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A woman clutches a metal fence and looks out to the blue skies beyond.
As of 2022 there were 3,216 women prisoners in the UK. Islandstock/Alamy Stock Photo

Prison food: what we learned from organising food-themed art workshops for women prisoners

There are two common misconceptions about food in British prisons: that it is either not fit for human consumption, or too luxurious to be enjoyed by those in prison. The artworks produced by the women prisoners in our project broke down both these myths.

For imprisoned people, creating artworks can be a critical step in overcoming the barriers to discussing sensitive issues such as drug use, mental health or suicide.

As part of Doing Porridge, a two-year project examining the role of food in women’s prisons, we organised workshops for women prisoners in the south-east and north of England.

The classes were facilitated by an art teacher who had expertise in running art programmes with people in prison. The aim was to create a space for open discussion of prison food. The final works were displayed at an exhibition entitled On My Plate in Bracknell, Berkshire, in partnership with the prisons charity, Koestler Arts.

The women we worked with saw prison food as another form of social control. Many said they felt a loss of identity due to not cooking for themselves.

However, we also found some women had taken back small pockets of control by being creative with the resources they had in their cells or communal areas to concoct meals. One woman even spoke about baking a cheesecake using the microwave.

Art works framed on a white wall.
The Koestler Arts exhibition, On My Plate. Author provided (no reuse)

What the artworks told us

The diverse artworks from our workshops exemplified the tensions and challenges associated with the provision and consumption of prison food. They also highlighted the issues of body image, lack of choice, escape, and problems at home that are experienced by many women prisoners.

Body image is a contentious issue for incarcerated women. Many of the artworks centred on the high-carb food and lack of opportunities to exercise. These images often represented the change in the naked body and symbolised the anxieties the women experienced about their weight in prison.

Infographic signs for the On My Plate exhibition hung on a white wall.
The On My Plate exhibition at the South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell. Author provided (no reuse)

Prisons are “designed by men for men”. For many women, being confined in a space that takes away freedom limits the ability to celebrate their personal identity. Analysing these artworks can develop our understanding of how they feel about their womanhood.

Another theme that emerged was the women’s experience of the monotonous, unchanging menus of the prison kitchen.

A banana painted with a top hat, coat and cane.
Anthropomorphised fruit and vegetables were a common theme. Author provided (no reuse)

One of the images illustrated a tin of beans with the word “AGAIN” in capitals. This highlighted the distress of eating the same types of food for a long period of time, and the long-awaited but unsatiated need for nutritious and culturally diverse food.

The importance of choice in prison appeared in much of the artwork produced, from the desire for healthier food to frustrations about not having the choice to make informed decisions about what and how they eat.

This can be seen in motifs like bananas with human features, symbolising the desire for fruit and vegetables which are not always accessible, available or nutritious in prison.

In one poetic illustration entitled I Am the Artist, a prisoner wrote: “I am what I eat.” This was followed by a commentary on the foods she ate on the outside, that she saw as contributing to her identity: “I am feta: I am beetroot: I am peanut butter.”

Food’s connection to home

Home life was another prevalent theme, reflecting the need of many to escape the realities of prison life. Creating these artworks also provided comfort for some of the women, as they shared testimonies of the food they ate growing up, and what food they desired the most while in prison.

Painting shows a blanket covered in cakes at the beach. A woman in a bikini stands behind a grey tabby cat.
Food as fantasy was a recurring theme in the artworks. Author provided (no reuse)

Motifs included beaches, eating with loved ones and tasty desserts, which were seen as an unobtainable fantasy – this type of food is a privilege not afforded in prison.

Often, art with the theme of home life represented the women’s desire to feel “normal”, something they associated with the memories and emotions around food in the home.

Understanding these food-themed artworks produced by imprisoned women allows a better understanding of the social inequalities they are experiencing while incarcerated.

Exploring their relationships with food brought invaluable understanding of their often complex and traumatic experiences, as well as the intersection of inequalities they face, from racism to sexism and poverty.

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