Erwin James: Let them eat porridge

Erwin James: 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. "Porridge," he says, "is nutritious and provides a steady release of energy throughout the day."

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.


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Erwin James on the Archer diaries
Jeffrey Archer said his diaries would expose the truth about conditions inside Britain's jails. So do they? Guardian prison columnist Erwin James sifts through the evidence.

Erwin James

09, Oct, 2002 @12:52 AM

Prison porridge gives way to 27p 'breakfast pack'
· 'Frugal' breakfast menu fails to impress inmates
· Convenience is ruling jail meal regimes, say auditors

Alan Travis, home affairs editor

09, Mar, 2006 @12:17 AM

Marcel Berlins: Telling us too much about suspects may result in more of them being set free.
Marcel Berlins: One would have thought that the police and the media would have been particularly careful to make sure that they did not divulge information or opinions that might be prejudicial to subsequent trials.

Marcel Berlins

05, Sep, 2006 @11:14 PM

Article image
Porridge no longer on the menu for those doing porridge
The association between doing time and the classic oaty breakfast goes back centuries. But it’s a partnership that may have served its time

Martin Belam

01, May, 2018 @2:33 PM

An anonymous juror offers his unique insight into a rape trial

Less than six per cent of all rapes reported to the police result in a conviction, and juries are often blamed for letting rapists walk free. So what's it like to sit on a jury at a rape trial? An anonymous juror offers his unique insight.

11, Apr, 2007 @11:06 PM

Article image
Erwin James on the treatment of elderly prisoners in British jails

Elderly prisoners - people like Ronnie Biggs - are the fastest growing age group in British jails. Often frail and ill, their treatment is inadequate and inhumane, says Erwin James

Erwin James

05, Jul, 2009 @11:01 PM

Carol Sarler: Making men responsible for sex implies women are incompetent
Carol Sarler: The anti-rape ads reinforces misplaced notions of women as less capable, less competent and of lesser ranking in the decisions within the partnership.

Carol Sarler

16, Mar, 2006 @12:02 AM

Former prisoner Eric Allison remembers life inside
It is 15 years since Lord Woolf's report on the riots at Strangeways led to wholesale reform of the prison service. Former prisoner Eric Allison remembers life inside a filthy, overcrowded 'screws' nick' where brutality was commonplace.

Eric Allison

20, Feb, 2006 @10:30 AM

G2 special: 42 people talk about one day last week in prison
The prison system is in crisis. Our jails are bursting with convicts and crumbling with age. At least, that's what the headlines tell us. But what is daily life like for the 80,000 people locked up - and for the 25,000-plus who work with them? For this G2 special we talked to 42 people about one day last week - from Category A prisoners whose escape would endanger the public to Category Ds trusted with their own keys; from a money-launderer jailed with her baby to a teenager who caused death by dangerous driving; from the head of the prison service to a father whose son died in custody

12, Mar, 2007 @2:14 PM

Kirsty Scott: Scotland's new approach to female offenders
How can the courts cope with the massive explosion in the female prison population? By using Indian head massage and yoga? Kirsty Scott on Scotland's revolutionary - and successful - new approach.

Kirsty Scott

19, Feb, 2004 @9:06 AM