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The UK's Prison Food Nearly Started a Riot

An inmate at HMP Northumberland was so incensed by being served a cold meal that he staged a protest, perching himself over a high railing for several hours before a national tactical response unit was called in.
February 3, 2015, 10:13am
Photo via Flickr user thomashawk

Londoners might have been miffed to awake to a snow-blanketed city this morning, but they weren't the only ones rankled by the cold.

Recently, an inmate at HMP Northumberland was so incensed by being served a cold meal that he staged a protest, perching himself over a high railing for several hours while decrying the state of the prison's food.

HMP Northumberland called in the national tactical response unit to deal with the situation, which was resolved when the prisoner fell from the landing onto a mat that had been placed below, injuring his ankle in the process.

According to the Newcastle Chronicle, prison staff said that the kitchen is located some distance from certain cell blocks, meaning that some prisoners might receive meals that have gone cold. The paper quoted an anonymous staffer who said, "The food has almost caused riots. On Tuesday the food was that bad a lad was hanging over railings for a full day."

A recent report by her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons found that "prisoners had mixed views about the food," with about half of those surveyed describing the food as bad or very bad—but that's barely scratching the surface of the issues there. Following that report, the Howard League for Penal Reform slammed the prison as "failing miserably" and a "shambles," where prisoners could easily get their hands on drugs and booze. Labour MP Ian Lavery, an opponent of privatized prisons, has called HMP Northumberland "a powder keg."

The prison is run by private French firm Sodexo, which is not only the largest catering company in the UK—providing meals to schools, hospitals, and the armed forces—but also maintains a subsidiary company that administers correctional facilities. Sodexo Justice Services, which also maintains four other jails in the UK, boasts "a reputation for delivering excellent, ethical, innovative and rehabilitative services" on its website.

Sodexo previously made headlines in 2013, when horse DNA was discovered in its frozen beef products.

The company reportedly has an "action plan" in place to resolve prisoners' gripes. But cold food is hardly new to the UK's prisons, or its only problem. A 2012 review of prisons by the Ministry of Justice's Independent Monitoring Board found that "[while] there were concerns about the quality or quantity of food supplied to prisoners, most comments focused on inadequate or worn out kitchens and equipment." It also noted that overcrowding "means some prisoners have to sit on the toilet to eat their meals."

Thought not ideal, cold porridge and toilet-seat tables are still a far cry from the conditions at many prisons in the US. Several state correctional facilities administered by Aramark, another private firm, have reported maggots in their food and rodent infestations in their kitchens, as well as nutritionally inadequate menus. Meanwhile, Mississipi lawmakers want to supplement their prisons' meal plans with donated deer meat and MREs.

And you can bet those MREs won't be served warm.