A Taste of Christmas Behind Bars 

Isabel Beaumont and Amelia Hoy

Image Source: https://insidetime.org/insanely-appetising-christmas-prison-food/

Food plays an important role in celebrating many holidays and cultural events. In prison, research has shown it can also provide an opportunity for socialising, strengthening of relationships and a way to express cultural and religious identities (Smoyer 2014; Godderis 2006). Although not everybody observes Christmas, the national focus on food intensifies at this time of year, making the importance placed on both the quality and social aspects of food even more prominent.

Despite widespread increased spending on food around Christmas, there is no alteration to the England and Wales catering budget, at approximately £2.02 per prisoner per day. This has raised concerns over the quality and nutritional value of the food (HMIP 2016). In comparison, Public Health England calculated that a balanced diet in prison would cost £5.99 per individual per day (Scarborough et al 2016). 

Literature demonstrates that women in prison can associate food in prison with extra forms of punishment, through a lack of choice and control restricting ways of expressing identity and agency (Smith 2002; Godderis 2006). A review of the literature demonstrates that prison food has broadly negative connotations both in the UK and in other countries, with studies reporting the social, temporal, and spatial environment in which food is consumed experienced as punishing (Ugelvik 2011). This causes prisoners to feel both “rushed” and “watched”, thus exacerbating existing feelings of discontent, not only with the food itself, but the experiences surrounding eating and preparation of food within controlled environments (Smoyer and Lopes 2017). 

Christmas in prison is not experienced in identical ways by those incarcerated; each individual adopts a unique approach to make it through this season. For some, the experience is relatively positive, through receiving cards and gifts from their loved ones, but others will rely on the ‘listeners’: prisoners trained by the Samaritans and/or mental health support officers (Prison Reform Trust 2016). One thing that remains consistent is the traditional Christmas dinner served, as demonstrated by the Ministry of Justice (2016) who published a Christmas day menu which demonstrates the food served in all prisons throughout England and Wales on Christmas day. People in prison may be provided with traditional meals such as roast turkey, with roast potatoes, a portion of vegetables and gravy. There are also options for all dietary requirements, such as vegan nut roasts, and Halal options offering a portion of roast turkey or roast lamb.

Where possible, people in prison will eat together socially to replicate the togetherness of families celebrating outside of prison.  Women in particular may seek to share or cook food for others in order to demonstrate a nurturing, caregiver role and reinforce their identities as mothers within this environment (Stearns 2018). Thus, in comparison to the rest of the year, a more extensive selection of food at Christmas can bring women in prison together and create an atmosphere of solidarity.  

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Christmas 2020 was a much less sociable experience. Those in prison spent longer in their cells, had reduced visits and communal eating areas were forced to close (Public Health England 2021). A simultaneous decline in mental health seen during this time emphasises the importance of the social dynamic during the festive period, which has been reinforced by voices from those in prison (Howard League for Penal Reform 2021; Inside Time 2021).

Almost as traditional as the Queen’s speech at Christmas is the periodic release of media reports condemning the Prison Service for providing people in prison with a special meal on Christmas day. Many media reports suggest that Christmas food is a ‘treat’ for undeserving prisoners, who should not be provided with such food and ways of celebrating the festive period (Inside Time 2019; Himelfield and Jolly 2021). PrisonPhone (2018) revealed public discontent through the father of a murder victim: “Christmas is a difficult time when tears are flowing, and here we have the perpetrators of this misery being rewarded”. This quote highlights the heightened grief experienced by victims’ families during holidays and times of celebration. Their perception, in part due to reports that those incarcerated are being given a treat, exacerbates feelings of anger, with the potential to reinforce their loss.

What the media rarely reports is the vulnerability and loneliness felt by those in prison at this time, with suicide rates noted to have risen in the run-up to Christmas 2020 (Howard League for Penal Reform 2021). Therefore, where public perception is that those in prison are being treated on Christmas day, arguably Christmas dinner should instead be viewed as important for increasing morale and comfort during a difficult time for those in prison. As such, it is important to acknowledge other cultural celebrations at this time and keep in mind the significant role food plays in allowing those in prison to share and reinforce aspects of their identity, and the contribution this makes to maintaining morale.

A Christmas wreath hangs on the gate of a dorm for foreign prisoners in a prison in Qingpu County of Shanghai, east China Friday, Dec. 24, 2004. A Christmas party was held for the foreign prisoners here on Friday. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Chen Fei)


Godderis, R. (2006) ‘Food for Thought: An Analysis of Power and Identity in Prison Food Narratives’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 50, pp. 61–75.

Himelfield, D. and Jolly, B. (2021) Murderers and rapists at ‘Monster Mansion’ jail to enjoy tasty Christmas meals, Express [Online] 25 November, Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1526743/Christmas-dinner-prisons-Monster-Mansion-HMP-Wakefield (Accessed: 9 December 2021).

HMIP (2016) Life in Prison: Food, London: HMIP. 

Howard League for Penal Reform (2021) The new lockdown announcement will bring desolation to prisoners, Available at:  https://howardleague.org/blog/the-new-lockdown-announcement-will-bring-desolation-to-prisons/ (Accessed: 14 December 2021).

Inside Time (2019) ‘Insanely appetising’ Christmas prison food, Available at: https://insidetime.org/insanely-appetising-christmas-prison-food/  (Accessed: 7 December 2021).

Ministry of Justice (2016) Christmas Lunch Menu for All Prisons and Spend Per Prison. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/393570/christmas-day-lunch-menu-for-all-prisons-and-spend-per-prison-annex.doc (Accessed: 8 December 2021)

PrisonPhone (2018) Should inmates be given a Christmas dinner?, Available at: https://www.prisonphone.co.uk/blog/should-inmates-be-given-a-christmas-dinner/ (Accessed 8 December 2021) 

Prison Reform Trust (2016) Christmas in prison, Available at: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/PressPolicy/News/ItemId/394/vw/1  (Accessed: 7 December 2021).

Public Health England (2021) The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020, Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/327/pdfs/uksi_20200327_en.pdf (Accessed:  9 December 2021.

Scarborough, P. et al(2016) ‘Eatwell Guide: modelling the dietary and cost implications of incorporating new sugar and fibre guidelines’, BMJ Open, vol. 6, no. 12.

Smith, C. (2002) ‘Punishment and Pleasure: Women, Food and the Imprisoned Body’, SAGE Journals, vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 197-214. 

Smoyer, A.B. (2014) Good and Healthy: Foodways and Construction of Identity in A Women’s Prison. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 525-541.

Smoyer, A.B., Lopes, G., (2017) ‘Hungry on the inside: Prison food as concrete and symbolic punishment in a women’s prison’, SAGE Journals, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 240-255

Stearns, A.E. (2018) ‘Baking Bittersweet: Mothers’ Dessert – Making Behind Bars’, Feminist Criminology, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 612- 632. 

Ugelvik, T. (2011) ‘The Hidden Food: Mealtime Resistance and Identity Work in a Norwegian prison’, Punishment and Society, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 47-63.

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