Monday, March 2, 2015

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How to… Cook in a Prison Cell

Alex Cavendish with a little taste of prison cell cuisine. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at PrisonUK: An Insider's View.

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


Peter said...

Interesting blog post. Most lads of our generation thought cooking was for women and poofs. It never occurred to me that it would be a useful skill inside. It is no surprise that the ex-soldiers were so resourceful, I saw some right feasts being cooked up on hexxy burners in the middle of some remote forest. No surprise about the vietnamese though, I heard they kill and barbecue swans in London parks!

larry hughes said...

have they kettles now to go with the sky tv computers toilets and sinks....ffs why am I paying rent? Poofs?? your in the firing line now Peter....the fags will be after your ass.