The aftertaste of prison

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The fact that detainees in many Western prisons are offered diverse menus to choose from each day irritates many people. Perhaps you have also been annoyed after reading an article about the different menu choices offered in prisons. You may have become even angrier at the idea that one is not necessarily better fed, maybe even worse, in hospitals.

Knowing that common law prisoners, criminals and even terrorists are entitled to a dessert or can choose a vegetarian dish or a meal without pork makes some people’s hair stand on end.

Yet, bringing some normality and dignity to detainees through food helps to calm tensions and better prepares them to reintegrate into society. A choice of menu is offered primarily to meet the specific needs of certain prisoners, such as those suffering from diabetes or heart problems or who require a non-salt diet, as well as vegetarians and all those who follow a food regime in relation to the exercise of their religion. In other words, the deprivation of liberty should not compromise certain fundamental rights.

Insufficient in quantity - poor in quality

However, while prison menus appear on paper to guarantee adequate nutritional value and respect for the food requirements of all detainees, in practice they are often far from satisfactory. Anyone who has ever talked to prisoners knows that their most common complaint is about food. In short, either the food is considered insufficient in quantity or of poor quality. There are exceptions of course, with good practices and brilliant cooks intent on making the lives of detainees more palatable. But in most cases food is the major concern of prisoners and the source of most tensions. Some will say that detainees like to complain and that it is easy to take food as a pretext for their grievances. However, it is worth taking a closer look to understand why food is such a big issue.

Regardless of whether it is beef stroganoff, halal beef fajitas or fish sticks, or whether it is served in packages or by scoop in the dining hall or directly in the cell, the food is rarely relished with any gusto. Why? First, because the food budget for detainees is usually limited to a strict minimum. Second, because the distribution of a large number of hot meals requires a rational approach not easily associated with gourmet cooking. Here, we do not even touch on the various scandals, notably in the United States, involving outsourcing to private catering companies, which should inspire caution and stricter controls.

A last personal freedom

Given this situation, many detainees refuse the food that is served to them, or keep only the bread or fruit (if offered!). They live on food received from their families (when this is allowed) or, more frequently, on food bought from the prison canteen, which they cook in their cells. They do this not only because the served food is poor, but also because cooking one’s own meals can be one of the last personal freedoms in an existence regulated in every detail by the prison administration. Cooking thus becomes a way to escape the process of depersonalisation common to "total institutions", so well described by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman more than fifty years ago.

During a recent prison visit, the main concern of the detainees appeared to be the disappearance of French fries from the menu. One may be tempted to ask: Is that all they have to worry about? Isn‘t it ridiculous? Well, their concern is rather, and above all, indicative of how important the issue of food is in prisons. As a central element of our lives, as a physiological need, and especially as a social act, food becomes an even more crucial issue in prison life.

Disciplinary measure

In many cases, however, everything is done to destroy the little autonomy afforded by the right of detainees to select and prepare their meals themselves. Meal management can be a powerful weapon and is a common disciplinary measure deployed by prison administrations. But a bread and water type of regime is not only an ancient practice. In the United States, for example, a few states follow the revolting practice of punishing difficult prisoners by restricting them to the same uniform diet for the duration of the disciplinary measure imposed on them. The diet consists of “Nutraloaf", a kind of protein meatloaf that is hardly edible but fulfils all the nutritional requirements. In this way the law is respected (prisoners receive their daily cocktail of proteins, vitamins, etc.) while at the same time the detainees are punished where it hurts most: the taste buds, the stomach and, above all, their self-esteem.

Whether one considers prison as a place of punishment or rehabilitation, punishment therein should be limited to the deprivation of freedom of movement. By law punishment should never take the form of food deprivation or sub-standard food – even though prisons are obviously not intended to be beacons of refined gastronomy.

But eating properly is also part of self-respect: what we eat and how we eat can make us a little more or a little less human. It is up to our societies to decide what type of prisoners they want to see after they have been released.


Photo : Fred Clarke/ICRC