Food in prison

Role and significance of food in a prison context

An-Sofie Vanhouche

In his influential publication, Sykes (1958) describes the deprivation of food as one of the five ‘pains of imprisonment’. Just as food plays an important role in society, eating inside the prison is imbued with power and significance. Even more, because of restrictive detention conditions, food may take a much more pressing significance in prison than it has outside.

If studying food has gained tremendous attention lately, the academic interest for food in prison research is rather marginal. This research aims to study food practices in prison, by meeting the following two objectives.

A first part will map all nutritional, institutional (formal and informal practices) and budgetary aspects of prison food. Both officially supplied and informally (or secretly) prepared and consumed food will be investigated in order to understand the relationship between the provision and quality of official food and possible counter strategies of prisoners to resist to this official food.

A second part will focus on the significance of food within the prison and analyze food as a vehicle of resistance, identity construction, communication, power, prestige, rewarding, comfort, sociability or any other usage of food that had been detected in general society.

Apart from a study of the international literature on food and prisons, food practices will be empirically investigated in a selection of prisons in Belgium and the Netherlands through the analysis of policy and prison documents and regulation, semi-structured and in-depth interviews with prison governors, prison staff and prisoners as well as participant observation (cfr. Ethnographic research).