Prison

Prison

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

How to… Cook in a Prison Cell

Although a small number of prisons – mainly in the high security estate – do allow prisoners access to kitchen facilities on wings or units, the vast majority of our 84,800 inmates get nothing more than a travel kettle and plastic cutlery with which to create culinary delights in their cells. Various ex-cons have written on the subject of ‘cooking in a kettle’, however I thought a few personal reflections might be of interest to blog readers.

Typical in-cell kettle
Broadly speaking, there are three sources of cooking materials available in prisons: canteen purchases (almost all processed foods); meals from the servery and ingredients pinched from the kitchens or the staff mess. Since only a select handful of cons have access to the main kitchens or the staff facilities, most less privileged prisoners have to be inventive if they are going to cook something up in their pads (cells).

It’s also worth remembering that those prisoners who can actually afford to buy extra food from the weekly canteen sheet are the lucky ones. In our most of our overcrowded establishments there is a shortage of jobs or places on education courses, so large numbers of cons don’t actually get the chance to earn money to spend on canteen goodies. For those who have financial support from family or friends (or income from personal sources or a private pension), then the canteen can be their oyster… so to speak, but most inmates aren’t in that fortunate position.

I once knew two ex-soldiers who shared a pad in a Cat-B local. They were resourceful and had plenty of active service experience to rely on when it came to catering in the field. The canteen sheet at that prison included packet jelly, Bird’s Angel Delight, tinned cream, tinned fruit and digestive biscuits. From these ingredients, the two lads could create the most amazing ‘cell cakes’ which they would have ready for their tea at weekends (when the evening meals were dire - usually a stale sandwich and a small bag of crisps).

Essential ingredient for cons
Another con could use biscuits, chocolate bars, Angel Delight (chocolate flavour) and dried fruit to manufacture a very dense type of chocolate cheesecake. It was a sometimes bit too rich for my taste, but it was very popular among our friends, especially for birthdays.

My own speciality was nicknamed the ‘Kempinski pudding’ (after the famous chain of luxury hotels). First you boil full fat milk and pour it onto plain porridge oats. Next you mix in raisins and mixed nuts. Finally you top it off with golden syrup. All of these ingredients were available on the canteen sheet. It might sound like a breakfast treat, but my Polish pad-mate and I used to eat it in the evenings when the hunger pangs really started to kick in. It gave us a very welcome hit of carbs.

The evening meal in most prisons is served very early – often around 5pm. This means that – like most adults who eat so too early – we really started to feel hungry at around 8 pm. When you’re locked in a tiny concrete box, you can’t just pop down the road or order in a pizza, so we had to make do with what we could afford to buy. Luckily, I was never really without a prison job, usually as an Insider (peer mentor), as well as often working in education departments helping other cons with literacy or numeracy. Also, most of my pad-mates had some kind of income, so although money was never abundant we could usually afford to stock up on basics to keep us going.

Half for you... half for me!
However, as you get closer to the weekly canteen day, the locker shelves start to empty and belts get tightened. I well remember a dismal winter evening when my pad-mate and I had only one 33p packet of instant noodles between us. We literally had nothing else other than teabags and sugar left. So, like the good prison ‘bruvs’ we had become, we carefully split the packet between us. To be honest, I reckon any decent con would have done the same with his pad-mate.

Every prison’s canteen sheet is slightly different. Some items that you get used to purchasing in one jail won’t be available at your next prison. One nick will allow cons to buy butter and cheese, another nick won’t, citing food storage concerns in cell where there is no refrigeration other than the windowsill by an open window.

Quick snack... but pricey
Shortly before I was released, my last prison added Cup a Pasta (a bit like Cup a Soup, but with dried pasta in a packet) to the menu. When the boiling water had been added, you just waited for a few minutes and then you could add tinned tuna to make a high protein snack. This quickly became a favourite with lads who used the gym.

Prisoners can become adept at surviving on whatever food is available. Some become quite creative. If fresh eggs are available on the canteen sheet (or can be ‘procured’ from the kitchens or the staff mess) then various egg dishes can be created, including scrabbled and boiled varieties. 

The small travel kettles provided in each cell can be used as a cooker in different ways. We used to save an empty metal golden syrup tin and fit this into the top of the kettle. The boiling water beneath heated up the can and enabled us to be a bit more inventive when it came to heating food up, including boiling milk or making decent porridge – rather than the dreadful institutional variety made with hot water and milk powder.

Some of our ducks are missing
Of course, like all prisoners we heard rumours of other cons catching wild pigeons on the yard or through windows using lures, but to be honest the only inmates I was ever aware of that had done this were some Vietnamese lads who managed to catch a couple of wild ducks while working in the prison gardens. They then snapped their necks and quickly shoved the dead birds through the open window of a ground floor cell. I later heard that they’d boiled the meat with sugar in their kettles to make some kind of duck dish eaten with rice saved from a regular prison meal.  

Apart from this instance, I suspect that tales of cons cooking rats or other small creatures are basically urban legends, although of course I may be wrong. Awful though it is to relate, I have seen hungry prisoners rummaging through wing rubbish bins in search of edible food or else hanging around by the bins at mealtimes and begging scraps from fellow inmates who were about to throw the remnants of their own meals away.

Bins: real desperation
Hunger in prisons tends to affect younger lads – some of whom are still growing teenagers – much more. If they are active and go to the gym, then they can get pretty desperate due to the ‘one size fits all’ system of portion control at prison serveries.

Like quite a few older prisoners we learned fast to take anything and everything that was offered at mealtimes. Even if we didn’t want it, there would be a penniless, hungry lad somewhere on the wing who would be very grateful for our surplus food. 

Just one of the problems of long hours of cellular confinement is boredom and this can encourage snacking – usually of junk food which is always available to buy on the canteen sheets, such as crisps or chocolate. Where fresh fruit or vegetables were available from the canteen, they tended to be very expensive, so the system also seems to discourage healthy eating.

Worth cooking up for any prisoner
I do recall that one Cat-B prison started offering short courses in basic cooking. At first no-one was really interested, but then word went round that the lessons included making a roast chicken dinner and a full cooked breakfast with all the required ingredients provided. The payoff for a successful session was that instead of the usual prison lunch on that day, students got to eat what they had prepared in the class.

Once the first few cons returned looking very satisfied after polishing off their large plates of bacon, eggs, sausage and fried bread, or roast chicken with all the trimmings, there was a very predictable scramble to volunteer for cooking lessons across the whole nick. On our wing alone, over 100 lads signed up for the next course! Much better than anything we could have rustled up in our little travel kettles.

26 comments:

  1. Women's prisons generally don't give you kettles (Holloway was the only one who did) basically because they became a safety hazard with people cooking things in them they were never designed to accommodate so we had flasks and hot water taps on each landing. Unfortunately we never got to practice the delights detailed above. On the enhanced landing at Dopwnview we did have access to microwaves though this became an issue when a) people failed to clean up after themselves and b) instead of reheating food people who weren't used to microwaves tried to use them as ovens and would set the timer for 30 minutes (or more) which resulted in more than a few power outages when the microwave contents blew up from being nuked for so long.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your contribution. The ban on in-cell kettles in prisons for women is something I really didn't know about. We had them in all the prisons I was at except for the Cat-D where we still had wing boilers in the washroom. However, we also had keys to our rooms and 24-hour access, as well as being permitted to have 1 litre hot water flasks. The only time I didn't have a kettle in a closed nick was when I was down the Block and then we had plastic flasks.

      I never had any access to a toaster or a microwave oven, although I can imagine the likely outcome if we had! The washroom sinks were usually an absolute disgrace...

      Delete
  2. All prisoners (unless fresh in or on basic for refusing to follow the basic rules) will have a certain amount of 'spends', although most spend it on burn rather than food or fruit (for hooch production).

    On average out of 90 cells I think 2 or 3 per day/night lose electricity because kettle cooking has blown up the kettle; this then leads to cell bells being pushed because the telly is dead, just another example of how not to use an 'emergency' button.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your contribution. All very true about kettles and electricity, of course! I'm not sure how much you can really buy for the £2 'bang-up' pay if you can't get work or on an education course. I don't recall if that will even buy any burn these days, being a non-smoker myself!

      I could write a whole post about the cell bells... perhaps I'll put it on my list for the future.

      Delete
  3. hey,

    was just reading this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/19/torturers-oppressors-executioners-buy-british-saudi-arabia-kyrgyzstan

    "Last year, the Ministry of Justice, under Chris Grayling, established a trading body to sell the expertise and intellectual assets of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) to overseas clients. One of its first initiatives was to bid for a £5.9m contract that would help improve the efficiency of the Saudi prison service. In September, Grayling visited the kingdom in person to sign a memorandum of understanding to enshrine cooperation between the two countries in the operation of their judicial systems.

    Saudi Arabia is not the only potential beneficiary of Grayling’s entrepreneurial spirit. Just Solutions International is also negotiating a contract with Oman. This absolute monarchy was another country that experienced protests for democratic reform during the so-called Arab spring. The regime responded by imprisoning dozens of alleged organisers. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights has said of Oman: “Torture has become the state’s knee-jerk response to political expression.”

    A couple of weeks after Grayling visited Saudi, his junior minister Lord Faulks made similar visits to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, again promoting a business relationship over justice. It would appear that our government has identified a lucrative line in selling our skills at locking people up to any country that might be more flush in fossil fuels than human rights."

    essentially grayling seems to be lending out his lack of expertise to other countries now??!!

    ~martina

    ps. loved the 'kempinski pudding'. i kinda like the idea that you came up with these things with only a kettle for help. god, prison food sounds dire. but then i guess you don't go there for the food.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comments and the link, Martina. Funnily enough, I'd spotted the Saudi reference when I read the annual report and tweeted the following on 17 January: "Nice to see Chris Grayling hanging around with the Saudi tyrants. Maybe to get some advice on flogging bloggers who annoy him??"

      Even more ironic is that fact that the British Embassy in Saudi Arabia actually flagged all this up on 11 September 2014 and the world seems to have missed it - even though there was a jolly photo of Mr Grayling signing the agreement in person with his Saudi counterpart. Horrific.

      Delete
    2. yeah i figure you know of all of this already but i figure it's worth reiterating. i don't think we understand the implications very often, and at the moment, the implications i understand just depress me.

      i don't understand why anyone would support the saudis or any regime meting out cruelty like that. but then so many things seem to be wrong. have all these people got no conscience? i don't get it? is it really just a macho world?

      Delete
    3. Thanks for your observations. I think the answer is very simple: money. Some people - usually politicians - will be prepared to abandon any sense of morality and human decency to fill their boots. And they call people in prison criminals! Ha...

      Delete
  4. Alex,

    It appears that once again Channel 4 bumped you. Apparently they concur with Grayling's position that there is no crisis in the UK prison system because they chose to report on whether women getting their kit off in a national newspaper or some dire art house film discussing artificial intelligence rather than a real human interest story of 85,000 people being locked up in appalling inhumane conditions by the UK government. Have to say I really was not impressed by this choice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm now reliably informed that the news package On the prison crisis will go out either tomorrow (Wednesday) or Thursday on the C4 News at 7pm... Or at least that's what the producer told me earlier today!

      Delete
    2. I suppose that is one way to get people to watch Channel 4 news: keep postponing stories of interest so people have to keep tuning in night after night on the offchance that it will be broadcast.

      It will be interesting to see if they actually do broadcast the piece or whether it will be consigned to the dustbin

      Delete
    3. Latest update is that the C4 News prisons feature will be broadcast on Friday 23 January (tomorrow!) during the 7.00 pm programme. Watch this space to see if there are any further developments!

      Delete
    4. And again the segment was not broadcast. Channel 4 clearly don't view people dying in inhumane conditions in this country as anything worth reporting on

      Delete
    5. Sorry, I did post an update on another post comments that I was notified yesterday that the C4 News prisons feature is now scheduled for Monday evening at 7pm (allegedly...)

      Delete
  5. Im hoping to get enhanced asap when i go in this year! 25 quid a week, should keep me fairly satisfied I think! I wonder what I can 'plug' before court? A bottle of ketchup? Lol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Best of luck with the sentence! These days Enhanced level will take at least three and a half months to attain, possibly longer if the paperwork is delayed. All new receptions go onto Entry level for 14 days, followed by Standard for a minimum of three months. In some nicks you are also required to have work or an education place to qualify for Enhanced.

      Delete
  6. Why don't Prisons offer one option at mealtimes? Monday - Lasagne, Tuesday - liver caserole, Wednesday - roast chicken, Thursday - pizza, Friday - fish n chips...Curry is another option too

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your question. The weekly menu sheet aims to cover all likely requirements including religious diets, vegetarians, low fat, no dairy etc, so there are normally five options per meal. The only variation at lunch is usually the filling in the sandwich or bread roll, although sometimes soup is offered too.

      Delete
  7. Great post, another blog idea, what you can get nicked for inside without realising you have broken a prison rule...example for me was i was promised i could move wings with my pad mate by a gov. A screw came in next day and told me i was moving, i said is 't' coming too? He said no just you. I said but the gov said we were moving together. He said are you coming or not?.i said no. He shut the door, and within ten minutes a sheet was posted under the door saying i disobeyed a direct order and had a date for my adjudication! Cheers mate! It was my 3rd day inside as a first timer!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I've heard so many similar stories and have been a 'McKenzie Friend' for plenty of cons who have been nicked for daft reasons. We won almost all these hearings, often because the screw failed to get his paperwork sorted out or because the relevant PSI rules hadn't been followed.

      It is a good subject and although I have posted on the subject of adjudications, I think readers might be interested in the way in which the internal discipline system actually functions in practice (as opposed to the way it is supposed to work!)

      Delete
  8. Alex, great article as always! i always wondered where cons cooked when they spoke about making a cake or cooking porridge, i actually thought they had little stoves in their cell!
    my next comment comes from watching too much american shows because i always thought that food was served in the food hall/canteen. i also thought that prisoners had a chance to go for breakfast, lunch and dinner where they had a choice of porridge or maybe a simple breakfast and for lunch and dinner a hot meal, not a Michelin star one but maybe like a school dinner type meal.

    when you were inside the nick, what did you crave for the most? not necessarily food but maybe somethings that we take for granted i.e. our comfy beds, showers (where you mentioned in another post that they go off every now and then and you have to restart), a restaurant meal, a steak?
    reading your blog has made me appreciate the freedom i currently have on the outside because it is the little things that get taken away but will appreciate once they are gone.

    last question, when applying for a job inside the prison do they have interviews...?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interviews??? Oh lord no. You get the job if your wing officer recommends you or in the case of some jobs a panel decides that you are worthy enough to have the job. It would make a lot of sense to make prisoners interview for the jobs as it would give them valuable interview skills and practice but apparently that is too much like hard work and far too sensible for HMPS to ever put in place.

      Open prisons such as East Sutton Park tend to have dining halls and I know HMP Send does. Everywhere else in the estate makes you eat in the open toilet that is your cell.

      I think the thing that virtually everyone imprisoned misses is the complete lack of autonomy. You are told what to wear, where to work, what time to get up and go to bed. Your every move is controlled. You are treated as if you are a stupid child incapable of making any decision for yourself apart from which selection from the 5 unappetising choices of meals being offered that day. Yet the moment you are released from prison HMPS/probation/society assumes that you are now a fully functioning adult capable of behaving responsibly at all times. A bloody stupid assumption when you consider that a lot of people in prison have poor skills in every aspect of their lives which is why they ended up in prison in the first place. Add in years of being treated as a stupid child and not allowed to make any decisions regarding their lives at all and no training or opportunity to practice being responsible and its hardly surprising that the reoffending rate is so high.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for both comments! No, although a few prisons (mainly high security) do allow access to small wing kitchens, most cons have to make do with a small travel kettle. In Cat-Ds you don't even get a kettle and have to trudge down the unit to a wall-mounted hot water boiler.

      My Cat-D did have a communal dining hall - built for around 200 cons, now serving well over 400 in four separate shifts, but that's the only prison I've been in that has one. There we did get a cooked breakfast (including porridge), but everywhere else it was just a tiny bag of cereal and a 0.33 ltr carton of semi-skimmed milk.

      In all the closed nicks we ate in our cells, often sitting on the closed WC lid as the space was much too small for two chairs. At one inner city Cat-B they did start putting fixed tables with hard seats (a bit like picnic tables) out on the ground floor so we could eat together, but screws didn't like it as they wanted us banged up in our cells quickly after lunch, so the tables vanished overnight!

      I have posted on subject of Things I Missed in Prison:
      http://prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/things-i-missed-while-i-was-in-prison.html.
      Probably the main thing was just being treated as an adult human being!

      Re: jobs and interviews. I do agree with the reply above. If your face fits (or you have a mate already working in a particular job) then it's much easier to get work. There's such a shortage of vacancies in our overcrowded jails that many prisoners plead for jobs. Of course, you can submit a written application ("general app") for a job, but there's no guarantee of getting it unless you can get a screw or a governor to pull a few strings - which happens all the time, again if the face fits!

      Proper applications with interviews would be the obvious thing to organise, especially - as the reply above points out - it would be great practice for applying for work on release. However, given the shortage of staff on most wings, I think this sensible reform isn't likely anytime soon!

      Delete
  9. I was in prison for three years ,, when i was sent to a c cat from hmp wandsworth we could order, shoulder of lamb pork chops steak snapper fish bacon whole chicken &sauseges &eggs fresh veg etc
    I used to order bacon & eggs so at bangup i would boil some eggs and bacon. In the kettle so i had ham & eggs ,, it stunk out the cell & made alot of prisoners hungry ..
    I also made summer puddings in the cell from bread & jams .
    I used to keep the clingfilm from the sandwiches given to us everyday at lunchtime and chop half frozen pork chops whith a plastic knife then add garkic onins curry powder salt n pepper & a bit of malt viniger then balontine the forcemeat in the clingfilm then the next day as im banged up until then i poach them off in the wing kitchen then enjoy a skinless chorizo sausage once ready

    ReplyDelete
  10. I was in prison for three years ,, when i was sent to a c cat from hmp wandsworth we could order, shoulder of lamb pork chops steak snapper fish bacon whole chicken &sauseges &eggs fresh veg etc
    I used to order bacon & eggs so at bangup i would boil some eggs and bacon. In the kettle so i had ham & eggs ,, it stunk out the cell & made alot of prisoners hungry ..
    I also made summer puddings in the cell from bread & jams .
    I used to keep the clingfilm from the sandwiches given to us everyday at lunchtime and chop half frozen pork chops whith a plastic knife then add garkic onins curry powder salt n pepper & a bit of malt viniger then balontine the forcemeat in the clingfilm then the next day as im banged up until then i poach them off in the wing kitchen then enjoy a skinless chorizo sausage once ready

    ReplyDelete
  11. You need to see how this kid is able to make
    over $2000 a month selling pictures he took
    with his camera!

    http://adfoc.us/37141461146959

    He lays out exactly how you can do it too!
    This page might not be up for much longer
    so you need to check it out right now.

    http://adfoc.us/37141461146959

    ReplyDelete