Prisoners’ diet and their background in care are still being overlooked

“Nobody really cares about prisons” – the opening of Frances Crook’s article is heartbreaking (The reform of prisons has been my life’s work, but they are still utterly broken, 10 August). She says the state of our prison system remains her “most bitter regret”. I thank her for her courageous account. What I would like to point out in particular is my shock and disbelief at prisoners’ diet.

Expenditure on prison food has been decreasing. Until 2004, in most prisons, meals were prepared by prisoners. Privatisation has meant that most prisons now use external services. In 2006, cooked breakfasts, including porridge, were dropped and replaced with the unpopular breakfast pack, valued at 27p. The 2021 offering Crook describes (white bread, small portion of cereal, UHT milk) sounds remarkably similar. In 2016 HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that in some prisons as little as £1.87 per inmate per day was spent on food. Food services in hospitals, by comparison, spend an average of £9.88 per patient.

The fact that only white bread is offered in prison is concerning. A recommendation for the provision of wholemeal bread in prisons can be found as early as 1878. Quantity is a constant complaint in prisoner reports. One wrote: “Received seven chips, one sausage and a spoon of beans … for my tea.” Prisoners have also reported that they were often unable to sleep because of hunger.

In 2001, at the annual conference of the Howard League for Penal Reform, I gave a paper, The Path from Care to Prison, which made many of the same points as Frances Crook and your correspondents (Letters, 12 August).

It pointed out the massive overrepresentation of people with a background in care in the custodial system, and argued that this could be traced to neglect of their education in care and in prison, and their high risk of school exclusion. Leaving care with no qualifications, as 75% did at the time, and often barely literate, condemned them to long-term unemployment and a high probability of returning to prison.

Edward Timpson’s recent report on school exclusion showed how little has changed. The link between care and prison remains inescapable but it is still a truth that the majority of commentators and policymakers are unwilling to face.