It’s usually considered the ultimate insult to liken someone’s cooking to prison food. As it turns out, the old adage may not be quite as insulting as we first thought. Though there are hundreds of facilities were inmates enjoy less than appetising fare, there are a few places where residents actually live a relatively gourmet lifestyle. As we shall see, prison food clearly doesn’t have to scrape the bottom of the culinary barrel.
Scandinavian countries have always had a lovely reputation. Moody murder mysteries aside, you’ll struggle to find someone who isn’t enjoying themselves near the Arctic Circle, and the same is true for their prisoners. In Norway’s Bastoy Prison, inmates are given a weekly allowance of about £60 in order to do their own inhouse grocery shopping and allotment growing. Prisoners are then expected to cook and eat their own food, under light supervision.
With facilities nowhere near as glamorous as their Scandinavian neighbours, British prisons tend to stick to more traditional fare. By and large, this typically means simple staples such as lasagna and chicken tikka. There is one item, however, that is undeniably odd. It was reported in 2016 that a prison in Birmingham was serving inmates a dinner of “pork pie salad” - confusing as pork pie is not dinner and should never ever be served in a salad.
Many Asian countries rely on rice to form the backbone of prison diet, and Japan is no exception. What sets Japanese jails apart, however, is the inclusion of an unusual and luxury ingredient. Prisoners in the town of Abashiri regularly dine on freshly caught mackerel fillet, served with pickled daikon and noodle broth - described by one ex-resident as “a taste explosion”.
Though normal German prison diets don’t differ dramatically from their global counterparts, a case in Cologne proves that ruthless German efficiency doesn’t always run like clockwork. When a disagreement with a food supply contractor left the inmates of Bergisch Gladbach rubbing their tummies, the German ministry came up with a radical solution. They struck a deal with the next door McDonald’s, and fed the prisoners on a diet of cheeseburgers and McToasts for the rest of the year.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Italy is home to the fanciest incarcerated eating on the planet. The impressive-looking fourteenth century castle, the Fortezza Medicea, is not just a prison, but the home of a revolutionary rehabilitation programme that trains inmates to work as fine dining chefs. Since 2007, inmates have served up a variety of world-class dishes to the lucky few quick enough to score a table.
Unfortunately, not all unusual prison food tastes good. Housing almost a quarter of all the world’s incarcerated citizens means that mealtime efficiency is at an absolute premium in the American prison system. Perhaps this explains the bizarre “nutraloaf”. Containing fruit, vegetables, bread and meat all baked together in a spongy grey patty, nutraloaf is as good a proof as any that life on the inside is not all foodie fun and games.
By and large, eating in prison is relentlessly unexciting. But, if you’re exceptionally lucky, you may yet end up an unexpected beneficiary of unusual culinary flare. Just try to stay out of trouble in America. Nutraloaf is best avoided at all costs.