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The power of food

Last month, we published "Thematic review: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff". One of the recommendations for building trust put forward by prisoners and staff was making and sharing food together. In this blog, lead inspector Hindpal Singh Bhui shares his experience of visiting a prison to see how this can work in practice.

…culturally food to black people is a really big deal. Like your family [are] always trying to feed you… look after you, it’s a way of welcoming each other… As a community, sharing, looking after each other, is done through food…

Black prisoner

How great would it be if… on a houseblock you’ve got a group of prisoners… different cultures… staff and the prisoners sit down together and eat. It just breaks down barriers, doesn’t it?

Senior manager

I visited HMP Swinfen Hall last week, a men’s prison in Staffordshire holding mainly young adults, about a quarter of whom are black. Over the course of an afternoon, I saw the work of ‘Food Behind Bars’ (FBB), a small charity which helps prisons to develop more varied menus and teaches prisoners about cooking and nutrition. Under the supervision of FBB’s professional chef, prisoners employed in the staff bistro produced inventive food for the lunchtime service and then spent the afternoon experimenting with a new dish. They made the pastry and filling for gyoza parcels while the FBB chef threw out a few facts to engage everyone in a general conversation about health and nutrition. The atmosphere was purposeful but relaxed, as prisoners made connections with each other and with the staff who popped in every so often to pick up a drink.

One prisoner said that he understood the joy of making his own food for the first time, having survived on takeaways when he was outside, and he was looking forward to cooking for his family and friends on release. Another man seemed hyperactive and unsettled, but became a picture of relaxed concentration when carrying out tasks given to him by the chef. Others said how much they enjoyed simultaneously improving their cooking skills and their knowledge about the world, as they prepared Brazilian, Iranian and American dishes during the World Cup, and Ukrainian dishes for a fundraising event attended by staff and prisoners.

All of this is a reminder of how critical a role food can play in encouraging social interaction and promoting a sense of well-being. For many prisoners, mealtimes may be the social and sensory highlight of the day, and one of the few times that some, especially the unemployed, come out of their cell. The choice of food that we cook and eat can also express and reinforce cultural identity, as the first quote above makes clear.

During the fieldwork for our research, many black prisoners and staff were enthusiastic about food-related activity to help build relationships and trust. As well as simply having better food, black prisoners appreciated the opportunity to cook, eat and share food that had meaning for them and reflected something of their cultural histories. Having a chance to prepare such dishes was also a way to give prisoners agency and responsibility in a system that too often removes both. Institutional culture is a notoriously hard concept to pin down, but if we view it in simple terms as how things are done in the prison and the way that people feel about the place, then it seems reasonable to expect that a small change in the way that people experience something as important as food may have an impact on the rest of their prison experience. What I saw at Swinfen Hall is exactly the kind of activity that prisons should be thinking about if they want to work towards the elusive idea of a rehabilitative culture.

What of the more ambitious objective discussed in the report of getting prisoners cooking for each other and staff joining them to eat on the wings? The work being done at Swinfen Hall still affected only the small number of prisoners and staff in the bistro and there was a long way to go, but progress was being made. The governor had recently put cooking equipment, including a small hob and grills, into a room on the enhanced wing, and had bought the equipment to put on another wing. The new enhanced wing kitchen was, by all accounts, already very popular, and there was enough seating on the landing outside for a good number of people to sit and eat together. But while prisoners were happy to have the facility, they were still using it mainly to make improvements to their prison food. They did not yet have easy access to a wider range of produce and other ingredients from the canteen. The wing was also noisy, busy and a long way from the calming environment I experienced in the bistro.

Prisons are challenging social spaces where vigilance and mistrust are hard to overcome. Some staff told me that they would be happy to sit and talk with prisoners over food but currently had no time and thought their colleagues might be reluctant whether they had time or not. Some prisoners I spoke to were also ambivalent because they might feel inhibited and watched. But, as we found during the research, most people were open to the idea, and overcoming barriers to communication is exactly the point of these proposals.

Senior staff will have to set an example, especially custodial managers who have a vital frontline leadership role. At Swinfen Hall, the governor and FBB also discussed how progress could be made, for example, through the FBB chef spending time with prisoners on the wings to provide some oversight and support, bringing extra ingredients as needed, which she was already doing in the bistro. The limitations of the physical environment and the lack of staff were much more difficult problems to solve.

I wondered if an external organisation like FBB in the establishment might create resentment among prison employees, but I was reassured by the catering and education managers who valued the new ideas that a professional chef with experience of multiple national cuisines had brought to the prison, as well as the fact that she had more time to spend with prisoners.

A final point: such activity has to be as well as, not instead of, formal race equality structures and disciplinary procedures. It is one way to build better relationships and take a step towards the principle of ‘normalisation’, which is often more associated with Scandinavian prisons, and benefits all prisoners regardless of background. If any other prisons are implementing such initiatives, we would be pleased to hear about them.

Read the report: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff