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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 April 2006, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
The modern prisoners' diet
By Duncan Walker
BBC News website

An average 1.87 a day is spent on prisoners' food
Prison food was once synonymous with porridge, but it's a dish few jails still serve. A visit to Chelmsford Prison - where the film Porridge was made - shows that inmates' meals have undergone many changes.

It's lucky for John, a prisoner at HMP Chelmsford, that enthusiasm can sometimes make up for a lack of experience.

He's never made an omelette before, but it's the evening's most popular supper choice and he's helping to prepare 250.

Other dishes on offer include beef or vegetable goulash, salt beef pattie, a salad, and vegetable pie.

With special diets, healthy options and greater variety, prison food, it seems, has come a long way since the days of Ronnie Barker's character Norman Stanley Fletcher.

Special diets

Guided by one of three civilians working in Chelmsford Prison's large, industrial-sized kitchen, John is happy to see his omelettes turn out well.

Sandwiches being handed out
Chopped pork and pickle anyone?

This, he suggests, could join salt fish as one of his specialities.

Setting John and 17 other prisoners to work in the kitchen makes good sense for the jail - and not just because it will give them some skills for release.

The prison's 570 inhabitants must be fed on 1.68 a day each, including a breakfast pack (cereal, bread, jam and UHT milk), lunch, an evening meal and perhaps a snack later on. Once a week they get a ration of tea or coffee.

Meeting the tight budget means that all meals are "very carefully planned".

Ronnie Barker in Porridge
What would Norman Stanley Fletcher have made of a breakfast pack?

Discounts for bulk buying are negotiated and recipes weighed up. Steak and chips is not likely to be served any time soon.

There are other constraints.

"As far as possible the meat is halal," says catering manager Neale Johnson. "If it's a special diet like kosher, we have to get that in."

A vegetarian meal must be available and healthy options are drawn up with the help of the healthcare unit and physical education department.

Processed foods are avoided as much as possible.

'Healthy eating'

Despite such efforts, it has not been an easy few weeks for prison food.

Adult prison: 1.87 per day
Young Offenders' Institute: 3.81 per day
Hospitals: 2.50 per day
Ministry of Defence: 2.20 per day
Secondary schools: 56p to 64p for one meal
Primary schools: 40p to 60p for one meal

Muslim inmates were mistakenly fed ham at one prison, while radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza led a protest among high security prisoners about the quality of food at Belmarsh Prison.

More significantly, the National Audit Office suggested that less than the current 94m a year could be spent on feeding prisoners.

It was a point previously raised during Jamie Oliver's campaign for better children's food, when it emerged jails spend more than many schools.

The NAO also said the food could be healthier, with average salt levels 93% higher than recommended and too much reliance on ready made foods like pies and burgers.

Hot and cold

Prison food has improved in recent years though, says Paul, another prisoner at Chelmsford.

Prison servery
Prisoners collect food from a servery and then eat in their cells

Serving a previous prison sentence eight years ago, he remembers there being little choice and that the "hot" dishes frequently arrived cold.

Although similarities with "school dinners" remain, things are better now, particularly since the introduction of a new three-week menu, with different choices every day.

"It's a reasonable standard - I would not say it's quality food in here, but I would not expect it," he says.

At lunch Paul, a regular at the prison gym, went for the healthy option of a pasta salad.

The alternatives were sandwiches of tuna and sweet corn, chopped pork and pickle, or canned beef and pickle in a bap. There were biscuits and crisps for those who wanted them.

Communal dining?

With no communal dining area, all meals are eaten on the wings - often in cells with other prisoners.

The kitchens cater for hundreds of inmates

Many were not heavily into salads before their sentence, and are difficult to steer away from the unhealthy options that fall foul of targets.

What they eat is one of the few things the prisoners have any control over, and they make the most of it.

So when doner kebabs recently appeared among the seven menu choices, they accounted for 320 out of 570 meals.

Pressing matters

Back in the kitchen, Neale Johnson is already thinking about the next day's meal.

Menus will be sent out tonight and returned in the morning with the prisoner's choices - all to be made that day.

Omelette-maker John has even more pressing matters on his mind. He will soon be returning to his wing - and the other prisoners' verdicts on his latest culinary efforts.

"I always go back on to my wing and say 'did you try such and such?' If they say yes, and they liked it, I say: 'Yes, that was mine', if they don't, I just blame it on someone else."

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