Sounding like a stand-up comedian at a prison officers' convention, Tory MP Richard Bacon has called on prisons in England and Wales to serve more porridge to prisoners. Yet at first glance his reasoning appears sound. "Porridge," he says, "is nutritious and provides a steady release of energy throughout the day." He points out the health benefits: "It helps lower cholesterol. It is low in fat, low in salt, and high in soluble fibre." Increasingly sounding like a marketing executive from a famous Scottish porridge oats producing company, he continues (by this point I imagine him breathless with the importance of his revelatory message), "Porridge even helps the brain to produce serotonin, which lifts the spirits and reduces the appetite." Finally, and with a flourish that I suspect would have had Ronnie Barker's alter ego Norman Stanley Fletcher, anti-hero of the television sitcom Porridge, turning in his grave and groaning, he announces, "Porridge is possibly the perfect food."
For more than a century it has been the captive's staple. (An 1867 copy of Aylesbury prison rules includes a breakfast and supper menu consisting of "One pint of oatmeal gruel". Lunch was 12oz of bread for a man and 6oz for a woman. In spite of the parsimonious nature of the Victorian prison's food regime, extras were available: on top of the daily gruel and bread, prisoners could have "1 pint soup per week, if at hard labour".) But as someone who, for a couple of decades, consumed regular helpings of porridge I have to at least partly disagree with Bacon.
The broader point he is trying clumsily to make is a valid one. Prison food should be nutritious, healthy and palatable. If we expect people in prison to expend energy in pursuit of rehabilitative activities we should not be shy about catering fully for their dietary requirements. A well-fed prisoner is more likely to be a healthier and happier prisoner, making him or her more able and inclined to use their time inside in a meaningful and constructive way.
But eating is more than just a practical means of sustaining life. The consumption of food should also be a pleasurable activity, even for those who have transgressed. By nature the palate is designed to be stimulated, tickled, teased and, whenever possible, pampered. Just because a person is in prison it doesn't mean their taste buds should be punished too.
The public accounts committee report into prisoner diet and exercise published yesterday - which Bacon was heralding - recognises this and emphasises the need to assist the well-being of prisoners by the provision of a high-quality and varied diet. Nevertheless with an average daily food budget of just £1.87 per prisoner it's a tall order for most prison cooks. With a record prison population of 78,500 and a battle between the Treasury and the Home Office to fund 8,000 extra places, it is unlikely that there will be any increase in the food allowance in the foreseeable future. Worryingly, providing more porridge may appeal to those looking at ways of making tight budgets spread further. Any such steps would be large steps backwards. Please Mr Bacon, tell us you were joking.