Prison protesters - all they need is a decent meal.

Monday 25 June 2012, 2:20PM

A couple of prisoners at Paremoremo have just come down from a tower in the yard after a ‘peaceful protest against the Department’ – according to the message they apparently wrote with toothpaste on a black board.  One of them was well known, Aaron Forden, known as ‘Houdini’ for his previous escapes. According to Peter Williams QC, who the prisoners wanted to contact, they were complaining about inhumane conditions and inadequate food.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Prisoners live a life of luxury, don’t they, with underfloor heating, flatscreen TV, and three square meals a day. They don’t have to work or attend rehabilitation programmes – just sit around chatting with their mates planning what crimes to commit when they get out.  Well that’s the stereotype.

The reality is something else entirely.  In 2009, a report  on Paremoremo described conditions at the prison as ‘putrid’ and found shortages of guards, lax security, and poor hygiene.  The Ombudsman has documented inadequate health and dental treatment of prisoners, including the denial of pain medication and pointed to breaches of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

UN Minimum Standards for food

But let’s talk about the food. Article 20 of the UN Minimum Rules says “every prisoner shall be provided … with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality… and drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he needs it.”

The notion that prisoners get three square meals a day is a myth. Most inmates seem to think the food is barely fit for pigs – which is not surprising considering the Department spends only $4.50 a day on food for each prisoner.   That’s $31.50 a week. That might have been a realistic figure 30 years ago but today it would barely buy bread for a week let alone three square meals a day.

Prisoner complaints about food

Prisoners frequently complain about the quality of the food. Last year one prisoner wrote to chief executive Ray Smith claiming that that prison food was ”high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar rubbish” and the meals were often inedible. The Ombudsman reported recently that “Prisoners continue to complain that the national menus implemented by the Department do not consider the specific health needs of prisoners, especially diabetics.”

Former Corrections Minister Judith Collins responded to these concerns with this churlish comment: “Stay out of jail if you don’t like the food.” The police seem equally uninterested in providing a healthy diet for prisoners.  The Wairarapa Times recently reported that a young man who spent a weekend in the police cells was given nothing but noodles and cold water.

The link between diet and violence

Prisoners tend to have poor health and nutritious food is important. Recent research in the US suggests that the modern diet may be a factor contributing to violent behaviour in Western society.    The study investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements and hypothesises that modern industrialised diets may be changing the very architecture and functioning of the brain. It suggests the influence of poor diet is such that individuals may not always be responsible for their aggression – bringing into question the very foundations of criminal justice and the notion of culpability

Another study at Aylesbury prison in the UK raised prisoners’ intake of nutrients up to the level recommended by government guidelines.  It was a placebo-controlled double blind randomised trial. The researchers found 231 volunteer prisoners and assigned half to a regime of supplements and half to placebos. It showed that when young men there were fed multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, the number of violent offences they committed in prison fell by 37%.  The prisoners taking the placebos showed no change in their behaviour.

A Dutch research team repeated the experiment and released this report “Effects of Nutritional Supplementation on Aggression, Rule-Breaking, and Psychopathology among Young Adult Prisoners.” The researchers urged caution in interpreting the results but said: “The prospect of influencing aggression and rule-breaking behaviour with nutrients in moderate doses is important enough to warrant further research. This is particularly true as adequate supplementation may also have beneficial effects on mental health and cognitive functioning.”

Although these studies do not suggest that poor diet alone can account for complex social problems, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham says that he is now “absolutely convinced that there is a direct link between diet and antisocial behaviour, both that bad diet causes bad behaviour and that good diet prevents it.”

Violence in New Zealand prisons

It’s not entirely clear if the two prisoners who protested at Paremoremo were complaining about the food.  But one thing is certain – violence in New Zealand prisons is on the rise.  In 2011, 241 prison staff were assaulted and 862 prisoners were assaulted by other inmates. In May 2010,  Jason Palmer, became the first officer to be killed in a New Zealand prison after he was punched by an inmate. Surely it wouldn’t do any harm to give prisoners decent food with adequate vitamins and minerals. It might even help reduce violence and assaults on prison officers. It would certainly add to our reputation as a civilised country – instead of one that breaches basic human rights.