Prison food

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Prisoners lining up for food in the prison of Malang, Java, some time between 1921 and 1932

Prison food refers to the meals served to prisoners while incarcerated in correctional institutions. While some prisons prepare their own food, many use staff from on-site catering companies.

United States[edit]

Inmates' kitchen at the farm of the Federal McNeil Island Corrections Center in Puget Sound, April 6, 1938.

Typical menus are designed to be low-sugar, low-salt, and to contain a moderate amount of calories. Dietary, religious, and ethical concerns are taken into consideration.

Most prison food in the United States is prepared with the blast-chill method, which allows a large number of meals to be prepared and then reheated at mealtimes. In the US, this technique was pioneered by the New Jersey correctional system, in January 1982.[1]

Inmates may also purchase food at the prison commissary, such as chocolate bars, beef jerky, "squeeze cheese", bread, coffee, and snack cakes.

Often, private civilian contractors are responsible for all aspects of food preparation, including training, adherence to recipes, food safety, theft prevention, and portion control.

Jewish prisoners are typically issued kosher rations.[2]


Current regulations regarding prison food are more a product of prison law than food law. Although there is a certain amount of self-regulation, most oversight occurs as a result of inmate litigation. Complaints against prison food have been made on the grounds of breach of Constitutional Amendments. In particular, claims of inadequate food may breach the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, and denial of specific food requirements on religious grounds breach the First Amendment.[3]


State prisons often prefer to conduct their own inspections, however they may opt for accreditation from a nonprofit organization such as the American Correctional Association. Approximately 80% of state departments of corrections are involved with such oversight organizations.[3]

Example of meals[edit]

An example of a meal from a state prison is as follows:[4]

  • 3-4 ounces of meat
  • half a cup of vegetables
  • three-quarters of a cup of a starch
  • three-quarters of a cup of salad with dressing
  • 1 bread item
  • 1 beverage
  • 1 dessert

There is concern that food preparation practices are changing. Recently, there have been numerous documented examples of mass illness within prisons from the food served.[5] There have been hunger strikes from prisoners protesting being served food that makes them ill after eating. Whistle blowers and reporters have documented mouse droppings and various violations of standards in prison kitchens.[5] It is no longer allowed for family to bring food nor share with loved ones behind bars; rather families can transfer money for a small fee to allow inmates to purchase packaged foods such as prepared noodle packages and candy from the prison store. There is thus usually no way for inmates to ever have access to fresh food. Aramark, who has provided the meals to many prisons in the USA since 2004, has been sharply criticized for lowering standards and not providing sufficient quantities of edible food.[5]

United Kingdom[edit]


In jails in the late 1830s prisoners were given a spoon, a 2-pint zinc dish for broth, and a 3-gill zinc bowl for milk. During winter, when milk was in short supply, prisoners would occasionally have to settle for treacle water.

Strict rules governed the quantity of food given to prisoners. For example, a female who was not in condition for work would receive around one and a half pints of broth and six ounces of bread. A male prisoner who was in condition for work would get two pints of broth and twelve ounces of bread.

Breakfast, served at 7:30 am would comprise 5 ounces of oatmeal porridge with 3/4 of a pint of milk. Lunch, served at 1:00 pm consisted of soup and bread. Each pint of soup was required to contain one ounce of ox head or marrow bones, 1 1/2 ounces of barley, 1/2 ounces of green peas, 1 1/2 ounces of leeks, and various other vegetables. Supper was served at 6:00 pm, and consisted of 5 ounces of oatmeal porridge and 1/2 of a pint of milk.[6]

Up until about 2004, prison meals were prepared by prisoners under supervision of prison employees. The move towards privatization of meal preparation and rationing resulted in numerous changes from historical practices.[5]


The average daily allowance per prisoner is £1.87, and can be as low as £1.20. In some cases, particularly in juvenile institutions, allowances can be as high as £3.41 per day.

The total expenditure by HM Prison Service in 2004-2005 was £94 million, £43 million of which was spent on food, and £32 million on catering staff. Some prisoners work in the kitchens, supervised by catering staff, and this is a popular prison job as it involves working at weekends and therefore attracts higher pay.

Meals are generally not made from seasonal produce, but instead use convenience foods such as canned goods, frozen vegetables, hamburgers and pies.[7]

Examples of meals[edit]

Examples of menus in a London prison are as follows:[8]



  • Vegetable supreme
  • Chicken supreme
  • Halal chicken curry
  • Grilled gammon
  • Pork pie salad

List of prison foods[edit]

See also[edit]