UK: more fruit and veg for prisoners might just alleviate the crisis in our jails
Poor diet is contributing to bad behaviour and reoffending. Liz Truss could should intervene and do for prisons what Jamie Oliver did for schools
With stories of tragic deaths, riots, audacious escapes, drug-fuelled violence and chronic staff shortages increasingly prevalent across the prison system, and the former head of the service claiming that the current crisis will take years to sort out, it might seem a strange time to call for more fruit and veg to be introduced into prisoners’ diets. But the way we feed prisoners has never been more important.
Last year an inmate at HMP Northumberland staged a protest on a high railing after being served a cold meal, while a report released by HM Inspectorate of Prisons a few months ago concluded that poor nutrition is contributing to the current state of disorder, from Bedford to Belmarsh.
“Studies have found that nutritional supplements reduce disciplinary incidents, aggression and violent behaviour,” the inspectors noted. “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.”
Recently I spent some time talking to prisoners and former prison staff about this, and came away convinced that food is even more important than the inspectors claimed.
I spoke to one woman who served a short sentence of seven weeks earlier this year. She contacted me to talk about her experience of prison food (or, in her words, “the lack of it”) as a pregnant woman who was also lactose-intolerant. The prison kitchen was notified of her diagnosed intolerance and the fact she was six months pregnant. Soya milk was promised to substitute the dairy milk received daily by all prisoners in their breakfast pack. Additional calories were also promised.
Four and a half weeks later, she had received no form of milk that she was able to drink and spent most of her time chasing up staff members who continually assured her they would rectify the situation. Coupled with carb-heavy meals lacking fresh fruit or vegetables (“No one wants to eat pasta and chips in the same meal. It’s just not normal,” she told me) and none of the extra calories she was promised, she went on to lose half a stone. Another pregnant inmate cried herself to sleep every night because she was so hungry.
“Your punishment is to have your freedom taken away from you – not to be starved or have your health compromised,” she said. And I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Another woman I spoke to found that prison had the opposite effect on her weight. She put on five stone during her three years in prison. She and her cellmates took daily doses of Laxido (a powdered form of laxative) to help pass the food and worked in the prison vegetable patch – only to find the produce grown there went to local restaurants, not the prison kitchen.
With 46% of adult prisoners reconvicted within a year of release and prison deaths and self-harm at record levels, we are feeding some of society’s most vulnerable and mentally unstable individuals food that is damaging them further. Prison, of course, is a place of punishment – but is also meant to change the people serving time in them for the better. How are they meant to leave prison in a healthier physical and mental state of mind, when they aren’t properly fed?
Of course food is far from the only problem in prisons, but that doesn’t mean improving it is not important. When Jamie Oliver campaigned against chicken nuggets and Turkey Twizzlers in school meals in 2006, viewers watched children’s behaviour improve and classrooms become calmer, more civil places. Something similar could happen in prisons, if we only stopped ignoring their kitchens. For starters, how about justice secretary Liz Truss joining prisoners for a meal?