Food is a basic human right. But not just stuff to fill you up – food that’s nutritious; food that fuels you. It’s part of the basis of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the key elements that make up our foundations; without it, we can’t achieve anything further up the pyramid.

The ways in which food interacts with our world are wide and varied, and the ways in which food impacts our overall wellbeing are even more intricate. From boosting mental health, to allowing our bodies to function properly, the basic benefits of good nutrition are well documented. But, even more so, food can bring joy and light to even the darkest of times. It is something all humans should have access to, regardless of who they are, what they’ve done, whether around a family table or in the canteen at a prison.

In a 2018 speech, the justice secretary at the time, The Rt Hon David Gauke, explained that the purpose of the prison system in the UK is threefold; protection of the public, punishment, and, finally, rehabilitation. He goes on to say that, “It is only by prioritising rehabilitation that we can reduce reoffending and, in turn, the numbers of future victims of crime.”

What has become increasingly clear in recent years is the impact food and the hospitality industry can have on that rehabilitation process. A number of studies have been done on the impact good nutrition has on prisoners, and they have found that, on average, improving food within prisons can reduce violence by 30%. Meanwhile, charities that work on helping inmates get food-based qualifications on the inside and supporting them to find work in the industry after release are helping to dramatically reduce reoffending. And yet, a recent survey found just just 35% of the UK prison population was satisfied with the food they were eating, while most training and employment initiatives within prisons are set up by independent charities that rely solely on donations for funding.

Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisons and detainees, is operated by a team with a majority of former or current prisoners, with 60% of the content being written by those currently serving a sentence. The paper is distributed within prisons for both visitors and inmates to read, publishing a range of content that covers everything from news to poetry. They also share a number of letters from inmates in each issue, giving a voice to those who so often don’t have one.

Those written on the topic of food are hard reading. One inmate at HMP Manchester writes “The situation with the food is getting worse every day. It has got to the point where we are going down for tea and there is no food left.” Another writes “Prior to my imprisonment I was a very healthy eater, easily meeting the 5-a-day target with which we must all be familiar. In prison I am lucky to achieve 1-a-day. I resort to swapping cake and biscuits with other prisoners to obtain extra fruit.” Many express concerns with health, with one writing “many elderly inmates here struggling with their health in relation to diet; this will be the silent killer for some.”

It was a 2016 report released by the Justice Department that initially piqued the interest of Lucy Vincent, founder and chief executive of Food Behind Bars, a charity ‘dedicated to transforming the food service in British prisons.’ The report, commissioned to investigate the state of food and nutrition in UK prisons, noted that “Studies have found that nutritional supplements reduce disciplinary incidents, aggression and violent behaviour,” and concluded that across the country, “too often the quantity and quality of the food provided is insufficient, and the conditions in which it is served and eaten undermine respect for prisoners’ dignity.”

In December of that year, Vincent launched Food Behind Bars with the direct intention of tackling this issue. While official statistics vary, according to charity Only a Pavement Away, an employed ex-offender is up to 87% less likely to reoffend, with 70% of prison leavers reoffending within two years if they don’t have a job. And yet, only 23% of ex-offenders are in P45 employment two years after release. This is down to a number of reasons, including a distinct lack of support for rehabilitation upon release, but also the fact that at least 50% of employers will reject an applicant if they have a criminal record. Reoffending costs the country around £18 billion a year.

This was something Food Behind Bars recognised through its work – and something I discovered along the way while researching this article. In the same way as Food Behind Bars set out to tackle nutrition issues within prisons, I intended to write an article about its importance, and the people working to make it better. But, as it became clear along the way, much like it was difficult for Food Behind Bars to work on the relationship between prisoners and food without becoming involved in supporting their efforts to find work after release, it became increasingly obvious that it would be impossible to write about food and prisons and not touch on the myriad ways in which the hospitality industry supports prison leavers in finding employment and settling into life on the outside – not just after they leave the high-security gates, but while they’re still serving their sentence, too.

The average daily food budget per prisoner in the UK is just £2.70. To put that into perspective, the equivalent budget at a hospital is £10. It’s an astonishingly low amount, one that would be difficult to manage for even the most inventive of chefs, let alone chefs operating in a system full of roadblocks. Take, for example, the fact that every prison in the country is required to source their ingredients from the same supplier. It creates a monopoly and a system whereby niche, more flavourful ingredients often aren’t available, with stodgy, low-nutrient, but ‘filling’ ingredients prioritised. But, as it turns out, even if chefs do find a way around these limitations, creating interesting, flavourful food is often discouraged.

As part of my research for this article I spoke to a senior editor at Inside Time. He told me a story about a friend of his on the inside, a Korean man, who had worked in restaurants in Chinatown and was a talented chef. In an attempt to keep himself busy while serving his sentence, he went for a trial shift in the prison kitchen. He made a noodle dish, using what they had to hand to create as much of an approximation of the kind of food he would have cooked in his former job. Gaining the attention of the kitchen staff, they labelled it the most delicious thing cooked in the prison kitchen, but didn’t give him the job because his food would be too good, explaining that if they raised prisoners’ expectations of what they might get for dinner, they might complain when these standards aren’t maintained, and it could result in discontent among the inmates.

In a statement on the topic of food budgets, the MoJ says, “We know the importance of prisoners receiving three meals a day that are varied and nutritious, whilst also ensuring value for the taxpayer. That’s why the HMPPS catering team works closely with the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities to provide advice to prisoners and staff on the importance of eating healthy meals. Prison food budgets are determined locally by the prison Governor or Director and are regularly reviewed. The HMPPS Catering Team have also been providing support to all prison establishments to help address the rising cost of food. They are working closely with local catering managers to understand issues and share good practice ideas with our food suppliers to look at supply and sourcing options.”

As they say, the food in any given prison is ultimately down to the governor, and how they spend their budget. In prisons like HMP East Sutton Park, a women’s prison in Kent, Food Behind Bars works with the team to run an on-site butchery, staffed by the inmates. All the animals are reared on the prison’s land, and a group of inmates are trained up on the butchery process before being put to work. Most of their meat goes back into the prison system, both at East Sutton Park and beyond. “East Sutton Park is an old stately home that was turned into a prison,” Vincent tells me, “so I think they had a working farm on the land before it was ever a prison.”

As a Category D facility, East Sutton Park is classed as an open prison, a space where inmates can go towards the end of their sentence to help prepare them for assimilation back into society. There are no gates, security is minimal and they have keys to their own cells. The whole system is built on a platform of respect, with inmates being allowed to leave to attend jobs, visit family and even have overnight stays with special permission. “The whole idea of a Category D is it’s meant to mimic society and prepare you for release,” Vincent adds.

This setup, plus the farm that was already in place, alongside an old butchery space that wasn’t being utilised in the house, made it the perfect opportunity for the exact kind of work Food Behind Bars are trying to do. What’s even more special is that the woman running the course is an inmate herself. “We advertised for the position, and I really wanted a female butcher to run it, but it’s hard enough finding a woman working in butchery, let alone one happy to work on a part-time basis in Kent,” Vincent tells me. “So we spoke to the team at East Sutton Park and thought she would be perfect for it. She had been part of the first butchery cohort last August and really took to it. So she applied for the job just like anyone else, we interviewed her and decided to hire her. It might be a little unorthodox, but it works, and she’s been incredible.”

If there was any stamp of approval for the quality of the meat coming out of East Sutton Park, it’s the butchery’s partnership with Meatopia festival this September. Teaming up with Food Behind Bars, the annual wood-fired food festival is offering the charity a cooking space for free, with all profits going back into their work. Its development chef Milli Taylor will be cooking up jerk pork belly, with all of the meat coming from the butchery at East Sutton Park. “The infrastructure they have is amazing,” Molly Hutchinson, event director at Meatopia, tells me. “They’ve got this insane amount of land, and a farm programme, and then they have this super impressive, extremely professional butchery space with two massive walk-in fridges and an office. After my visit they sent me home with sausages, bacon, pork chops and pig ears for my dog, and it’s all been delicious. They do different flavours of sausages and everything. For Meatopia, we’re going to be doing a jerk pork belly, and Milli’s going to be leading on that; she’s such a talented chef. We did a tasting, and I can highly recommend it.”

It was an intuitive partnership for Meatopia, one that lined up with their intentions as a company and has resulted in the happy additional extra of getting to showcase some incredible meat. “A really important part of the Meatopia festival for us is not to keep it as some kind of commercial machine,” Hutchinson explains. “We are integrated into the industry and we want to support it as much as we can. So every year we do partnerships with charity or social projects that we feel are giving back to the industry, and obviously the Food Behind Bars programme is just so impressive.”

Hutchinson initially reached out to Vincent to offer up some of the chefs she works with should the charity need any help with demonstrations or education sessions. Their conversations, however, quickly led to discussions around the work going on at East Sutton Park, and it became clear that the partnership could be so much more. “It makes total sense for us,” Hutchinson tells me. “It’s an excellent opportunity for us to find British-reared animals, which is what we’re all about, in a system that feeds into the greater good. We’re really keen to keep it going for next year.” Not only will Food Behind Bars get to keep all the profits from the space they’ve been donated at the festival, but they’re also the charitable partner on the festival’s guest list donation system.

The Food Behind Bars approach varies enormously depending on the prison, as it can be a complicated process that involves everything from setting up services like the butchery at East Sutton Park, to actually educating prisoners themselves on the benefit of good nutrition. “I’ve always said that you could change all the menus tomorrow, in every single prison up and down the country, and I just don’t think that would work because you need to educate people,” she told me. “There are a mix of people in prison, but there’s a very high proportion of people with a bad relationship with food, whether that’s because they struggle with addiction issues, or they’ve been in prison several times before. So, for every recipe, or menu, or whatever that we do, it needs to be coupled with some kind of holistic food education.”

This can cover everything from basic lessons, to development chef Nat Middleton working directly with inmates to teach them new recipes, or even the Food Behind Bars Street Food Bosses, a training competition where a group of 40 men were given the opportunity to ‘create, design and pitch their very own street food concept’. The FBB team were supported by team members from Brixton Village, Pop Brixton and Kerb Food, and at the end of it all they crowned four winners.

Vincent has shared application documents from inmates to sessions like this, and similar initiatives like HMP Hewell’s Best Chef, on social media over the years, and I have consistently been struck by the emotion in them all. It’s clear that for many of their participants these competitions are a game-changer, both in terms of giving them hope for possibilities on the outside, but also in providing both crucial education and a renewed sense of purpose while they’re in a system that can often offer neither.

When I first spoke to Vincent, almost a year ago now, she told me that her “core mission is about changing prison food.” While her priority may remain attempting to improve nutrition and food offerings for prisoners, it became increasingly obvious that it’s difficult to work with food in prisons and not inevitably end up providing support in some way or another for those inmates when they are released. Speak to any food professional and they’ll likely say that working in hospitality gets under your skin, and once you have the bug for it, it’s difficult to let it go. For these men on the inside, it’s a similar situation.

Take Jamal, who won FBB’s Best Chef competition at HMP Brixton. “Being in HMP Brixton was certainly not the happiest time in my life, but what did make me happy during those times was the capability of cooking with ingredients you normally wouldn’t find in other prisons,” he tells me. “The Food Behind Bars project helped me have an epiphany. I love food, so it felt like this was my chance. I was sceptical at first because I only had experience at home and not as much in a working kitchen, if you know what I mean. I never thought a little spice and a few ingredients could go such a long way.” Jamal also credits Food Behind Bars for helping him find work on the outside, explaining that “they didn’t just find me a job; they found me a team that took me in as their own.”

Of course, Food Behind Bars isn’t the only organisation working in the field. In fact, Vincent says part of the reason she can attempt to solely focus her energy on improving nutrition in prisons is because there are so many people working so successfully to provide support for training prisoners and helping them into employment post-release. Take, for example, The Clink. Thirteen years ago, while working as the catering manager at HMP High Down in Surrey, Alberto Crisci MBE had the foresight to recognise the opportunity offered by training up prisoners to work in kitchens. He introduced accredited City & Guilds NVQ training and, in May 2009, opened the first The Clink restaurant, with the charity being formed soon after in 2010.

Since then, the charity has gone nationwide, and now involves four key arms, including The Clink Restaurants and The Clink Kitchens. The former are restaurants accessible by the public and staffed – both in the kitchen and front of house – by current inmates. The latter is a training system within the actual prison kitchen itself (i.e. the one that caters to inmates). Both offer training and qualification, alongside robust support both before and after they leave prison to help them find employment. The Clink Kitchens is far easier to set up than the restaurant simply due to the red tape involved around allowing members of the public into a prison environment and, as such, it has grown exponentially. When I was first in touch with the team last year they were working with 24 prisons; now that number has risen to over 30. A 2019 Justice Data Lab report found that The Clink helped reduce reoffending by 65.6%.

There are, of course, a multitude of benefits to a business hiring prison leavers. Alex Head is the founder of Social Pantry, a large-scale catering business with a number of bricks-and-mortar cafes and restaurants around London, and has built social sustainability into the core of her business plan. As part of this, she works closely with prisons to mentor, support and employ ex-offenders upon their release through charities including Key4Life and initiatives like Bad Boys Bakery. “The team really enjoys working alongside prison leavers,” she tells me. “They are hard-working, motivated and trusted employees.” Other interviewees echo these sentiments, explaining that the prison leavers they have hired have been extremely reliable and loyal employees who tend to remain with the companies that support them.

Writing about the work of prison charities from the comfort of my home is one thing, but I felt it necessary to see this work first-hand. And so I found myself being escorted through multiple gates at HMP Brixton alongside Gregg Brown, director of training and operations at The Clink Kitchens. I have always believed in the necessity of federal punishment as a rehabilitative experience where, rather than locking people up and throwing away the key, society should provide those who break the law with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and a second chance upon their release. But, with the heavy thunk of each closing gate and the mechanical click of each lock, I felt the realisation of what I could potentially be walking into weighing on me – particularly as a young woman entering a men’s prison.

And yet, any doubt was immediately erased almost as soon as I entered the kitchen. It was operating as smoothly as any professional kitchen I’ve entered, staffed by men of all ages and demographics, who were split into sections and focused on a different element of prep and cooking under the watchful eye of catering manager Felix Tetteh. I’m reminded of something Vincent said to me the first time I spoke to her. “It is my experience at prison that if you give some responsibility, they are very unlikely to abuse it,” she explained.

A fixture at HMP Brixton for more than 20 years, Tetteh is spoken about by many as the gold standard for running a prison kitchen, and the statistics back that up, with prisoners at HMP Brixton often being rated the most content in the United Kingdom with the food they’re offered. “A prison is a whole town,” Tetteh told me when we sit down in his office to talk. “For the residents, this is their home, and we have a responsibility to feed them and look after them. I want there to be a wow factor in my food – it should make them happy.” Tetteh works alongside the prisoners in his kitchen, and makes it clear that when he offers them respect, they do the same. “Training them up benefits the prison and the people on the programme,” he explains. “The Clink offers training, hope and a lifeline. Nine times out of ten when an inmate is released from Brixton I will see them back here again, but the work the Clink is doing is changing that.” Most prisoners want to reform, he explains, and providing them with the tools and support to build the base for that is key.

“You shouldn’t paint a dark picture of a prisoner,” he added. “A prisoner can be anyone, there shouldn’t be any stigma. They are human beings, and we train them up.” For Tetteh, it’s all about correction, rehabilitation and support. The men break for lunch when I come back through, and I speak to a few of them about the effect of the programme and their plans for when they’re released. One tells me working in the kitchen has fundamentally improved his well-being while in prison. Where previously he would spend 23 hours a day in his cell, he now has purpose, and gets to learn new skills. He wants to open a street food business upon his release. Another describes the experience of working in The Clink Kitchens as “life-changing”.

It is easy to villainise prisoners – many often do. It’s one of the reasons why gaining access to these spaces to write about them is so rare, because often people take advantage of the honesty of the organisations working to make things better and instead attempt to paint the charities and systems trying to improve quality of life for prisoners as undermining the purpose of prison, or turning it into a ‘holiday’. Make no mistake – prison is no holiday, nor should it be. But it’s also easy to forget that simply through bad luck and circumstance, any human could end up behind bars.

Recently, a team from Channel 4 were given access to Bertie’s in HMP Lincoln, an eatery set up by charity The Right Course that, similar to The Clink, aims to train prisoners in industry-recognised hospitality qualifications and support them in finding work upon release. Bertie’s is a unique offering in that it’s set up to operate like a high-street establishment and allows prisoners to dine with visiting family, friends and loved ones as they would if they were in the outside world.

It’s the kind of access journalists –particularly those with cameras – don’t often get into these spaces, and the subsequent four-minute documentary they produced indicates why. One prisoner, named David, says “A job is a must, a job means somewhere to live. I’m a bit worried about being released homeless, to be honest. That’s the scary bit, because a lot of prisoners do get released homeless. Having a job is 50%, having somewhere to live is the other 50%.” In response, the journalist asks, “And without those two things?”, to which David responds: “I’ll reoffend. 100%. Guaranteed. There ain’t no two ways about it, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you.”

A little later, the journalist says to the governor of HMP Lincoln, “A lot of people will look at this and say, ‘You had a dozen serious assaults here last year. Four people died here last year, a cookery course isn’t what you need,’” before finishing the segment by saying, somewhat patronisingly, “David’s second stint in prison ends late this summer – he’s hoping there won’t be a third.”

David’s vulnerable honesty is perhaps the most damning indictment of a broken system, and yet the portrayal of it in this documentary is that of a bad person failing to be good, rather than a system failing to function how it should. If we are to reconsider his comments, we can instead highlight just how significant this work is, and how much we can benefit from the charities trying their best to implement it.

“The majority of people going into prison will at some point be coming out and they’re going to come back into society,” Simon Sheehan, CEO of The Right Course, tells me. “So either you are going to sit there and wait for them to do something else, or we try to break this cycle. When you speak to an individual, and you hear their life history, you aren’t surprised that they have ended up where they are, because opportunities have not happened to them, and support networks have not been there.”

Support networks and opportunities are two of the key things The Right Course is trying to tackle for both current inmates and prison leavers. While on the inside, it gives people the chance to work in and learn from professional environments that emulate restaurants on the outside as much as possible and then, in advance of their release, it works with them to try and find jobs within their network of employers. The impact, Sheehan tells me, is enormously encouraging. “What we see is an individual’s personal journey and their confidence growing,” he says. “Among the other prisoners they can’t let their guard down because it’s a safety mechanism. However, when you see them starting on the course, actually going up to someone and asking for their order, interacting with them, they don’t have the confidence, and it just goes to show that a lot of what you see is bravado. But throughout the course you see them gain their confidence, they’re proud to show off what they’ve made if they’re working in the kitchen, or out in front-of-house, they’re really pleased with the feedback they get.”

Alex Head comments similarly on her experience seeing inmates go through these training processes. “Education behind bars will give hope to the boys and it will encourage them to engage in activities or learning which they would not have done on the outside,” she tells me. “Getting qualifications gives them a sense of achievement, self-worth and confidence they might have never had before.”

The system also provides an opportunity for emotional support, too. Without this kind of course, prisoners might get one hour a month of counselling. In this environment, they work multiple hours a day for 12 weeks with tutors, with a kind of focused support and a mutually respectful relationship that might be lacking elsewhere – or that they might have never had before. “They have lots of complicated situations dealing with being separated from their families, financial issues, they might have substance dependencies,” Sheehan tells me, “so there are a lot of things that can come out within that supportive structure.”

Of course, it doesn’t always run smoothly. “We’ve had a pretty much 90% success rate when people do speak to us [after release],” Sheehan tells me. “That goes down when people just disappear and don’t get in contact with us, which is unfortunate. Whether that’s because they’ve found their own outlets, they just want to get on with their lives or they just don’t see the opportunity.”

As David made clear in the Channel 4 clip, one of the biggest obstacles facing prison leavers is housing. Many don’t have a support network, or know that if they return to their old community they’ll be roped back into the circumstances that got them behind bars in the first place. Sheehan tells me a story of a student of theirs who was released the day before we talk. The inmate was aware that if he was released back into his old environment there was a high chance he would be re-recruited into criminal activity and realised that the best way to make a positive life for himself was to find accommodation and work elsewhere. The team spoke about this, and in response found him a placement at the other end of the country that offered housing alongside it.

“He had old associates trying to contact him and tempt him back in because they knew he was out,” Sheehan tells me. “I think if he hadn’t gotten out of there yesterday, who knows where that would have gone. And yet, the programme still would have provided him with the lessons and training. So, you know, there’s a big element of us being there at the right time to be able to help.” Very kindly, the employers at his new role had provided him with toiletries and the basics required to get on his feet, and he was starting work the day after we spoke.

Conversations with staff at the Ministry of Justice, alongside an overview of the work they’re doing at the moment made it clear that this is a department trying their best with limited resources. It certainly isn’t perfect, but they appear to have recognised areas for improvement and are attempting to find the funding to action them. One new initiative currently being worked on is ensuring that every prison leaver is temporarily housed for up to 12 weeks should they not have anywhere to go upon release – something that conversations with those close to the industry have indicated will make a huge difference. But, at the end of the day, it is a government department tied to whatever funding it’s given, with convoluted avenues of red tape and bureaucracy. It is why the support of charities like Food Behind Bars, The Right Course and The Clink is so important.

As Sheehan explained, for the most part, every person that goes to prison will, at some point, be coming out. The reasons that someone might end up in prison are multifaceted and often extremely complicated. There are huge societal gaps that allow some people to break the law and get away with it (or even, say, break the law while holding the highest office in the country), while others are forced to turn to crime for support and protection.

Unfortunately humans usually aren’t simply good or bad. We all make mistakes, and sometimes the scale of those mistakes can be more dependent on the circumstances we were born into than a fault of our own. What’s clear to me is that, no matter who we are or the circumstances we find ourselves in, everybody deserves basic human rights – whether that’s good nutrition, respect, or a second chance.