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How Bad Is Prison Food?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Yum yum.

Yum yum.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights dictates that prison inmates receive proper nutrition. Within the declaration, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners says that “Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”

This is a rule that seems to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Arizona Prison Diet

The United States is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but Joe Arpaio didn’t want to be bothered by mollycoddling international agreements.

Mr. Arpaio called himself "America’s toughest sheriff" and he presided over territory that covers Phoenix, Arizona. Sheriff Arpaio was old school and had nothing good to say about the possibility of rehabilitating convicts; for him prison was a place where people go to get punished for their crimes.

In the past, inmates were fed bologna that might have been a bit beyond its best before date; sometimes it was allegedly slimy and greenish. This didn’t bother Joe. Then, the inmates lost the right to complain about poor quality meat because it was taken off the menu in 2013 for a saving of $100,000 a year.

Convicts in the Maricopa County jail system were forced to be vegetarians, and the average cost of a meal had been trimmed down to 56 cents. They only got fed twice a day, and there was no salt, pepper, or ketchup to disguise unpleasant flavours.

Sheriff Arpaio was re-elected to his job many times, but went down to defeat in 2016. That was the year he was found guilty of contempt of court over the issue of racial profiling. He was later pardoned and praised by President Donald Trump.

Joe Arpaio Tries his own Prison's Food - He Doesn't Like it

But, Joe Arpaio’s guests were not alone. The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) described problems at the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Georgia: “People report that they are fed twice per day in such meager portions that they experience constant hunger, weakness, and discomfort … Numerous Gordon County Jail inmates have told SCHR that they are so hungry they eat toothpaste and toilet paper. Most reported losing a significant amount of weight.”

The bad old days of porridge three times a day are past.

The bad old days of porridge three times a day are past.

Prison Food in Europe

In Europe, prisoners fall under the supervision of nutritionists who ensure they have a healthy diet. The aim is to keep them hale and hearty while behind bars and to teach them how to eat properly when they are released.

So, here are a couple of menu options for inmates in London prisons.

Midday Meal:
Vegetarian Pasta Bake
Chicken & Mushroom Pie
Halal Jamaican Beef Patty
Corned beef & Pickle Roll
Jacket Potato & Coleslaw

Evening Meal:
Vegetable Supreme
Chicken Supreme
Halal Chicken Curry
Grilled Gammon
Pork Pie and Salad

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The U.K. prison system accommodates the dietary requirements of Muslims, Jews, vegetarians, and others.

British Comedy Series "Porridge"

Snacks in Lock-ups

Canadian police lock-ups are scrimping on meals. The Globe and Mail reported that “Police in Vancouver, Halifax, Saint John, and elsewhere have turned to pre-packaged snacks to feed inmates despite domestic law …” A typical “meal” consists of a granola bar and apple juice, described by nutritionist Christy Brissette as “shockingly inadequate.” She adds that “Giving an adult 600 to 800 calories a day is starvation.”

Not exactly the three squares a day mandated by law.

Not exactly the three squares a day mandated by law.

Of course, prisoners in lock-ups are only there for a maximum of three days and usually only for less than a day. What is it like when convicts and accused criminals graduate to the big house?

Jean-Paul Aubee is serving a life sentence for murder in a prison in British Columbia. He told The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “I shake a lot because of malnutrition.”

In fairness to the prison system, an accompanying photo of Mr. Aubee does not show a man who looks underfed. However, the prisoner adds “The food is causing people to experience diarrhea, nausea, vomiting. I have experienced this myself many times.”

The Office of the Correctional Investigator noted in 2016 that budget cuts have “led to a perceptible decline in the overall quality” of food. Correctional Services Canada counters by saying “Prisons are meant to correct criminal behaviour, not serve as a vacation home.”

The Last Suppers of Inmates

Tradition dictates that someone facing execution can request a special dish for her or his last meal.

In January 1772, Susanna Brandt sat down to enjoy a feast, known as the Hangman’s Meal, prior to her execution. The banquet attended by judges and other officials in Frankfurt included sausages, beef, baked carp, veal, cabbage, and plenty of wine. Understandably nervous about her coming demise, Ms. Brandt only managed to down a glass of water.

In U.S. prisons, the last meal of the condemned is far more ordinary and constrained by budgets from wandering too far into gourmet territory. Lapham’s Quarterly notes that “last-meal requests are dominated by the country’s mass-market comfort foods: fries, soda, fried chicken, pie. Sprinkled in this mix is a lot of what social scientists call ‘status foods’―steak, lobster, shrimp―the kinds of foods that in popular culture conjure up the image of affluence.”

Someone about to be executed might order surf and turf but will not likely get it as it will be over the budget.

Someone about to be executed might order surf and turf but will not likely get it as it will be over the budget.

Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa in March 1963 for kidnapping and murder. His last meal request was for a single olive with the pit still in it. The story goes that the pit was found in his jacket pocket during the autopsy.

A mentally disturbed man, Ricky Ray Rector was executed in Arkansas by lethal injection in January 1992. He asked for steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and pecan pie. A measure of his mental incapacitation is that he left the pecan pie and told guards he was “saving it for later.”

In May 1997, Robert Anthony Madden of Texas asked that his last meal be donated to a homeless person. His request was denied.

Thomas J. Grasso, who was executed in March 1995 in Oklahoma, had asked for steamed clams and mussels, a double cheeseburger, barbecued ribs, pumpkin pie, strawberries, and a 16-ounce can of Spaghetti Os with meatballs. As he was strapped onto the execution gurney an aggrieved Mr. Grasso’s last words were “I did not get my Spaghetti Os, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.”

Bonus Factoids

  • In Britain, serving time in prison is often called “Porridge,” honouring the principle meal that used to be served to inmates.
  • Joe Arpaio’s harsh regimen led to a recidivism rate of 60 percent; the more lenient approach in the U.K. yields a re-offending rate of 26 percent. Correlation does not prove causation, but it’s possible the more humane treatment of prisoners makes them less likely to return to incarceration.


  • “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
  • “ ‘America’s Toughest Sheriff’ Takes Meat off Jail Menu.” Jacob Davidson, Time, September 27, 2013.
  • “Gordon County Jail Fails To Provide Adequate Nutrition To Inmates: Detainees Combat Hunger By Eating Toothpaste and Toilet Paper.” Southern Center for Human Rights, October 28, 2014.
  • “British Prison Cuisine Today.” Bill Robinson,, undated.
  • “Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2003.
  • “Police Across Canada Scrimping on Meal Plans for Detainees to Cut Costs.” Patrick White, Globe and Mail, April 15, 2016.
  • “Prison Food After Cutbacks Called Disgusting and Inadequate by B.C. Inmates.” Natalie Clancy, CBC News, March 11, 2015.
  • “Last Meals.” Brent Cunningham, Lapham’s Quarterly, Fall 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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