By Amelia Hoy
Covid-19 has had an unprecedented and detrimental impact on society as a whole, but prisons have been even more susceptible to the impacts of the pandemic. As identified by the World Health Organisation (2020:1) people in prison are ‘more vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak than the general population’ due to the close proximity of individuals and unventilated spaces. As such, prison life has produced a Covid-19 death rate at 3.3 times higher than people of the same age and gender in the general population (Braithwaite et al 2021). Despite this, some incarcerated individuals have remained unconcerned about the pandemic itself, claiming that they are more likely to ‘die from the food’ in prison (Blakinger 2020). The social and cultural importance of food in prison has been highlighted in recent decades (Ifeonu, Haggerty and Bucerius 2022) yet remained a neglected area of prison life amidst the pandemic. Covid-19 has significantly impacted upon, food in prison and consequently areas of research on the Doing Porridge Project. Due to multiple and ongoing covid lockdowns, the fieldwork for the project has been delayed multiple times. This blog will explore the ways in which Covid-19 has impacted food in prison and the subsequent effects on those imprisoned.
Areas of food consumption
Covid-19 restrictions in prisons resulted in the closing of all communal facilities, including dining halls for prisons that had them. Individuals in prisons stated that this saw them ‘locked in [their] cells’ as soon as they had collected their food, ‘eating off [their] laps’ and unable to interact with a ‘real human’ to share their experiences with (Inside Time 2022). Communication and the ability to share the burden of prison had been reduced, and mealtimes were no longer an opportunity to bond with others for those who had previously been able to do so. Isolation from others was not the only concern, with issues surrounding sanitation making it harder to eat in these conditions. Individuals had to eat in their cells, with close proximity to toilets, and potentially unsanitary conditions in inadequate rooms (Portal 2021). This exacerbated concerns that had already been raised for many prisons in the 2016 HMIP Report on food in prisons (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2016).
Food in Visits Halls
Visits halls were another area of closure throughout the pandemicwhich were previously key for socialising and reuniting with family and friends. We are also exploring the importance of food for families of women in prison on our project: Food, families and visiting rooms in a women’s prison (https://www.surrey.ac.uk/research-projects/food-families-and-visiting-rooms-womens-prison). This project examines the role of food in the prison visit setting, exploring how it is experienced by family members and the ways in which it can enhance the interactions in the visiting rooms. Prior to the pandemic, in-person visits were an opportunity for prisoners to receive essential goods lacking in custody, such as food (Heard 2021). Consequently, the closure of these areas meant that food was restricted to canteen items that could be ordered in to the prison, when many would have relied upon those supplies provided by visitors. For some, this restriction of goods heightened the longstanding issue of material deprivation for individuals (Sykes 1958).
Effects on mental and physical health
The changes to food consumption and practices combined with inactivity, saw negative impacts on both mental and physical health of those imprisoned(Usher et al 2020). Sugary, unhealthy foods provided during this time of reduced activity also raised the prospect of weight gain (HM inspectorate of prisons 2021). The anxiety and stress responses as a cause of the pandemic was also associated with increased eating (Himmelstein, Beaver and Gilman 2022) so poor diets and poor health were more prominent during this time. Poor diets and over-eating may have been exacerbated at the beginning of the pandemic, when some prisons provided incarcerated people with Covid ‘comfort packs’, filled with treats such as chocolate and crisps (IMB 2021). These changes to prison life could ultimately produce further discontent and violence in prison (Ifeonu, Haggerty and Bucerius 2022).
Whilst some of the effects of Covid-19 on society may be irreversible, attempts can be made to improve the impact on the prison population. The issue of food in prison has been largely overlooked, the Doing Porridge team aim to uncover the realities of prison food, to ultimately improve the standards of food and improve its consumption and practices within the female estate.
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