Food in Prison

Report from a Roundtable Discussion held at the BSC conference

Vicki Harman

The British Society of Criminology conference was held at the University of Surrey 29th June-1st July 2022. The aim of the conference was to enable delegates to critically engage with research and debates within contemporary criminology at a time of rapid social and economic change. As part of the conference, the Doing Porridge team hosted a roundtable discussion on Food in Prison held on 29th June, chaired by Maria Adams and Vicki Harman. The discussants were:  Lucy Vincent from Food Behind Bars, Julie Parsons from the University of Plymouth, Steph Scott from Newcastle University, Kim Reisling and Janet Bowstead from Royal Holloway University of London, Erin Power and Claire Warrington from the University of Surrey. This resulted in a lively and thought-provoking 90 minutes discussion based around the questions below.

1. How does food help to shape the experiences of men and women in prison?

Key issues raised here included the timing of meals, particularly the early scheduling of the one hot meal of the day (e.g. at around 11.30am) which was seen as reinforcing a sense of being outside of what is going on within the wider community. Also, food sitting on warming trays for long periods was felt to diminish taste, quality and enjoyment and could be experienced as conveying a lack of care towards those consuming the food.

The discussion also highlighted the significance of the space where food is being consumed, which might for example be in a cell next to a toilet. Also, the content and presentation of food was highlighted as important, which was seen as connected to a lack of control. Differences between people’s experiences of catered and self-catered accommodation were also explored.

Food and eating were seen as important parts of the human experience. Salient points were made about the wider repercussions of not eating well, particularly in terms of mental health. The importance of access to healthy food with fresh food was also highlighted.

2. What are some of the key emotions connected to people’s experiences of prison food?

Emotions discussed included anger, hopelessness, fear, resignment and disgust. Disgust related to not knowing who has prepared the food or whether it may be contaminated. This connected to concerns about cleanliness and handwashing and could be manifested in people avoiding food in sauces, for example.

In contrast to some of the emotions above, it was also argued that good food can provide hope and motivation. It can also act as a conversation-starter in the space of the prison visiting room and to help visits feel less stressful.

We also learnt that there are quantitative associations visible within HMIP data between food satisfaction and other areas including feelings of safety at mealtimes and people’s perceptions that staff respect them.

3. Can food be ‘political’ in the prison context?

It was felt that food is most certainly political, as expressed by the attitude ‘why should we be interested in whether prisoners are fed well’? From this perspective, poor quality and monotonous food can be seen as ‘part of the punishment’. Public discourses can often dichotomise those seen as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of care and investment. This also connects with the way in which people in prison feel they are seen by others. Whereas initiatives to improve the quality and funding of school food have been high profile, attracting celebrity ambassadors such as Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford, improving prison food seems to be an issue that celebrities are extremely reluctant to put their names to. Increasing the budget for prison food is also where resistance lies. This connects with a perception that there should not be increased investment in food in prisons when so many people are experiencing food insecurity in the community.  However, it was argued that food insecurity on the outside and food within prisons are not separate issues – for some in prison, there is more access to food in prisons than on the outside. The panel felt that helping the public to understand more about what happens in prison is important in terms of moving debates forward.

Despite the challenges of improving prison food, there was also some optimism around changing attitudes. It was suggested that Covid had changed people’s perceptions slightly, with the experience of ‘being locked in’ at home making them more empathetic to those without freedom of movement. The issue of waste was also highlighted as an area which could give some leverage for change.

4. What are some of the policy/practical recommendations we can identify to improve the quality of food in prison?

The first suggestion was to fully implement the recommendations and action plan from the 2016 HMIP Report Life in Prison: Food. This includes increasing opportunities for self-catering and ensuring that meal times reflect what is considered the norm in the community.

Immediate actions identified by Food Behind Bars include working with suppliers and empowering catering teams in order to make kitchens inspiring places to work and teaching people to cook  – not just unboxing food. Longer term recommendations include moving away from the current model of one national supplier towards local suppliers sourcing good quality and ethical produce. Re-looking at the layout of prisons would also be beneficial in order to shorten the journey to deliver food and to preserve its quality and temperature.

Further changes suggested included challenging public perceptions around food and punishment, for example by using arts-based methods to increase empathy and understanding in this area and educating people within prisons about food in a wholistic way.

Conclusion

The overall themes from the discussion included:

  • The connection between food and care
  • Practices around food
  • Opportunities for food education and cooking
  • Increasing awareness and understanding regarding food and prisons
  • Logistical changes to the food-prison ecosystem

We would like to extend a big thank you to all the speakers in the roundtable and to everyone who attended and engaged with the discussion.

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