Lucy Vincent is campaigning for a cause that has few champions: better food for prisoners.
With prison officer numbers down and disorder behind bars on the rise, the London Fields resident believes improved nutrition inside jails could help rehabilitate those serving time.
The crisis in prisons was exemplified by the murder in October of an inmate inside HMP Pentonville and the escape the following month of two prisoners from the crumbling Victorian institution that is known among lags as the “dustbin”.
One of the fugitives, James Whitlock, was eventually found in Homerton, and his co-escapee Matthew Baker was arrested at an address in Ilford.
Vincent, a freelance journalist, says a report by the prisons inspectorate sparked her interest in the subject of prisoners’ food, and she compares her mission to Jamie Oliver’s school dinners crusade.
The report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) showed meals fed to prisoners in the UK are “having a much bigger effect than we might think”, Vincent says.
“This report kind of linked the way prisons are functioning at the moment – or not functioning – to behaviour in prisons and severe mental health problems. It was implying that food and drink were having an effect on this,” she adds.
Heavily processed, carb-heavy stodge is apparently the norm. This, combined with a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and opportunities to get enough exercise, heightens frustrations behind bars.
A protest by prisoners unhappy about being served cold food at HMP Northumberland almost tipped into a riot last year.
High levels of salt, and complaints by some pregnant women prisoners that their health and that of their foetuses was potentially put at risk by low quality prison food, are concerning too, says Vincent.
Some prisoners she has spoken to report that fellow inmates have changed their religion because halal or kosher food is regarded as superior in quality to grub normally served up by prison kitchens.
She adds: “HMIP’s report even mentioned that in some cases the lack of staff meant prisoners could not dine communally, so people were sat in their cells, on their toilet, eating their dinner.”
Vincent acknowledges many people might lack sympathy for convicts.
“For food per head, per day in prisons, the amount of public money spent is £2,” she says. “I think you could do a lot with that. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m not at this stage asking for more money. I think, budgetwise, you can eat well for that.”
While she accepts the issue she is campaigning on is “divisive”, high rates of recidivism indicate things cannot go on as they are, she says.
“I spoke to an ex-prisoner last night who put it quite well,” says Vincent. “She said: ‘You’re sent to prison to have your freedom taken away, not your food.’
“I think what I’m trying to say is that reoffending rates are incredibly high, people are coming out of prison in a worse state than they went in because of the way prisons are functioning.
“They’re like human warehouses at the moment, and I guess what I’m saying is there’s this small thing that could benefit prisoners’ health and wellbeing so that actually there’s a chance they might come out the other side a better person and not offend again.
“Also, I guess what I have to clarify is I’m not really campaigning to do anything hugely radical.
“Actually some of the food they are served – stews, curries and things like that – are great; I just don’t think they’re made with the right ingredients, in the right way, or are particularly healthy. So it’s really about making a few small changes. I’m not suggesting we serve them Michelin-starred food.”
For more about the campaign visit www.feedprisonersbetter.co.uk