The authorities have an obligation to meet the food needs of inmates. Failure to comply with this requirement may constitute a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture. The inclusion in national law of quality criteria for food served in prisons, including minimum nutritional value requirements, is an important protective measure for detainees. The detainee food budget should allow the implementation of these minimum requirements.
Food is a universal vital need, but eating habits are highly personal and culture-specific. The imposition of a uniform food regime has a tendency to crystallise tensions and disputes. This is most clearly reflected in the number of detainee complaints registered regarding factors such as the quantity, quality, blandness and lack of variety of the food they are served. It is important that detainees have access to an effective complaints system.
Mealtime schedules, particularly for meals served in cells, are generally adapted to security requirements and staff work schedules. In most cases this means that meals, especially at dinner time, are served much earlier than is customary in the outside world. Moreover, the time available to eat meals is often limited, especially for detainees required to attend a workshop or engage in some other compulsory activity. Meal distribution arrangements should ensure that meals are still hot for people served last. The cutlery issued to inmates, while respecting local customs and security requirements, should preferably be made of metal so that it can be easily cleaned and disinfected.
The sick, especially those with heart or diabetes problems, should receive an appropriate diet controlled by the health personnel. Balanced vegetarian menus should also be available for inmates who do not eat meat.
Menu selection must be determined together with the health personnel, including nutritionists. Good practices suggest including representatives of detainees in these discussions. The nutritional value and overall quality of meals served in prison must be evaluated and controlled by independent experts from the penitentiary administration.
Sanitary and bacteriological analysis should also be carried out regularly to prevent the outbreak of contagious diseases. Samples of all food must be kept long enough to perform analysis if contamination is suspected.