Prison protesters – all they need is a decent meal

A couple of prisoners at Paremoremo have just come down from a tower in the yard after a ‘peaceful protest against the Department’ – according to the message they apparently wrote with toothpaste on a black board.  One of them was well known, Aaron Forden, aka ‘Houdini’ for his previous escapes. According to Peter Williams QC, who the prisoners wanted to contact, they were complaining about inhumane conditions and inadequate food.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Prisoners live a life of luxury, don’t they, with underfloor heating, flatscreen TV, and three square meals a day. They don’t have to work or attend rehabilitation programmes – just sit around chatting with their mates planning what crimes to commit when they get out.  Well that’s the stereotype.

The reality is something else entirely.  In 2009 a report  on Paremoremo described conditions at the prison as ‘putrid’ and found shortages of guards, lax security, and poor hygiene.  The Ombudsman has also documented inadequate health and dental treatment of prisoners, including the denial of pain medication and pointed to breaches of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

UN Minimum Standards for food

But let’s talk about the food. Article 20 of the UN Minimum Rules says “every prisoner shall be provided … with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality… and drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he needs it.”

The notion that prisoners get three square meals a day is a myth. Most inmates seem to think the food is barely fit for pigs – which is not surprising considering the Department spends only $4.50 a day on food for each prisoner.   That’s $31.50 a week. That might have been a realistic figure 30 years ago but today it would barely buy bread for a week let alone three square meals a day.

Prisoner complaints about food

Prisoners frequently complain about the quality of the food. Last year one prisoner wrote to chief executive Ray Smith claiming that that prison food was ”high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar rubbish” and the meals were often inedible. The Ombudsman reported recently that “Prisoners continue to complain that the national menus implemented by the Department do not consider the specific health needs of prisoners, especially diabetics.”

Former Corrections Minister Judith Collins responded to these concerns with this churlish comment: “Stay out of jail if you don’t like the food.” The police seem equally uninterested in providing a healthy diet for prisoners.  The Wairarapa Times recently reported that a young man who spent a weekend in the police cells was given nothing but noodles and cold water.

The link between diet and violence

Prisoners tend to have poor health and nutritious food is important. Recent research in the US suggests that the modern diet may be a factor contributing to violent behaviour in Western society.    The study investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements and hypothesises that modern industrialised diets may be changing the very architecture and functioning of the brain. It suggests the influence of poor diet is such that individuals may not always be responsible for their aggression – bringing into question the very foundations of criminal justice and the notion of culpability

Another study at Aylesbury prison in the UK raised prisoners’ intake of nutrients up to the level recommended by government guidelines.  It was a placebo-controlled double blind randomised trial. The researchers found 231 volunteer prisoners and assigned half to a regime of supplements and half to placebos. It showed that when young men there were fed multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, the number of violent offences they committed in prison fell by 37%.  The prisoners taking the placebos showed no change in their behaviour.

A Dutch research team repeated the experiment and released this report “Effects of Nutritional Supplementation on Aggression, Rule-Breaking, and Psychopathology among Young Adult Prisoners.” The researchers urged caution in interpreting the results but said: “The prospect of influencing aggression and rule-breaking behaviour with nutrients in moderate doses is important enough to warrant further research. This is particularly true as adequate supplementation may also have beneficial effects on mental health and cognitive functioning.”

Although these studies do not suggest that poor diet alone can account for complex social problems, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham says that he is now “absolutely convinced that there is a direct link between diet and antisocial behaviour, both that bad diet causes bad behaviour and that good diet prevents it.”

Violence in New Zealand prisons

It’s not entirely clear if the two prisoners who protested at Paremoremo were complaining about the food.  But one thing is certain – violence in New Zealand prisons is on the rise.  In 2011, 241 prison staff were assaulted and 862 prisoners were assaulted by other inmates. In May 2010,  Jason Palmer, became the first officer to be killed in a New Zealand prison after he was punched by an inmate. Surely it wouldn’t do any harm to give prisoners decent food with adequate vitamins and minerals. It might even help reduce the number of assaults. It would certainly add to our reputation as a civilised country – instead of one that breaches basic human rights.

11 thoughts on “Prison protesters – all they need is a decent meal

  1. Yep…I remember only too well working in the kitchen at Waikeria having to cut all the rotten bits off the cauli before the remainder (what was left!) being cooked and served. Not to mention being told not to make the meals look too attractive…some corrections officers definitely have very small minds. Perhaps they aren’t getting enough minerals and vitamins themselves to enable them to think rationally and compassionately????


  2. The extent that politicians will go, to advance their right wing aspirations. The fact that it is grown and growing men that are sacrificed on the altar of their ambition and righteousness is irrelevant.

    It is worth pondering and doing the mental arithmetic on your own lifestyle. The $4 covers Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. This is $1.33 per serving.
    Excerpts from an article appearing in the NZ Herald 2002. Both Judy Collins and Anne Tolley have quoted this $4 figure in 2012. This value has not changed in 10 years……..and of course the cost of food hasn’t gone up either? The only change can be in the quality and amount.

    Central kitchen facts: as published by the Department of Corrections. 2012
    Prisoners working within the central kitchens prepare pre-determined and nationally consistent meals for over 8,000 prisoners a day. Three meals are prepared for prisoners each day. The average cost of feeding a prisoner is $4 per day.
    Kitchens work off a national menu of which there consists a range of menu options that are certified by qualified dieticians. The kitchens at Wellington and Waikeria prisons provide external catering services to government agencies.
    Nothing has changed: 10 years ago.
    New Zealand Herald 5:00 AM Saturday Sep 14, 2002
    Prison meals on $4 a day By SCOTT MacLEOD
    Prisons are feeding their inmates on less than $3.97 a day.
    Menus obtained under the Official Information Act reveal the average cost of food for each inmate in the year to June.
    The menus squash the myth of prisoners dining on fillet mignon, but have raised concerns about nutrition.
    The Department of Corrections said it was testing a new menu that met nutrition guidelines, but one just-retired prison catering boss said it was almost impossible to feed inmates on the budgets provided. (and that was in 2002)
    The department started devising the new menu in January.
    Most days the breakfast is Weetbix, Ricies or cornflakes, and the lunch is either two salad rolls or three salad or vegetable sandwiches. The dinner varies, but includes two vegetables and one fruit.
    Former prison catering instructor Ian Pavitt, who resigned from Christchurch Prison this year, said the new menu sounded similar to the old one.
    He had found prison food budgets “a wee bit unrealistic”.
    Mr Pavitt said the department spent less on feeding each prisoner now than it did 10 years ago – despite the rising cost of food.
    It was possible to feed a prisoner on $4.10 to $4.20 a day, but having less than $4 was “nigh on impossible”. (but they are doing it in 2012 so what has suffered)…….
    A spokesman for the Howard League for Penal Reform, Peter Williams QC, said “nearly all” prisoners serving long sentences got sick from vitamin deficiencies, diet problems, lack of exercise and other jail conditions. It was “not a question of being over-liberal”.
    Corrections chief financial officer Richard Morris said the new menus were devised to meet Ministry of Health guidelines……..
    Wendy Pedler of the Sensible Sentencing Trust said the menu was more than adequate. There were plenty of hard-working New Zealanders who ate worse than prisoners, she said.

    The menu follows a 4 week cycle and then repeats. The long termers were tired of the monotonous, bland and sloppy food that lacked in iron and protein, but was high in carbohydrates, This diet was responsible for the many long termers being grossly overweight.
    Bread was the staple and with 11 slices a day (3 -breakfast -6 lunch -2 dinner) and very little opportunity or incentive to exercise, the path to obesity was already laid.


  3. When you are at the coalface you see what goes on,not what OFFICIALDOM thinks and expects to be going on.I personally took a prisoners “lunch”to the site manager at Rimutaka a few years back to show him what had been given as “lunch” to an inmate, supposed to be a cheese sandwich…all it was ,was 2 pieces of stale bread that was as hard as rocks maybe a few days old and inside it contained a speeding of “spread” on one corner and nil else.
    This so called “good nutritionist ” lunch had been shown to two officers,1 unit manager and was classed as “good enough think yourself lucky you got even that” attitude before it was shown to me and I took it to the ACTING site manager who whilst said it shouldn’t have happened but hey these guys are crimes what do they expect……………………that same ACTING manager is now the appointed site manager so I wonder now what goes on……………………Whilst I agree with the saying “do the crime pay in time” we must all remember these people are HUMAN BEINGS and should be treated as same. I am sure if the general public went undercover to some of our jails they would be horrified what goes on in there that they dont know about and would have much different opinions of some treatments.


  4. Have just spent a year at ARWCF in Wiri and worked in the kitchen. I raised issue with the lack of green vegetables and how most women are constipated and needed medical potions to “get moving”, Im sure the bill for metamucil etc was huge. Also I was one of few who got vitamins as the doc “didnt believe in them”. I got multivits for 3 months and shared them with a friend who had an alcohol problem but was denied any vitamin support.
    The women eat a lot of weetbix often covered in butter and sugar…sugar consumption is huge…and so are the women often eating way too much bread! many women put on 15 -20kilos and the joke is they can go on the Jenny Crack diet when released!! A few meagre gardens are scratched out but cant possibly support the women in the wings.
    Boredom + eating sugar laden foods = trouble. Lack of vitamins, system support or gender/age related minerals means deterated health for many women.


  5. The problem is that the knuckle draggers in government think there is something noble about breaching basic human rights. Until we elect decent human beings and stop giving air time to the Nonsensical Sentencing Trust, things will only get worse.


  6. In a recent communication from Anne Tolley in respect of some of my blogging issues raised she has stated, ” I have been informed that the prison menus were developed with input from the Ministry Of Health, Diabetes life education and the Heart Foundation in consultation with a clinical dietician.The menus provide all food groups, vitamins and minerals; the meals are basic and nutritious”.After receiving this letter I have taken the time to contact the Ministry Of Health, Diabetes Life Education, The Heart Foundation and NZ Dieticians, with the exception of no reply from Diabetes Life Education all of these organisations have denied having any involvement or input into the prison diet. So whoever Anne Tolley seeks guidance and advice from is quite wrong and so to is she.
    If any of these bodies condoned the current inadequate, high fat, high salt, high sugar diet which amounts to feeding a compulsory unhealthy diet then it would have been unbelievably wrong.
    Judith Collins may believe prisoners should stay out of prison if they want to eat an adequate meal and healthy food, but if this were to happen and everyone suddenly behaved themselves so they could stay at home and eat healthy food, Judith wouldn’t have a job! honestly what a ridiculous remark to make. The remark she made was in context with prison snack food, prisoners have to purchase this food and can spend up to $70 on overpriced crap, snacks are provided which are not only unhealthy but over priced. It would take no effort or money to provide healthy options.Fresh fruit, cheese, dried fruit and a variety of nuts along with loads of other foods that provide healthy options could easily be included.
    What also amazes me is this strange notion that Judith Collins and some people have about the choices they make when committing crime. Not much in the way of crime is premeditated it is usually act in haste, with reckless, irrational behaviour. Not many drunk or drugged people think about the consequences of their behaviour. Then prison doesn’t do anything to make them change for the better either so offering this as a solution isn’t a cure or a solution.
    Many people do think, “if you do the crime, you do the time”! many also think like Judith, “stay out of prison if you want to eat healthy food”. This mind frame doesn’t really make for an improved penal system though or prevent crime. “If the whole world believed in eye for an eye then we would have a world full of blind people” (Ghandi)
    What I believe is people with tunnel vision, that only see in black and white should not be in government. We live in 2012 not 1812,we have evolved, progress, improvement and positive psychology need to be implemented with helping people. It seems that this government is only supportive of crime, recidivism, aggression, because it fights like with like, it certainly does little or nothing to seek an improved penal system nor believes in humanity, good health and reform. It takes nothing on board that suggests constructive criticism, it ignores The Chief Ombudsman’s report, it ignores complaints and it fails to provide human beings with the necessary basics required to survive which is an adequate and healthy diet.
    The fact that many people in prison have previously had poor nutrition and diets before they serve a sentence is all the more reason why they should be fed healthy food whilst in there. No doubt Judith Collins and the likes believe that this will create more crime because criminals won’t want to leave, or that they will leave and re offend so they can go back in to eat a healthy meal. But the opposite is scientifically proven, unhealthy food and eating a poor diet can account for criminal behaviour.
    In New Zeland over 200,000 possibly more people have diabetes type 2. There are also studies that link crime to diabetes because low blood sugar can lead to mental impairment
    As you say Roger poor diet accounts for much of the violence inside prisons therefore a healthy diet is essential to the general well being of prisoners state of mind and would make life easier for Corrections staff, it may also contribute to a reduction in recividism if people are educated and told that their diet could be responsible for their aggressive behaviour, prison can help people change for the better.
    Also I would say Rose that officialdom, management and the government are all well aware of what goes on and they simply do not care. It is put in writing to them, reports are written, critisisms, complaints are received in abundance but they choose to ignore it. I wonder how they manage to sleep at night because the conscience must affect them. Or perhaps they have no conscience.
    Inedible and unhealthy food is the daily menu in prison there is nothing whatsoever nutritious about it it needs to change for the better! Whats more there isn’t anything remotely healthy about this government, it’s attitudes are ignorant, archaic and backward!


    1. Is Anne Tolley lying on an official letterhead? That seems pretty serious. Maybe someone in the Greens or Mana could ask her about it in parliament?


  7. Murray you can’t say she is lying because she states, “she has been informed” which exonerates her. But you would think that she and her adviser’s would get their facts straight and know what is going on within their own department. I have it in writing from all organisations she claims to have had input, they do not have any input, they do not advise the government or Corrections on the prison menu or diet.
    If the Heart Foundation recommended eating cheese and mince pies, high fat food, high salt and high sugar it would not be a good look for them and it’s ludicrous that Anne Tolley believes that these organisations would advocate the prison diet and menu as it is.
    The same ethos applies to any nutritional advisory body. A healthy diet is all of the lows, fresh veg, fruit and protein with omega 3 and 6. Portion sizes to compensate for growth and exercise and calories intake for males and females. Low glycaemic foods which are whole grains, carbs and unprocessed foods.
    It is also true that some maybe many prisoners would also complain about a healthy diet because, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But if they complain about eating a healthy diet as opposed to eating an inadequate diet with inadequate nutritional value it is obviously a better option to complain on a stomach full of healthy food. Everyone complains when they are tired and hungry because none of us function properly when hungry. Weight gain for sugar over loaders wouldn’t fill them up either it just gives them empty calories.
    Somehow I doubt her being questioned by any of the opposition will make any difference either, I think they are all as bad as each other. They all know what’s going on but nobody can insist they make the necessary changes.
    I will continue to write letters, blog and others should do the same.
    My next letter will be mailed the Honorable Anne Tolley (not) there is nothing honorable in being dishonorable and refusing to take responsibility for infringements of human rights.


  8. I wonder, too, whether the timeframe within which to have these “three healthy meals” may have a serious impact upon the human system…breakfrast at 8.00/8.30, lunch at 11.45 and dinner at 4.00 and then absolutely nothing for 16 hours? Surely this isn’t how the human system is meant to be fueled? In fact, I wonder how a person who may be for example a diabetic (or high potential to become diabetic) copes?


  9. Oh…and the amount of sliced bread per prisoner quoted above must be for the men as the women only receive 2 slices of bread at breakfast, 1 bread roll or 4 slices at lunch depending on what was on the menu, and two slices at dinner. And fruit? All I ever saw were the smallest most sour apples I have ever seen (pity the poor women who had false or no teeth), with the odd kiwifruit (and only ever one at a time!). As for the sugar sachets we received…was the highest commodity to trade after cigarettes! And then came milk as we only got 300ml a day. My health still suffers as a result to this day as a result, and probably always will.


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