When I first started researching food in UK prisons, I had no idea what to expect. A far cry from Dickensian porridge and stale bread, it turns out prison food is more akin to school dinners before Jamie Oliver brought about change 11 years ago. Think excess carbohydrates and a severe lack of fresh fruit and veg.
But what I wasn't prepared to discover was the significant impact low quality food is having on the inmates of our country's prisons. At a time of national chaos in Britain's prison system, we are feeding some of society's most vulnerable and mentally unstable individuals food that is having a much more severe impact on their well-being than we might realise.
A recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons has revealed significant failings in prison food across the board and record-low approval rates - only 29% of prison survey respondents described the food they received as "good" or "very good". Food being served below temperature, lack of communal dining due to staff shortages and low nutritional quality all crop up continuously. It's even causing riots - last year an inmate at HMP Northumberland staged a protest on a high railing after being served a cold meal.
"I put on about five stone in prison" says 30 year old Sophie, an ex-prisoner I spoke to recently about the subject, "During my last year when I was on home leave, I remember leaving and the first thing I did was pop into Morrisons and buy a shitload of salad and chicken breast. I made up a little salad on the train back and ate it straight away. Even now I still love salad because I just didn't have it in prison."
Sophie told me countless stories about food inside - from fellow inmates changing religion to gain access to better meals to daily use of laxatives due to a complete inability to pass the food.
"A few times we had dish cloths served up in the food from where something had spilt in the kitchen and they'd just been told to scoop it up and chuck it back in the tray" she said.
Last week, I launched a campaign for better food in UK prisons. My aim is to highlight a previously under-publicised subject at a time where prisons are functioning less effectively than ever. A decade ago, the country saw the effects better nutrition, less additives and more fresh food had on school children. Pupils behaved better, were happier, got along with one another - and as a result their education improved.
Why can't we do the same inside prisons? Deaths and suicides inside are at a 10 year high and assaults on staff have increased 146% in the 12 months to June this year. Of course, the presence of drugs, overcrowding and the results of government funding cuts to prison in the last few years play a major role in this disorder - but we can't rule out prisoner's diets as a contributing factor.
Since leaving prison, Sophie watches what she eats - avoiding processed foods and too much sugar and salt. "You know when you have a weekend off and eat pizzas, beer and stuff - you feel crap" she told me, "Imagine feeling that way for three years - and it being completely out of your control."
Decent nutrition has the power to positively impact everything from self-esteem to health, learning and development. When we are dealing with individuals who are likely to have struggled with these issues more than most, I believe this becomes a matter of much greater importance.Suggest a correction