On Prison Food, from The Verdict of You All

From Chapter Seven of The Verdict of You All by Rupert Croft-Cooke* (London, 1955), pp. 118-21:

When a man looks forward to the years of his prison sentence stretching ahead he knows with fearful certainty that on every morning until he is released he will have the same breakfast.  It will consist of a plate of coarse porridge, a pat of margarine, a hunk of bread or a small loaf known as a cob, a mug of weak tea and a spoonful of sugar.  It is invariable, whether he is at Dartmoor or an open camp, Pentonville or Parkhurst.  It is adequate, it has been carefully measured to satisfy a normal man, but its monotony is deadly.  Moreover his third and last meal of the day will be almost as sternly unvaried.  It will consist of the same weak tea, the same bread, margarine and sugar, and on fixed days of the week fixed additions—on two days a dab of jam, on two a sliver of cheese, on two a re-hash of potatoes and other oddments curiously known as goulash, and on Sundays a piece of prison-baked cake.  This also is adequate and no less monotonous.  At last, in his cell at night, he will receive a cup of cocoa.
For the six months of my sentence I lived entirely on breakfast and the meal at teatime for I found the mid-day dinner almost uneatable.  I like and respect good food enough to be able to fast quite comfortably for six months and did not suffer from it.  The bread was excellent, the tea was usually hot and the margarine happily tasteless.  This was not food but it was sustenance.  I quietly settled down to a very protracted Lent and looked forward to the good food I would eat when my when the time was over.  It was probably an excellent thing for my health to have this six months’ cure in my fiftieth year, no alcohol, no tobacco and a sparse basic diet.  “It would cost you £50 per week or more at Tring,” said a friend who visited me, explaining that Tring was a rest centre where dieting and abstinence were enforced.  It did not trouble me ar all.
It is the thought of those mid-day meals which rises like seasickness in me now.  When I read in the Report of the Commissioners of Prisons for the Year 1952 that “prisoners now really do get hot appetizing food” and “the quality of the food and the way in which it is prepared have been maintained at a consistently high standard” and “the kitchen staff are to be congratulated on providing meals for such large numbers without losing that sense of initiative and imagination which is so evident in the preparation of basic foodstuffs in a variety of attractive ways,” I can only wonder at the cold cynicism of such statements.  Pieces of stale fish in greasy batter, potatoes which even if they had been properly cleaned (which they never were) would still have tasted mouldy, cabbages thrown almost unwashed into cooking pots and stewed with all their stalks till they were half soft then left two hours before they was served, heavy tasteless deep-coloured liquid intended as soup, an occasional ‘stew’ which varied only from the soup in that minute fragments of twice-cooked or tinned meat were sometimes found in it, on Sundays a shaving of cold meat which had been steamed to tastelessness and allowed to chill so that it could be cut more thinly, and once a week a similar shaving of cold fat bacon—how can such ordure possibly be called ‘hot appetizing food’?
When the Report goes on to say “the number of complaints received from prisoners expressed either officially or received indirectly is extraordinarily small,” I can well believe it.  Prisoners are realists and know the futility of complaints.  They see one of the commissioned staff walk round at dinner-time once a week and take a perfunctory look at a tray of meat, they see the screws supervising or carrying out the distribution and they can imagine the answers to the complaints, if anyone bothered to answer.  They suffer it with everything else until they driven to some mass demonstration.
What is most scandalous about this is that a great deal of it comes from sheer incompetence or laziness on the part of those in charge.  Some hidebound screw who has been congratulated on the cleanliness of his kitchen floor will keep half a dozen men on their knees scrubbing it all day when those men might be used for the proper preparation of vegetables.  The potatoes appear in a queer grey colour which I had never seen before because they are inferior in themselves and have them not had the eyes, the inroads of insects, the mildewed or rotted parts, removed from them.  The cabbages—the only fresh vegetable ever to appear at the Scrubs—could have been made at least eatable, if not ‘hot and appetizing’, but the men working in the kitchen had not time to do anything with them because of the staff’s desire to shew off a kitchen floor and a scoured table at times when these were useless.  Once a week some dried beans appeared—an excellent dish if the smallest trouble is taken with it.  Here the beans had been soaked and boiled and that was all.
I daresay statistics could be produced to shew that the rations issued were sufficient to give variety to the mid-day meals.  But the waste was fabulous, for even hungry men left half this food on their plates.
D Hall suffered more than other parts of the prison in this matter of food for several reasons.  It is farthest from the kitchens and the food arriving cold was often left standing on the inadequate hot plates too long.  The prisoners who worked in the kitchen were all in C Hall and when they had any part in preparing the distribution of food would naturally look after themselves.  In D Hall too, there were privileged prisoners, men who fawned on the screws and did secretarial or other work for them, who were fed before the general line-up and given large portions of anything desirable.  By the time that the men on association, the last in the whole prison to be served, were given their food it was even less ‘hot and appetizing’ than it may once have been.  So the long-sentence prisoner was deprived of the slightest pleasure in eating but swallowed the tepid muck in order to keep alive.


From Chapter Eleven of The Verdict of You All, pp. 190-91:

Christmas Day, of course, was a most dismal occasion.  For weeks beforehand the rations had been reduced, presumably so that food could be hoarded in sufficient quantities to justify the annual B.B.C. announcement that every prisoner in H.M. gaols had enjoyed such-and-such a Christmas meal.  This is a cynical piece of hocus-pocus.  No extra food whatever is allowed to prisoners at Christmas and any apparently extra there has been saved from their own wretched allowance.  Pats of margarine and the daily dole of sugar become negligible during December until on Christmas Day the men heard the world outside being told of the nation’s bounty towards them.
This was a matter of small concern to me for my now I found fasting easy, and rather enjoyable in its effects.  I could not have faced good food just them and expected nothing but the bread and margarine and weak tea on which, with an occasional pot of marmalade from the canteen, I subsisted quite contentedly.  But for my friends in prison the occasion was less tolerable.  There was the usual paring of cold tasteless meat, an extra dried vegetable, but no change from the rotting potatoes and tepid cabbage-stalks, and a Christmas pudding containing the previous fortnight’s supply of dried fruit. 
At my table in the New Rec this was received in sulky silence and the ex-police informer convicted of procuring was seen to weep surreptitiously.  It was generally agreed that you “feel it more at a time like this”.  But what sympathy I had to give was with Victor Devon and Jack Grayson, and the other long-sentence men over in the hall, for whom this was the first of a number of Christmas days they would spend in prison.

*  in 1953 Rupert Croft-Cooke was found guilty of three counts of indecency—on perjured testimony, he maintained—and sentenced to nine months imprisonment; he served six months in Wormwood Scrubs with a short interlude in Brixton Prison.  The Verdict of You All is the account of his arrest, trial and imprisonment.