Lucy Vincent and Linda Kjaer Minke on Food in Prisons
Welcome to Feed, A food systems podcast presented by Table. I’m Matthew Kessler.
As this season on power in the food system comes to a close, we wanted to do an episode on how food is consumed in institutions like hospitals, schools or prisons. These are places where individuals don’t have any agency over their food choices. You’ll either choose from a limited menu or eat what you’re served. And depending on your age or your job or if you’re incarcerated, these institutions could be responsible for most of your meals.
In this episode we’re going to be looking at food in prisons in two different countries, the United Kingdom and Denmark. We’ll learn how food in prisons is procured, prepared and eaten. And with the help of our guests, we’ll begin to understand how these two very different systems of prison food can lead to very different results for the incarcerated, for those working in prisons and – potentially – for society as a whole.
Before talking to our two guests, I should introduce our guest presenter for the episode. Theo Heaton-Davies is a food systems researcher and helped spearhead this closer look at food in prisons.
First we’ll be hearing from Lucy Vincent, who has founded an NGO working to improve food in prisons in the UK.
So my name is Lucy Vincent. I'm the Chief Executive of Food Behind Bars. We are the only charity in the UK that's working to improve prison food. And I'm calling from London.
Could you maybe tell us a little bit more about Food Behind Bars? What is that? What the aim of the charity?
Yeah, so we are a national charity based in the UK. And our primary goal is to improve the quality of prison food that's in establishments all over the country. And I guess that we do that in a variety of ways. So we work with prisoners on a really bespoke basis. And I always say every single prison is different. The people in it are different, demographics vary. So our projects are very much suited around the establishment.
Food Behind Bars works with menu and recipe development, and they work with catering managers and teams to try to improve the nutrition of prison food, but it’s not only about that.
And it's not just about being healthier, it's actually to do with - Yes, healthier, more nutritious food, but also exciting foods, interesting food. Food that represents different cultures and demographics. You know, all of that we feel is kind of lacking in prisons,
We also do a lot of food education. And a lot of people come to prison with a very poor relationship with food. And sadly, when they come in and start their sentence, there's not always kind of the opportunities available to them to improve that relationship so that when they come out, they're in a better position to live a good quality of life, and I suppose not reoffend. So our food education is, I suppose, split between our more professional stuff that we do. So whether that's training people to work in specific areas of the food industry. And then we have a much more holistic program of food education that is really based around everyone in the prison, engaging in the subjects of food in some way. And really, that has been designed to support the work that we're doing on the menu, even down to like ingredients awareness, understanding where our food comes from. Cooking for themselves, and kind of basic nutrition.
It's quite a niche area to be working in, I wondered how you first got into it.
Very niche. So when I got into prison food, which was in 2016, it was about over five years ago now. And I was working as a journalist. And I was also working in the food industry. So for a long time, I worked in restaurants in London. And I suppose at that time, I became much more interested in writing about food and kind of exploring topics within the food industry. And that was based on my own personal passion. You know, I've always loved cooking. Food is a really big part of my life.
And I came across a report, which was by her majesty's Inspector of Prisons, who, in the UK, they are responsible for inspecting prison standards, basically. And this one was on a subject of food across prisoners all over the UK. And it was the first of its kind and I suppose it gave us this really broad look at what's being served, what impact it’s having on people. You know best case scenarios, worst case scenario, good practice, bad practice. And I suppose the interesting part for me was that the conclusion was really quite damning. It actually said that food was a significant part of prison life for everyone in prison. And that the mixture of poor quality and lack of things like communal dining, was leading to a whole host of issues. Everything from violence, mental health problems, to ultimately, you know, chances of reoffending and rehabilitation.
So I read the report, and it was very much the journalist in me to begin with. Yeah, I guess I just felt like there was a story there. And I began researching which involves speaking to a lot of people who spent time in prison, and started writing a few articles off of the back of that. And they gained, I guess, a bit of press. And I started getting contacted by prisons who said, come in and have a look for yourself, you know, because we struggle with this subject, we know that it has a big effect. And yeah, it all spiraled from there to be honest. And I spent many years just researching, spending time in prison, writing, campaigning, speaking publicly about it, building relationships with prisons, and that's really what led us to, yeah, become a charity about a year and a half ago.
As you know, our series at the moment is about power in the food system. And from a journalistic point of view, but also from the point of view of your charity, I wondered what that means to you. What do you define as power in the food system?
I think it's interesting because institutional food is in a league of its own, really, when it comes to the food system. And it's frustrating, because really, institutions in my opinion, are the places that should have the best quality food, people who are in institutions, whether for a short time or a long time should have access to good quality foods. And yet, typically, they are the places that have the worst quality food and the lowest budget and the poorest kind of nutrition and access to ingredients. And I suppose what I found with prisons in particular is that it left people very helpless and very powerless.
And what I love about food, and the beauty of food for me is having the freedom to eat what I want, cook what I want, to explore food, to explore flavors and different cuisines. And I get so much pleasure out of that it massively impacts my well being and my kind of day to day life, I suppose. And here is a place, prison, where people have committed crime, had their freedom taken away from them. And that also means their food freedom. They don't have the luxury of eating what they want, when they want it or eating intuitively with their emotions or the weather.
And I suppose, particularly when I first started, for me, that was the most interesting part of it, because whether the food was good or not, it was the lack of autonomy that they had, that actually had the biggest impact, and the biggest effect on people, particularly people who cook for themselves before and then found themselves in prison.
So there's the power of food and shared meals to add enjoyment to your life and there’s also the power of having autonomy over your own food choices.
I suppose the other side for me is ultimately the decision makers and the way prison food is approached, which is in this country anyway. very centralized, very kind of top level. We have the Ministry of Justice in the UK who are responsible for the prison system. And even though that responsibility kind of gets down into particular Catering Managers at each prison, when it comes to things like budgets, and procurement, and all of that stuff is decided by decision makers that up top really, and yeah, I suppose over the years, I've come to realize that really, the topic of prison food is, is a business. You know, a lot of it is dictated by cost and efficiency and logistics. A lot of it is held back, I suppose, public perceptions of prisons and prisoners,
When you look at the people who are responsible for making it every day, you know, the Catering Managers ultimately get they're just caught up in this system, which is fundamentally not working. I hate you know, when you say that prison food needs improving, kind of inadvertently points the finger at the person making the food. And I always try and avoid that, because that's not what we're doing. Actually, we work very closely with these people. And also we recognize that these people are trapped in a system that yeah - it's not designed. It's designed against a good food culture really.
You mentioned that institutions and the maybe lack of attention that they were receiving as being a big reason why you got into it in the first place. I think also tying into what you just said, about popular perceptions. I think media can have a huge impact on what people imagine a prison meal to be like. So maybe, if you could describe For us what it is actually like in a UK prison, what is it like to take from maybe the farm to the actual kitchen to the cell to feed it to feed someone in the UK?
I suppose if we start at the, at the top, I guess in terms of where the food comes from, and the whole prison food system in the UK, are in one contract with one centralized supplier. Which means you could go to prison in the Northeast of England or prison in the Southwest, and they would all be having access to the same ingredients coming from the same people in the same place. I guess there are a few benefits to that, particularly for our work, we are creating recipes for presents that ultimately can kind of be used at any prison. But there are huge downsides. And particularly when it comes to the quality of that food, I would say that produce is being sourced and created specifically to fit a price I suppose. Which is very low, prison food budgets in the UK around two pounds 10 per day for three meals. And so yeah, the focus is on efficiency and mass catering and low cost.
So the kind of core product that people are working with, sadly, is at a fairly low level to begin with. And, obviously, then it arrives in the prison kitchen and the logistics are kind of overwhelming, you know, some prisons have upwards of 1000 people in there, and you're feeding them three meals a day.
And are they eating - do you think generally alone cells or in more of a canteen?
Yeah, so logistically, it's, it's a minefield really. So there's kind of big central kitchens in prisons, and lots of wings. So some prisons will have up to eight wings, which could house anywhere up to 150 people per wing, and the food goes out on trolleys per wing. So if you imagine it's getting cracked in the prison kitchen, say at half past 10, onto the hot trolley, the trolleys will then travel down and each wing has an open servery, kind of with a hot plate and things like that. So the food will then get unpacked, it will go on to the hot servery. And then it's a case of everyone getting a locks and coming up and collecting their food. And what doesn't happen is that everyone takes their food and sits around a nice table and enjoys it together. People go back into their cells and will eat in their cells. So depending on the prison, you might be in a cell on your own, you might be sharing a cell. Your toilet is based in your cell. And I don't need, you don't need me to tell you that prison cells are very small. So you might be perched on your bed eating next to your toilet. And that is the case for most people.
As you said, it sounds very maximized for efficiency. Has it always been that way in UK prisons?
Yeah, no, it hasn't. And if you if you look at the history of prison food, it's interesting. I've spoken to people who are in prison, you know, back in the 80s. And, and look, you know, prisons back then, you know, there was some serious issues. There's no point kind of sugarcoating that. But I suppose what was different was this centralized approach wasn't in place. Catering Managers had the freedom to kind of choose where they got their ingredients from, and who they worked with, and how they utilize them. So it works, I suppose, a bit more in line with how a restaurant would work. And, you know, again, I suppose for me that there are more benefits to that approach than a centralized system. But also, it's worth noting that if you have an amazing catering manager with a high skill level, who really values the quality of food in prison, he will do an amazing job at working with good suppliers and using that system in a good way. But there are instances where you might not have that kind of person in charge and, and then things could get kind of abused, I suppose.
But yeah, if you speak to people who are in prison, kind of 30 years ago, you know, it was a case of a hot breakfast, you know, hot lunch, things being served, communal dining, fresh food being made.
This all changed however following the Strangeways prison riot in 1990, where overcrowding led to intolerable living conditions that the inmates protested against by taking control over most of the prison for 3 weeks.
It was the longest ever prison riot in British history. And the riot started because of living conditions in prisons, when you actually look at the prison figure numbers from Strangeways prison in particular, I think that prison was only designed to house maybe 700, 800 people. And at the time when the riot happened, I think they had upwards of 1500 people in that prison, and sometimes three people in a cell.
Firstly, it's worth noting that back in the day, the actual kind of layout of prisons was different. So in most Victorian prisons, they had a very typical design, which was kind of this spider design. If you were in a drone, and you were looking down from them, you can see this design, it was kind of central - in the middle, with the wings all coming off and around. And then that central bit that was often where the kitchen was. And in Strangeways, that was the case. And actually, part of the reason why the riot went on for so long, I think they had - they took over the prison for 25 days, was because they didn't run out of food. So they managed to get hold of the kitchen and kind of take over the kitchen fairly quickly because it was in such a central area. And yeah, they lasted on the foods for kind of almost a month really.
In the aftermath of the Strangeways uprising, there was an assessment led by Lord Justice Woolf. It was called Prison Disturbances April 1990: Report of An Inquiry. The report has had a controversial legacy.
After the riot there was a huge reassessments of prisons in the UK. There was a really famous report called The Woolf report that made recommendations for how prisoners should run improvements, improvements to dignity and living standards. But one of the recommendations it made was to take away communal dining. And what they found was that communal dining was a catalyst really for violence and disruption. I mean, any opportunity when you have lots of prisoners in one place is a catalyst. And so much of communal dining was removed after Strangeways and the second thing that happened is that the actual layout of prisons changed. And a lot of prisons were built off the Strangeways and they moved the kitchens to, you know - I mean, often we work in kitchens, that is right in the kind of corner plot of the prison land really. And what that has done has - it's impacted the food quality. It's extended that journey on that trolley from the kitchen to the servery, which often, something might come out the oven and look around and be the perfect temperature, be perfectly cooked. And once it sits on the trolley for however long. And you know, sometimes that can be a 20 minute journey dependent on the size of the prison. And then it goes under a hot plate and you will wait for everyone to be unlocked. And it's that journey actually that really can be the difference between a good meal and a bad meal. And yeah, that kind of all changed really. And the centralized supplier approach kind of came into play. I suppose the one thing to note with the centralized supplier approach was prison numbers used to be much smaller.
So after Strangeways, and particularly during the mid 90s, in this country, there was a kind of big tough on crime movement in the government. And we were looking more people up and I think just the population went from about 45,000 in the early 90s to what it is today, which is over 85,000 people in prison in this country. And so yeah, moving to the centralized supplier system was a necessity really because there were more people in prison, more mouths to feed, lower costs. Budgets to be kept to, and that was kind of why we are where we are today.
I'm interested in how food is procured nationally, is it done through a private company or an outsourced?
Oh, so the food supplier? Yeah. Yeah. So it's a private, it's a private company, that they get it from basically. And they supply other I mean, they’re a huge catering supply in this country, one of the biggest, and, but I mean, prisons are their biggest customer. And that's how I always have to kind of remind myself of that, you know, there's 110 prisons, I think, in this country, and average prison population is 700 people, three meals a day. This is huge volumes of food that are being produced, and the supplier works very closely with the kind of decision makers up top that makes sense, particularly on negotiating price and kind of availability of ingredients and things like that.
So one thing that we're working on at the moment, another thing to know, actually, in terms of historically prison food is that - in the past, you know, you look at the proportion of which was produced in house and the ingredients that were sourced from prison farms and gardens. Most prisons always used to have a farm and garden kind of situation, and a bakery. That's a real key difference. Now, not in every prison. And as I say, we're working on growing and gardening projects, and we're working on getting some of these bakeries back up and running again, because the resources are there, the space is there. The equipment is there, the gardens are there. And obviously the workforce is there. So there's no reason why prisons shouldn't be producing a lot of those ingredients in house. They're better quality you know, the easiest access and people are learning to do something, you know, learning a skill. So again, that was something that used to exist and then it went kind of in favor of ultra processed, centralized system, etc. And yet we're trying to bring it back in a small way really, because I do see that as the future you know, not just in prisons, but in society.
And so the catered meals arrive as you say on these hot trolleys, as one way prisoners can eat. What other ways can they decide to feed themselves? What agency do they have in choosing to eat that or to eat something else? Are there other ways that prisoners cook for themselves?
Yes, there is. There's one key component which is the items that they can purchase from the canteen, which is the prison shop, you can order from there and pay for it and it arrives on a Friday. And it’s worth noting that canteen has to be used for other items as well. It's not just food, so you have to kind of purchase the toiletries or if you want phone credit or stamps to write home or bake, or I mean you can buy all sorts of stuff on there. But it does have a huge amount of convenience items, dried foods, packaged foods, etc. And yes, there's lots of crisps and chocolate and fizzy drinks but there is also a huge amount of spices, tinned food, pasta, noodles, rice, and things like that.
So most people in prison will use canteen to supplement their diet. And depending on who you are, and I guess your approach to food or your cooking skill level, some people will just supplement their diet with chocolate and crisps. Some people will supplement their diet by cooking in their cells. And cooking in their cells is tricky be cause there's very limited equipment. The primary kind of object that is used as a kettle.
We call it kettle cooking in this country and in prisons. So every prison has a kind of small little kettle. And if you're lucky, you might be able to purchase another one. And you might have two. Most prisoners will will prefer one for their teas and coffees, and one for their cooking because you often find that the one used for cooking is kind of stained basically with, you know, tomato sauce or curry sauce or whatever. And yeah, no sharp knives or anything like that. They've got some plastic cutlery and plates, maybe a bit of Tupperware. But that is it really. And it is amazing what they do with that, and some dried ingredients. And people are incredibly resourceful, they will often go up and grab their meal off the servery and kind of take elements from it. So perhaps they might take the chicken leg out, shred the chicken and keep that to use in a noodle dish, and then get rid of everything else. And if they're getting a salad, they might kind of pull the tomatoes out or the peppers if you use that to cook with. And so they’re very resourceful.
And I would say one of the really nice parts of the kettle crispy is that people often will pile together and work together. You often find on the wing, there is a Jamie Oliver and every single wing who is kind of known for being the chef. And, and so people might all put some ingredients together to kind of give him to make something for everyone. And also, you know, I see birthday cakes being made. I see all sorts of things being made, they use it to kind of celebrate as well and mark occasions because occasions aren't really marked in prison. So kettle cooking is a really big part of prison life.
This is just scratching the surface of the creativity that is happening in these kitchens. We’ll link to the podcast series that Lucy Vincent hosted called Food Behind Bars, which has a whole episode dedicated to Kettle Cooking.
You know, often I asked myself the question, if prison food was better would it still exist, because for the most part, I think it's a reaction to the poor quality food that's from the servery. But actually, I think kettlel cooking would exist regardless. And I speak to prisoners in other countries, but business food is healthier and better quality and they're still cooking in their cells. And it's not to do with good food or bad food. It's to do with just the pleasures people get from cooking and the autonomy and the freedom. You know, making something in their kettle means that they can eat when they're hungry and have something that's hot, and done to their liking and not cooked by someone else. Who knows who it's cooked by? You don’t know who's put by in a prison kitchen use ingredients where you don't know where they come from.
So yeah, I completely get why kettle cooking exists. It’s a tricky one in prison. It's not meant to be encouraged by prison staff. But it's certainly not banned. So people acknowledge that it happens and, and understand why it happens and often turn a blind eye to it.
I mean, it sounds like food plays a pretty integral role to the day to day life of a lot of inmates. I wonder what agency or power it gives individuals to have access to that canteen to be able to supplement their diet? Is that something that's recognized among prisoners? Does that create any kind of hierarchy at all?
I suppose, when the kettle cooking becomes more complex is there is a hierarchy. There's a caste system in prison, you know, there's a basic wage, which is, depends between 12 and 15 pounds a week, I suppose. If you are not getting money coming in from the outside, from your friends or family, that is it. That’s all you have access to. And a lot of people in prison exist on that. And that doesn't go far enough. Once you've bought your toiletries, once you've bought your plate, you know, well, those things, it doesn't go, you know, tea, coffee, for example, that that money doesn't go far enough for them to buy enough ingredients from canteens to be making themselves, you know, nutritious, hot meals every evening. On the flip side, if you're getting money coming in from the outside, I think you can have up to 900 pounds in your present account at any one time. And those people will have enough money, obviously, to kind of make those meals for themselves.
What they will also do is they will supply ingredients. So I mean, some cells will look like an aisle of Tesco to be honest, because people will bulk buy a lot of stuff and trade it with other people on the wings. And sadly, that's probably one of the most common ways that people get into debt. Because it's kind of like, I'll give you this kind of tuna now. But you've got to get the two cans of tuna in next week’s canteen. And if that doesn't happen, or they can't make it, for example, they become in debt. And that can lead to all sorts of things in prison, particularly violent on the wing. And yeah, the people at the bottom of the food chain, I suppose, are the people who are the poorest and yeah, the most vulnerable actually.
And so that's a kind of interesting hierarchy, I suppose that that does happen and is kind of one of the downsides of kettle cooking can encourage that, really, because it, it's the haves and the have nots really, and it's funny, because most people would think in prison and think, “Well, surely everyone in the prison is, is the have not, you know, no one's got anything, but it's not true. You know, there's a whole culture that is kind of thriving within there.
Lucy also points out that the Catering managers play a pivotal role in bringing food to the prisons
I would say most Catering Managers probably have the right intentions in that sense. And the interesting part of catering in a prison is that in a prison kitchen and their workforce are a business. So a catering manager could be responsible for anywhere up to 30 prisoners a day working in their kitchen. And that is a really nice opportunity to give people autonomy and agency, and who actually involved in the menus, and what being made and what's being served and actually also use them to inform the menus because they're the people eating it at the end of the day. Not enough of that is done in prisons, in my opinion.
And certainly in the best case scenarios. I mean, Felix, who's the catering manager at Brixton is a prime example of that. And he treats all of his staff as professional employees, you know, he really does run his prison kitchen, like a kitchen, if it was in a West End restaurant. And he's created that culture, he's responsible for that culture, it comes from him, it comes from the top, but it filters down. And it just means that it's a really positive place for them to work.
And I think that's what I've learned with working with Catering Managers is that we can slowly kind of chip away and I suppose what we do what what I feel is often missing in prison kitchens is just kind of an outside inspiration, and new ideas and new ways of thinking and not reinventing the wheel, but saying, “Could we do it like this? Could we serve this? Could we cook this like this? Could we try this for a week?” Because when you've been doing the same job for a very long time, and your job is extremely pressured, and you're responsible for getting 1000 meals out per day on a ridiculously tight budget and managing a group of prisoners and all of the logistics that comes with that? Yeah, flavor and excitement and different ideas and inspiration is not off of our agenda. So what we do is try and bridge that gap, I suppose.
Lucy says that her charity hopes to raise awareness of the issues to try and increase budgets for food in prisons. In the meantime, Food Behind Bars works with the suppliers and the catering managers to improve the quality of food as well as the food experience for the incarcerated. She also connects challenges in prison food to challenges with the wider food system.
I also think that we have to change. Sometimes I often look at the food waste, and the unethically produced ingredients, and I think about the food system, in society as a whole. And we can't go on like that, you know, we are going to be forced to change and institutions are always behind. But it will happen, you know, we won't be able to go on like that forever. And I hope that it will come in tandem with prison reform more widely, I mean, over the last five years, I've seen a shift in public perception of prisons, a positive shift. And I think people have become more understanding of why people end up in prison and the purpose of prison and what it should be for.
And I do believe that for any great change to happen, I think public opinion has to change first. The idea of taxpayers paying more money for prison foods… right now, I can't see that decision ever being made made by the government. But in the future, you know, I do feel hopeful.
So for me in the future, it's about bigger budget, a different procurement system and different supplier system to give Catering Managers more choice and autonomy and to work with more ethical and better quality suppliers. And then yeah, more staff training in terms of prison kitchens. A different approach in terms of variety and dishes on the menu, and more support for prisoners when it comes to food education and for their own diet would be the goal for me.
As you say, at the end of the day, institutions are part of society as a whole and a lot of people are arguing for a revolution in the way we eat at a national scale, but across the globe as well. And I guess I wonder how the prison fits into that broader change and potentially a food System Revolution. Earlier, you talked about the downside of nationally determined catering and the kind of efficiency of that. Do you think it's possible to have a better prison catering system, when we have fewer staff, more prisoners, and less money to spend on them?
I think it's possible. I just think it's about priorities. And I think, historically, in this country, food has been devalued. You know, and - it's a hard one, because right now in society, it feels like we have a better food culture than ever, you know, people are more knowledgeable, people are better cooks, better quality food at our fingertips. But I see that not available to everyone in society. You know, I think it's misleading thinking that we are, you've got this incredible food culture in the UK, I think it's there for some people who have the kind of money and the resources available to engage in that. But I think for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, they're all we have a poor food culture in the system. And I suppose when it comes to institutions and foods. As I say, I see food kind of I do in society, I think we're going to have to change food, I see that things are moving, I think that assistance will come into play. But with institutions and with prisons, I just think we're always behind the curve by 10 years.
I suppose that that's kind of what, what concerns me, I mean, you're right, you know, how do we achieve better food in prison when there's so many other issues that are kind of so designed against it. But for me, it is about priority. And I don't think it's ever been prioritized in the prison system, you know, the food, I think, when it comes to safety, security, drugs, etc, you know, food is way down the pecking order. And I feel hopeful that as we prioritize food and diet in society, it will become prioritized more in prisons. And I do feel hopeful about that.
I think you've given a fairly broad vision of what a more just prison food system could look like. I guess, is there anything else that would would fit into that into the food provisioning system within prisons, but in society as a whole that you can comment on?
The more I think about it, I do think it is sometimes just about stripping it back to basics. I think much like, you know, everything in life, I think things have got overcomplicated and in prison, you know, there have been a few organizations that have worked around this subject for years, and a lot of them have an academic base. So they do a lot of research around prison food. And it's all very nutritional and science fact, which has its place for sure. But actually, when I'm in prison, for me, it's so simple and so visible, you know, what the solution is, and what can have an effect. And it's not about how much protein or fiber or whatever that dish has in. Yeah, it's just about good ingredients put well and served in a humane and decent way and food that replicates how we eat on the outside. I think that's sometimes the most important thing for me is that the more that we can normalize food in prison and make it feel normal and not in a plastic container, you know, delivered to your cell door or even by your toilet, which is such an abnormal experience, the more that we can kind of humanize it and make it as close to real life as possible. Yeah, the better.
That’s really interesting. Thank you, Lucy.
Yeah, no worries. Thanks for having me.
Wow we covered a lot from the prison riot in Strangeways that changed the model of how food is supplied to prisons, how kettle cooking in one’s cell can introduce a hint of normalcy in a very abnormal environment - did anything in particular stand out to you?
I think the underlying disfunction is what really struck me. You’ve got this huge catering system that provides food for thousands of people around the country and it’s been streamlined that is meant to operate efficiently at a national scale. But in reality, most people are just cooking for themselves in kettles and even the food that is provided ends up spending half its life sitting around in hot cupboards.
So Lucy ended our conversation talking about the importance of normalizing the experience of food in prisons. Making it closer to the ways we engage with food on the outside. And that’s something that’s being enacted, this principle of normalization, in the prison system in Denmark. Which we’re lucky enough to have a guest to speak to this - so who are we speaking to next Theo
So we’re not moving across the North Sea to hear what prison catering is like in Denmark where Linda Kjaer Minke, who has researched food systems dynamics in prisons. I really think it will be interesting to hear how it works because I’ve heard in the Danish system there are opportunities for communal eating and growing your own food in prisons just as Lucy had been calling for.
My name is Linda Kjaer Minke, and I'm a professor in criminology. And I've been studying imprisonment, prison life, how punishment works for almost 20 years. I'm trained as a sociologist, and I have a PhD in criminology from the Faculty of Law at University of Copenhagen.
Linda is currently a professor and researcher at the University of Southern Denmark in the Department of Law, and is the head of a research group.
The members in my group, we have 10 people in total, and we all make research within the topic: the law in society. How law can be a barrier for being reintegrated to society after punishment, but also how law can marginalize people in society.
We're speaking to a few people around the world and involved in prison food. And I think perceptions can vary quite broadly as to what prison food looks like in different parts of the world. So maybe we could start off if you could describe what a meal looks like for an average prisoner in a Danish prison.
Yes, it's in Danish prisons, for example, you will not find that dining hall as such. You will find a dining hall in many other prisons abroad. This very typical dining hall where a prisoner sits with smaller, maybe bigger table and they have this dinner, their meal, together. And the dinner is served by a staff member in a canteenish way.
But in Denmark, in Danish prisons, we don't have this dining hall. Some prisoners may choose to have their meal in a common room on the ward. And this common room it looks like, in some way, like a Danish living room. There’s small tables. There's a sofa, there's a coffee table, there's a television in this room. And in many of these common rooms, there are access to a shared kitchen, where prisoners can cook and prepare their food.
If you’re not from Scandinavia and are listening to this, it might surprise you to hear that incarcerated people in most Scandinavian prisons cook for themselves. They decide what they would like to eat and whether to eat alone or with others. Linda explains this is a way to make prison life more similar to life on the outside.
And in some way it reflects a typical Danish housing, how we live. We have this kitchen space and then we have this living room, common room where where we eat our dinner. And some prisoners prefer to have their dinner together in this common room. Maybe there's three to four small tables with four chairs around and then they can sit in their food group and have their meal. And the size of these food groups are very comparable to the family size in Danish society. Maybe it’s for five members like a typical Danish family. But other prisoners, they might choose to have their meal in their private cell where they have their meal alone by themselves. Whether they choose to have their meal in the common room or in their cell, they can choose by themselves, which model they prefer.
I'm interested in this idea of a food group, I just wondered if you could explain them a bit more. What is a food group? And how is it formed?
Many prisoners they choose to form a food group of different reasons. One reason is economic for saving money, because it's cheaper to buy and prepare food for many people. Another reason is practical, because the group members can be taking turns cooking. And it's so smart, because then you can think, okay, Tuesday, Wednesday, I don't have to think about cooking or what to buy for cooking. Because my good friend, he will do, he's responsible for doing the cooking. Another reason is to mingle and socialize because it's nicer and cozier to have meals together with other people.
And a fourth reason it could be to form a food group - that the food group members act as a kind of protection for each other. And it's related to the dimension, you trust the people you share a meal with. And you suppose that the people you share meal with will protect your back and in this case, your back against other prisoners.
So many incarcerated people form food groups, But you will also find prisoners who will choose to eat by themselves.
Maybe it's because they are a little scared. Maybe it's because they don't trust anybody in among the other incarcerated people. But other prisoners mayb, they choose to eat by themselves during their whole incarceration. And it’s these lonely, lonely prisoners. Maybe they are introvert, they don't interact much with other people. Maybe in the surrounding society, it's lonely people. Yeah, they don't have many social relations. And then they just live their life like in prison like they live their life outside society.
I wondered if the ability to work in in food groups and to cater for yourself. That seems quite different from a lot of maybe popular perceptions of what it's like to eat in prison. I wondered if what might be the effect of media on prison food, compared to the reality? And also whether or not that's seen as a privilege to have the ability to self cater or if it’s seen as something that is normal procedure.
So many prisoners, they really appreciate that they are able to choose which food products they buy. And also to choose the food they have. They can choose what to eat, when. But also together with whom. So this autonomy is very much appreciated. And food is a central basic human thing. We all need food to survive.
When they are held in their custody in jails in Denmark, we have a huge group of people that are incarcerated in jails waiting for them to have their sentence. And I think it's maybe 40% of all prisoners in Denmark. In Denmark we have 4300 prisoners in total.
So in the UK there are nearly 90,000 incarcerated people, and when adjusted for population - that’s about 138 out of every 100,000.
On Denmark on the other hand, there are 4300 prisoners, and when adjusted for population, is 72 out of every 100,000.
And about 38-40% of them are waiting to go to trial. And in these jails, they are not allowed to prepare their own dinner, they receive the food from a canteen. And the foods are served on trays and they will have food three times a day, uncertain time - maybe seven o'clock, 12 o'clock, five o'clock in the afternoon, something like that. And the very first thing they talk about when they are going to leave the jail and they will be transferred to an ordinary prison to serve their sentence. They are so happy that now finally they are able to choose what to eat, when to eat, it's so important for them.
And then we have some wards where many people are held in solitary confinement and they are not allowed to prepare their own food. And when they come back to the normal ward, and have this opportunity to have community with fellow mates. They are so happy that now they're able to cook for themselves. It's such a relief, it’s “oh my gosh, now I can cook for myself. Oh, I'm so happy.” They really appreciate it. And they're so proud, many of them have been eating so much prison food, and so many prisoners that they are very, very, very well in cooking. Because they have the time. They can plan. So they make really, really nice food.
You’ve spoken a little bit about the agency of an individual within a food group and then also you touched on what it may be like to not have that power taken away to be in a prison where you can't self cater. I just wondered about maybe zooming out to other structures within the prison to look at maybe the power of staff and wardens within the food system and how they fit into an eating regime within both those prisons that you mentioned?
Being able to do your own cooking is so appreciated by prisoners. So, they are so afraid of this be taken away. And they know if they go to this segregated unit, maybe in solitary confinement, they will not be able to do the self catering and they will have this canteen food. So some prisoners see this as a threat, that if you don't behave well, you will come to this segregated unit and you will not no longer be able to do your cooking. So this withdraw of this self catering principle is a very serious threat to many incarcerated people.
In 2018, a prisoner he injured a prison officer very badly because he put a tuna can in a sock and then he beat the prison officer very bad. And after that all tuna cans in the prison system in total were banned. And it was a huge problem because tuna in a can is very appreciated by many prisoners that really eat a lot of tuna. So many of them, they were so frustrated of not having the possibility for buying tuna can anymore and the saw this ban as a collectively punishment and taking away privileges. So, in that way this food self catering system is also - it can be a mean of reward punishment in a reward-punishment system.
So to shift a little bit you've written in the past on the effects of hygge is it, in Danish cultural phenomenon incarcerated women in in Denmark? Could you first describe what that is - hygge- and talk about the relationship between food and prisons?
Of course, all concepts and also cultural dimension from the surrounding society are imported into the prison. And also the Danish concept of hygge, and hygge is both a noun and an adjective. And hygge can be understand as a restorative practice that provides shelter from the stressors of public life by encouraging people to focus on an interior experience of warmth, and calm. And the term hygge embodies a synergy of belonging, togetherness, warmth, safety, comfort, shelter, intimacy, connection, and well being. And all these words, it's not when you think about it, it's not something that you relate to a prison world imprisonment.
Linda and her co-author Amy Smoyer wrote a paper about Hygge: Food and the construction of safety among incarcerated women in Denmark, which found that food helped create a sense of hygge and had a positive impact.
You have to find hygge also inside a prison because hygge gives comfort and shelter. And hygge exists in moments. And food and drink are often in the center of experiences of hygge. Food delivers comfort, relaxation, and this feeling of hygge, when we eat something together. And then you have this very nice feeling in your body. And this feeling is hygge.
And many prisoners they constantly seek to create hygge or to create a hygge lead space where they feel safe. You can create a hyggeliggt space with blankets like this and warm blankets that you can wrap the blanket around you. Maybe candlelight is also a way to create a hyggeligtt space.
Food in a prison is also a way to construct hygge and togetherness and these food groups. When people do it to mingle so socialize, it's also to create a space of hygge. And then all the stresses from being imprisoned and all the insecure thing that can happen in a prison. Of course it will not disappear in total but it will be forced to be in the background, if you can understand me. So yeah, it's important.
Thank you for accepting my terrible pronunciation.
Think there's, yeah, there's hygge. And there's also the Nordic welfare model as a whole, which are two concepts that have permeated throughout the Western world and through media and television. And I wondered, how food and dining in Danish prisons relate to the Nordic welfare model, as a whole. And maybe if you could touch on, whether you think that may be mischaracterized at all, I think your description of food in prison seems quite different to what a lot of people might initially think of as a dining experience for an incarcerated person.
And it's a little hard question to answer because the Nordic welfare model is very much about the state who will take care of you if you are vulnerable and if you are sick. And we have all these institution from from baby to grave, that the state will take care of you. But the state also expects you to take some responsibility, self-responsibility. You also have to do something by yourself. So this principle to buy and prepare your own food in in prisons is called a self-administration. And it means that the prisoner is paid a daily amount for food, and is responsible for buying food in the grocery store. Or maybe order it online in a secure space, of course. And they are also responsible for preparing the food. And in some way, inmates in Danish prisons are also responsible for their own personal hygiene and for washing their own clothes. They wear their own clothes. In Denmark, they're not they don't wear a prisoner uniform, but their private clothes.
And this self administration is an aspect of normalization, which involves bringing a prison life as close as possible to normal life outside life to counteract the negative effects of imprisonment. So both self administration and normalization provides autonomy and occupies prisoners in a way that support prisoner rehabilitation. And that way that the prisoner is being able to manage on their own when they are released. And this to be able to manage on their own will help from the welfare system is a central feature within the Nordic welfare model.
I've been listening into this conversation and I'm really struck that this rehabilitative model is not something that is highly relatable. I come from the US and I think of the context there and it's a much more punitive system. And I wonder if it's always been this way in Denmark, this type of model or if there's been some reforms or - just if you could share a little bit about the evolution of the past to the present system.
Yeah, though there were reform in the late 60s. A very slow reform. The Danish prison system had a very, very progressive director. And he was very keen about the principle of normalization, meaning that life behind bars, as much as possible, have to reflect conditions in the surrounding society. And during the 70s this principle of normalization was gradually implemented in Danish prisons.
And in 1976 the first model of self catering was implemented in a closed prison for youngsters - juvenile offenders from 15 - 23 years old. And the prison when it was built, it was built with shared kitchens, and spaces where prisoners could be able to cook. And in the prison, there were this space for a grocery store. So from the very beginning, the architecture was founded in this principle of self catering, and then gradually it spread to all prisons in Denmark. Slowly some prisons began to build kitchens, and to have this additional space for a prison grocery store. And in the, I think it was around 1983-1984 ish. It was the normal thing in all prisons, that prisoners did their own cooking.
And now, when we build prisons in Denmark, we are facing a prison overcrowding and understaffing and this combination is very, very bad. And it's because we have had politicians for ages that has been very tough on crime and it has been very difficult to be paroled and all these kinds of things has resulted in a prison system that is at a catastrophic I will say direction. Is very bad.
I looked this up the rate of recidivism among those incarcerated in Denmark and in the US. In Denmark people are half or one-quarter less likely to commit another crime compared to the US in the five years after their release. These statistics vary a bit depending on the nature of the crime.
What might be the key insights for making this model work in other countries? Do you think that preconditions that make it possible in Denmark that might prevent something like that working in other parts of the world?
I don't see any problem. Why not allow prisoners to cook and prepare their own meals? I think it’s such a good model. Yeah. It support autonomy and also support prisoner rehabilitation. The prison system, of course, must embrace self administration and normalization as central aspects of prisoner rehabilitation, and for retaining prisoners’ civil rights. And practical, maybe it sounds a little odd, but that prison architecture must be conceived in such a way that there must be access to fully equipped prisons. So to implement this system, you need to have a proper kitchen, where people can do the cooking. And the last thing, and it's both theoretical and practical. The prison system must trust inmates and give them more autonomy than is the case in many countries, like the US.
For example, yeah. But it's about trust - because you lose some power because you transfer the power back to prisoners, but it's the power to decide what to eat.
I think there's a part of the population in the United States that thinks why should we trust incarcerated persons?
Because they will become your neighbor.
I think that’s a good quick answer. Just to kind of parrot some of the things that they might say is why trust violent offenders, why give them access to knives when they've committed such a crime? And why create conditions where life might be perceived as better on the inside rather than on the outside? What do you say to those?
I say to those that the people who go to prison, they are deprived their liberty, and that's it. And the loss of liberty, the loss of freedom, it is the punishment. It’s so hard. And we don't have to put a lot more in it. Because not having your liberty is, it's pain enough.
And you have to consider that I know, in the US. Life is life. So they will never, never, never, never be able to get out again. But most of them, they will come back to society, and they will become your neighbor. So in that way, it's so important to prepare people behind bars to the way into society again, and so help and support them becoming law abiding citizens. And one way is that we have trust. That of course, they are able to cook, to buy and cook their own food.
And it's also about self respect, self esteem, if we treat incarcerated people very, very badly, they will be so frustrated. And of course they will. So when they are released. They are taking bumps in our society. So this helping reintegration and supporting and trust and recognition.
Maybe they could do some cooking when they are released. I think that it would be a win-win. If they learn to cook behind bars and when they are released. They will be the next chef when you enter a restaurant together with some friends. Maybe it's a former incarcerated individual who will prepare the food. It would be wonderful.
Linda, we've talked about quite a lot. Is there any points that you think we might have left out?
I’ve been talking with people from different parts of the world about this prison food topic, also from the UK, from the US. And I know also some prison systems they are very interested in implementing this model. But why don't you do it? Why do we wait? Just go for it.
I like that very direct call.
What are we waiting for?
Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Linda.,
And thank you for your interest in this topic.
That wraps another episode of Feed. A little bit of a departure from what we usually do. What did you think? Would you like to hear more episodes like this with multiple interviews? You can let us know how we’re doing by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen. And you can also write us at email@example.com
A big thank you to the guests for this episode Linda Kjaer Minke and Lucy Vincent of Food Behind Bars. We’ll link to the Food Behind Bars podcast and other resources on our website.
And thanks to Theo Heaton-Davies for his initiative and skill in setting up this episode.
This episode was edited by Ingrid Reiser of Azote with input by me, Matthew Kessler and the broader Table team. Music by Blue dot sessions.
We have one last episode coming up in a few weeks before taking a break to produce our next season. Talk to you soon.