Inside Time Articles

Ryan Harman, PRT's advice and information service manager, writes a regular column for the prison newspaper Inside Time, you can read his articles here.

Food in prison
01/10/2016 00:01:00 by Ryan Harman

Complaints about food in prison are all too common and are a regular subject of letters to Inside Time’s mailbag. When issues like this become so familiar there is a risk that they get glossed over and lose the attention they deserve. For this reason we welcome Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) shining the light on this subject in a recently published findings paper entitled Life in prison: Food.

HMIP found that ‘too often the quantity and quality of the food available is insufficient and the conditions in which it is served and eaten undermine respect for prisoner’s dignity’. They pointed to low food budgets as a major barrier to improving food in prisons, with some prisons daily budget per person about a fifth of the average daily spend per in-patient in hospitals. The resulting recommendations to NOMS include having minimal specific nutritional values and the conditions under which food is eaten set out in a Prison Service Instruction, and meal times that are arranged to reflect what is considered the norm in the community.

Mentioned briefly in the HMIP findings is the meeting of religious, medical or ideological dietary requirements – a subject which we have had reports of poor practice in from a few people recently. HMIP particularly refer to examples of cross contamination of Halal food for Muslim prisoners which resulted in many opting only for vegetarian food only or indeed just going hungry. This echoes some of the reports we have had from prisoners in which vegan prisoners were given meat and other animal products by mistake on numerous occasions, and others were been served using containers or equipment contaminated with non vegetarian or non vegan meals. This can result in a real distrust of catering services and a reluctance to eat the food provided. We therefore thought it would be useful to point readers towards the most relevant guidance on this subject.

The Catering Operating Manual, which is Annex B of PSI 44/2010 Catering – Meals for Prisoners, clearly states the following:

"It is a fundamental requirement that prisoners and members of staff are provided with meals which meet an individual’s religious, cultural and medical dietary needs. It is further necessary that all prisoners are provided with food commodities that are stored, prepared and served in an appropriate way. The menu choices and meal provision must reflect the religious and cultural needs of the establishment."

The manual goes on to give guidelines on common dietary requirements for a number of religious and medical diets. Regarding contamination of special diets, it states that ‘it is essential that special diets are not contaminated, even briefly, by other menu items’, and that ‘the servery layout must be carefully considered to avoid contamination and separate identifiable serving utensils must be used for special diets’. These expectations might seem quite straightforward but we are sometimes disappointed and somewhat surprised to hear of catering services which have struggled to do this on a regular basis.

Another common complaint is cold food as a result of too long between cooking and serving. The Catering Operating Manual states that all cooking should be carried out ‘as late as possible so as to ensure that the minimum amount of time is given to possible food bacterial growth before serving’. The manual recognises that in some establishments the complexity of food distribution can lead to time delays between cooking and serving but is clear that it is a legislative requirement that the time lapse between the completion of the cooking process and the commencement of service must not exceed 45 minutes. In addition, hot food must be served ‘hot’ which means at a temperature above 63°C.

Regarding meal times, which people often report as being too early, the manual states that they should reflect those within the community and that there should be a minimum of 4.5 hours between the beginning of lunch service and the beginning of evening meal service. In addition prisoners should be provided with the facilities and commodities to enable them to prepare a minimum of 4 hot drinks a day.

It is important to recognise that many prisons demonstrate good practice when it comes to catering, and HMIP reported many establishments are ‘making commendable efforts with the resources available’. They also found some prisons providing server training courses to prisoners and examples of kitchen staff working closely with relevant chaplains to devise diet appropriate serving arrangements. This further demonstrates that it can be done well and should be possible across all prisons.

You can contact the Prison Reform Trust’s advice team at FREEPOST ND6125 London EC1B 1PN. Our free information line is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 3.30-5.30. The number is 0808 802 0060 and does not need to be put on your pin.