It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good,
we had turkey and pistols, carved out of wood.

Opening lines from John Prine’s Christmas in Prison

Since I’ve never been incarcerated for an extended period of time, I’m not too knowledgeable about the subject when it comes to prison food. The picture that springs to my mind though would probably be my time in the service, when meals would be heaped on steel trays inside the mess hall and the line of my fellow jarheads would extend 100 or so deep. (I think that’s the reason I still have trouble with the buffet style of dining.)

Anyway, things being as they are these days, many states are either broke or getting close to it. Naturally, states are looking for ways to cut back budgets so that they can still provide vital services to its citizenry. Lately, they’ve taken to slashing prison food budgets. Lets face it, those most affected by the cutbacks aren’t likely to vote in the first place, won’t get much sympathy from the general public, and are generally forgotten about unless they start rioting or taking hostages.

I’m not gonna get on my moral high horse here. I’m not gonna get into the questions about whether the state has the moral and ethical responsibility to provide those behind bars with three squares a day or what those three squares should consist of. Suffice to say that here in America the number of inmates is well over 2,000,000 and climbing. I think there’s an old quote out there that goes something along the lines of “You can tell a lot about the society you’re in by the way it treats its prisoners.” Let’s leave it at that. Next, let’s look at the some of the nitty-gritty by looking at the food issue and not the food itself.

Feast or Famine?

Over the years, the venerable members of the Unites States Supreme Court, whether they be liberal or conservative, have ruled that prisoners do in fact maintain the right to eat once they are behind bars. Said meals were to include a variety of food staples and provide enough calories to get by on a day-to-day basis. Prisoners also have the right to request meals that are in line with any religious convictions they might have or any medical requirements that might be in order.

Still, the main source of prisoner complaints these days center around things such as the size of the meal, the quality of the food itself and the temperature at which they are forced to eat it.

Food as a Reward/Punishment

Back in the days of old, when prison reform meant little or nothing, food was often used as an enticement to get prisoners to comply with in house rules. If one acted violently towards other prisoners or, especially, prison personnel, they could be expected to live off a diet of bread and water. Once they saw the error of their ways, they would be rewarded with delicacies such as meat and cheese. One could expect breakfast, lunch and dinner with nothing in between.

Towards the turn of the century, it dawned on prison officials that a comparatively well-fed inmate would be more productive and therefore do more work. They also believed that if the prisoner was to do more work, the more they would learn and upon their release, become more productive members of society.

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Ah, good old Dean Wormer in the classic movie Animal House.

For every school of thought I guess there’s an opposing view that espouses the exact opposite. Some prisons, the infamous Alcatraz amongst them, took exactly that route. They began serving up a diet to the population that included a caloric intake of over 5,000 a day. They reasoned that a well fed prisoner would be too lazy to recognize the otherwise squalid living conditions and be less likely to rise up in a revolt.

You’ve come a long way baby

Well, I guess that depends on your point of view. As I mentioned earlier, many states have decided to take a sort of hands off approach to when it comes to the topic of prison food and have begun contracting food service providers to feed the masses. The problem with this is that many of these providers have no idea or just don’t care about meeting federal standards and guidelines when it comes to food preparation, hygiene and calorie requirements. They do, after all, have a captive audience.

Should you find yourself incarcerated by the feds, things are quite the different story, or so they claim. Each federal prison is supposed to come equipped with a salad bar and a supposed “healthy version” of whatever is being cooked up. I can’t vouch for the quality of the vittles actually being served up though.

What about me?

What about you? You think you’re special or something?

You just might be. Federal guidelines require that prisoners with health problems such as diabetes, AIDS, are pregnant (what, women don’t go to jail?) or suffering from heart conditions be afforded the right to request and receive special treatment when it comes to subject of eating. Any of these “special” requirements have to be approved by a dietician though.

Back in the day, if you claimed to be one of those them there Vegans, I’m sure prison officials would have laughed it off and told themselves you’ll eat when you get hungry enough. These days, more and more prisons are recognizing vegans as a group who have legitimate gripes and therefore deserve special treatment.

When it comes to religious requirements the Federal Bureau of Prisons has tried a one stop shopping approach. Instead of trying to cater to each and every religions dietary requirements, they’ve come up with something known as the “Common Fare” option. For instance, if the Jews in jail demand that the meat be kosher, why not serve kosher meat to everybody? If you’re on the Common Fare plan, you can probably never expect to eat pork or any of its derivatives during your stretch in big house.

When it comes to food and religion, there always seem to be a special occasion and the prison system will try to accommodate you if they can. For instance, if you’re a Muslim and in order to please Allah, you’re called upon to fast during the hours of sunrise during Ramadan, most prisons these days will comply with your wishes. The same goes for Jews and their need for kosher food during Passover and the Christians about their meatless Fridays during Lent.

I’ve been a bad boy again

As hard as it might seem to believe, there are some really nasty people that make their home behind the prison walls and don’t belong living next door to you and me. Even in prison, they fight the status quo and react to being incarcerated by becoming even more violent and threatening to not only the other prisoners but to the prison staff as well. For these folks, special actions are required.

Many of those people wind up in special wings of the prison intended to curb such behavior as tossing your food, feces, and urine at the guards. Your typical meal of hotdogs (bun included) and beans will be ground up and mashed together and subsequently baked in a single loaf. Even though said “loaf” meets the dietary guidelines, it’s definitely unappetizing at best and serves as deterrent to discourage the aforementioned behavior.

See the bottom of this w/u for further details...

One big, happy family

When you think about meals, what comes to mind? For me, it’s usually the sharing aspect. Not just the food but of stories to be told, memories recalled and upcoming events to be discussed. The conversation is light and meaningful at the same time. I doubt the same could be said about one’s dining experience in prison. For the most part, I’m guessing there's none of that. Time is limited; the routine of dining is structured and the company is probably not the most desirable.

Kinda sounds like McDonald's would be a welcome relief. Or maybe it is McDonald's?

Bon appetite!


Our own jessicapierce was kind enough to share an old mouth watering family recipe that in her inner circles is lovingly referred to as “Prison Loaf”. If this doesn’t whet your appetite, I’m sure nothing would.

Mix all ingredients in a 12-quart mixing bowl. Make sure all wet items are drained. Mix until stiff, just moist enough to spread. Form three loaves in glazed bread pans. Place loaf pans in the oven on a sheet pan filled with water, to keep the bottom of the loaves from burning. Bake at 325 degrees in a convection oven for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf will start to pull away from the sides of the bread pan when done.

Okay, the recipe isn’t really from jessicapierce herself, she happened to mention it me that it comes from and thought it was gross enough to share with the rest of you fine folks. It’s actually used in Baltimore's Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center for those prisoners who have run afoul of those in charge.

If that isn’t incentive enough to keep you out of prison, I don’t what is.