting that prisoners, in fact, deserve to starve.

If it was me they would get bread, water and gruel and live in a cell with no luxury items… I’m old school like that,” read one. If you don’t like the food DON’T COMMIT THE CRIMES. I thought prison was supposed to be PUNISHMENT. Suggestions: bread, water, cold soup, raw apple, milk,” said another. 

Lucy Vincent Food Behind Bars Prison Photography Bex Day

Despite Public Health England recommending that eating a balanced diet will set you back £5.99 per day, prisons struggle on with a measly £2 per head – almost five times less than hospital budget. And I’ve observed the vast disparity of food this budget brings to the table. 

There was the kitchen manager scraping cash from elsewhere to serve a cereal bar and a banana for elevenses everyday. Or the man who spent 18 years behind bars and expressed his joy one Christmas Day when the cook managed to source a whole trout, eaten together around a table, as opposed to a decade of solo dining in his cell.

I’ve walked around miles of prison ground, staring blankly into empty polytunnels and greenhouses, scratching my head as to why the men and women are in their cells for 23 hours a day, instead of outside growing their dinner and learning new skills. I’ve sat in a prison visit hall, face to face an ex-banker-turned-fraudster who tells me why he gets feta cheese smuggled in (“It reminds me of when I used to holiday on my yacht in the Mediterranean”). Or the pregnant woman, lactose-intolerant and spending the majority of her sentence chasing up staff for soya milk, all the while crying herself to sleep, concerned what her diet and lack of extra calories were doing for her unborn child’s health.

Prison food in numbers

  • The average catering budget per head, per day in prison is £2.02 – although prisons have the autonomy to set their own food budget. In some prisons this can be as low as £1.87
  • Prison food budget has been decreasing year on year. In 2012 – 2013 the total yearly spend was £59.6 million, as opposed to £55.1 million in 2013 – 2014 and £54.1 million in 2014 – 2015.

Whoever said that food isn’t just fuel must have served time in prison. Food isn’t fuel. It’s the core of our health and wellbeing – both physical and mental. A study by the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour assessed a group of prisoners, half of which were given nutritional supplements and the other half placebo pills. Of the group who took nutritional supplements, there were 37% fewer violent offences committed. For the other group, the rates remained unchanged.

Likewise, The Mental Health Foundation have reported on a growing body of evidence indicating that nutrition may play an important role in the prevention, development and management of diagnosed mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD and dementia”. 

You are 8.6 times more likely to commit suicide in prison than in the general population, according to the Prison Reform Trust, and rates of assaults and self-inflicted deaths are the highest since records began. Prison is already home to some of society’s most vulnerable individuals; throw in overcrowding, rat-infested cells, death, drugs and a prison menu void of any nutritional substance, and you have a recipe fit to send anyone over the edge.

A prison governor once said to me: If you treat people like animals, don’t expect them not to act like animals.” It’s a phrase that feels as though it was coined by a disgruntled inmate, tucking into his third corned beef pasty of the week, pissed off at how he ended up in a system that seems designed to degrade his self-worth and mental health even further. It doesn’t seem right that our prison population is statistically more likely to be home to individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, where healthy eating may not have ever factored in to their lives before. How is it fair that these individuals, who are already demographically-disadvantaged, are fed shit food for years and then expected to turn their life around at the end of it?

The prisoners' stories

DEAN, 35

I served three years out of a six year sentence. I went through every category of prison, finishing up in an open prison by the end of it. I got released two years ago.

The minute I landed in prison I realised quite quickly that you get what you are given. If you don’t eat it, then you survive on whatever you can buy on canteen – and that costs money. You find yourself weighing up the decision: do I want to buy extra food this week or do I want to make phone calls to my family? That’s the kind of decision you’ve got to make. If you haven’t got any extra money coming in from the outside, then that decision is made for you.

The food changes a lot from each prison. Lunch was usually something like a baguette with a really basic filling; usually a length of cheese that was half the length of the baguette. You might get a bowl of soup that wasn’t even hot at the counter, let alone by the time you’ve put it in your blue plastic bowl. That lunch would have to last you from 11:45 to 4:30pm. When it was time for the evening meal, they’d serve you your breakfast pack – but you’d get hungry at night and it would never still be there by the morning. 

I was lucky in a sense that I had family on the outside who would send me money. So I managed to keep on top of it by buying tins of tuna or corned beef. I’d add that stuff to the prison meal I’d been given, so if I got a stew, I’d bring it back to my room and throw some noodles in just to buff it out.

When I got more active in prison life, I realised that the food entirely depends on who you’ve got in the kitchen. If that person is passionate about food, they will make something basic that little bit more exciting. Even if it meant melting cheese on top of some potatoes, it was that mentality of: I love food and I don’t care if I’m serving it to patients, prisoners or whoever. It needs to be tasty.” I picked that up along the journey. The prison staff bang on about the fact they only get this amount of money per prisoner, but then they’ve got a cupboard full of spices that they never use.

Eventually I got so bored of it that I met with the local rabbi. He told me that as a Jewish person, I could access Kosher meals. At this point I’d stopped eating meat altogether. I didn’t understand the meat in prison – it just didn’t taste like meat so I refused to eat it. He told me to try the Kosher stuff, I might like it. The meat arrived pre-prepared and I realised it was the same as meals served on aeroplanes – literally on British Airways. That meal was more expensive for the catering managers, so they made sure you got a hard time for having it. You’d get no potatoes, nothing extra. If you asked, they’d give you a warning and eventually it would go back to the rabbi and you’d get taken off it.

The food affected the way I felt. I was tired all the time. I mean, I can sleep, but in prison I really slept. I’d just sleep on an empty stomach all the time. I’ll never forget this rumour that used to go around. There would be mashed potatoes and you’d find these little blue things in the mash. Everyone would say, Oh, they’re sleeping tablets, they put them in there to make you feel sleepy.” But really it was from the blue dishwasher pellets that spray out in those big dishwashers. Sometimes you’d find them in your food.

There was a moment when I arrived in the open prison, and I was standing on the landing with all these boys who I’d gone through the entire system with. We thought: Right, first thing, let’s arrange to get one of those George Foreman grills thrown over the wall and every week we’ll all chip in to get a load of food thrown over.” 

I can honestly tell you that for the ten people on my landing, not one of them got anything like drink or drugs thrown over. It was food, food and more food. That’s the truth of it. There’s a video somewhere on the internet of us preparing this food on the grill and a night officer walked in and said: Boys, I know you’re not causing trouble and you’re cooking your own food – it’s not a problem” and walked off. Because he understood we weren’t harming anymore. We were just getting food. That one thing you were brought up on. The one relationship that lasts you a lifetime.

CLAIRE, 46

When I was first sentenced, I was in HMP Bronzefield for about 10 days and then I moved to HMP Send. To be honest with you, when I arrived in prison, I was in so much shock that I couldn’t tell you what – if anything – I ate during those initial couple of weeks. I can’t even really think about it. 

When I got to HMP Send, I was presented with a food menu for the next four weeks. The choices were interesting to say the least. I was given the option to have Kosher food, which is actually a lot of pre-packed freezer meals. I went for that option to start with. That was until I got quite ill after about four months. I didn’t know what was going on, but I collapsed one day and started having spasms in my upper stomach. The doctor asked about my diet and he said: Well, what do you expect if you have a ready meal everyday?” At that point, he asked me if I was very religious, and I said I wasn’t and he recommended I go onto the regular menu. We were lucky at HMP Send as it’s where the farm is for the Clink restaurants. They’ve actually got a lot of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. So the normal menu was a much better option for me.

Lunch was never a variety. It was always sandwiches and that sort of thing, although people did get excited when you got a sausage roll or some kind of hot dog at lunchtime. Dinner was a bit more varied. The prisoners worked in the kitchen and there was a big group of afro-caribbean women for example, who’d make jerk chicken their way. 

Food was a social experience in our household, we’d have people over for meals and being Jewish, we’d always have people on a Friday night. Eating in prison really brought home that you were not with your family. Most people eat alone in their cell.

But we tried to make it social. There’s a film called Miss Sloane where Jessica Chastain is a woman who goes to prison, and at the end someone asks her about her experience. She says something like: Well, when men go to prison, they get into gangs. When women go to prison, they form knitting groups and support groups.” That was pretty much true. People got together in their cultural groups and cooked with whatever they could get off of canteen. Women would form support groups – ours were around food.

We had a shared microwave and a George Foreman grill on the wing so we made do. Believe me, there’s an awful lot you can do with that. We found a way to make this noodle dish that we perfected over a series of months. We’d buy things from canteen and noodles were a bit of a staple. You’d get your hands on various vegetables from the farm, we’d put coconut milk in and then whatever seasoning sachet the noodles came with, with peanuts on top. One of the women who was getting Kosher meals would save a bit of her chicken, so that would go in. We’d call it our banging bang up noodles”.

As women moved from prison to prison, this recipe became known. Last week I met somebody who had been in prison with somebody that I’d known and she said: Oh, you’re the Claire that’s responsible for the noodles!.” It became a bit of a thing and gave us autonomy and independence, something we could put our mark on. It was a collaborative and bonding activity that allowed us to make happy memories in a dark place.

Lucy Vincent Food Behind Bars Prison Photography Bex Day

CARL, 30

There’s an overwhelming sense of lethargy in jail. And you’re expected to be using this time to come out as a more socially constructive person. It’s a one plus one situation – if you feed people shit food then the results are going to be inevitable. They give you just about enough so that you don’t kick off, but they don’t give you so much that it costs them a penny extra.

During prison you eat a lot of white rice, potatoes, cake, custard and a lot of bread. It’s everything you’d expect if you’re feeding someone on one-pound-something a day. Basic carbs with no expense spared is the literal way to put it. It’s funny, I have diabetes and I’d go to an NHS appointment when I was in prison and they’d tell me to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. Obviously I accept that the prison system is a different arm of the government from the healthcare system, but the fact that one arm is telling me to eat healthily and the other arm is giving me no option to eat healthy kind of begs belief. 

There was no real food highlight for me in prison except for the noodles you cook in your own cell. It’s just instant noodles, nothing special. But I tell you that’s the best meal you get in jail: instant noodles and hot sauce. The worst was the bread. One way you get extra calories is just by eating stacks of bread, but the bread – I don’t know what was wrong with it. It’s some ultra-shit bread that smells like mildew in the washing machine. I’m talking like the shittest bread you can get from a newsagent but ten times worse.

The government are happy to feed prisoners as cheaply as possible. They’re not going to give you another option on the menu because that’s going to cost them another 5p. But eating prison food for a prolonged period of time actually has a physical effect on people – it affected my health for sure. You’re kept in a box, you’re fed shit food and the emotional aspect of what imprisonment does to you inevitably transfers to your mental and physical health. 

Food is just one aspect of the shit experience of jail. Each and every single spoke needs to be tackled, but it’s the entire wheel that matters.


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