Prison food

mung beans

In Australia the prison population – according to 2015 figures – stands at just over 36,000 people.

To put this into context 36,000 people would fill six Harmony of the Seas cruise liners (max capacity of this ship is 6,360), or 0.15% of the population of Australia (24 million) or 151 per 100,000 people. This incarceration rate sits about half way in the global table, with the Seychelles having the highest rate (799 per 100,000) and tiny nation San Marino having the lowest with only 6 per 100,000. According to our calculations that’s 1.89 people (here’s a story about one of them – The world’s most pampered – and bored prisoner).*

What has all of this got to do with chefs knives and knife sharpeners I hear you ask. Well, all of these people need to be fed, and the job of keeping every single prisoner fed and watered is a huge one – over 100,000 meals a day need to be cooked.

So it may not surprise you to know that quite a few correctional services centres around Australia have our Nirey knife sharpeners in the kitchen to make sure their knives stay razor sharp just to keep up with the sheer volume of cooking that needs to be done.

Catering services are generally either provided in house or are contracted out to catering companies, although prisoners also work in kitchens, partially as just part of the work that needs to be done in the prison, but also as a form of rehabilitation and preparation for life and work after release. In some states, prisoners with previous experience in hospitality are drafted into the kitchens, or in other cases are studying hospitality and learn on the job while on the inside.

In the UK, prisons have taken this concept a step further. A charity there called ‘The Clink’ runs a series of restaurants which are open to the public, all of which are staffed by prisoners. There are restaurants at prisons in Brixton, Cardiff and in Banstead, south of London and Styal in Cheshire in the North of England.

As you would expect, there are pretty strict rules in an environment where prisoners are in direct contact with the public – if you want to dine at one of the restaurants you have no option but to book in advance and you have to pass a security clearance, bring a passport or driver’s licence and get your fingerprints taken. For self explanatory reasons tipping is not allowed, and neither are mobile phones. If you are happy to comply with these conditions, you by all accounts get to eat cordon bleu style food at very reasonable prices (for the UK).

There are also – understandably – pretty strict guidelines for the use of any implement in the kitchen that could be used as a weapon, including of course kitchen knives. These are all kept in a locked cabinet on the kitchen wall with shadow outlines painted behind to make any absence noticeable…

Many well known chefs are involved with The Clink (http://theclinkcharity.org/) and in Australia Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant employed exclusively disadvantaged young people, so (in our opinion) it would be great to see an initiative like The Clink in Australia.

If you’re not likely to get along to a Clink restaurant anytime soon, perhaps the next best thing is to go and dine in a restaurant, or stay in a hotel that used to be a prison.

Next time you’re in Oxford in the UK, go and visit the Malmaison (unfortunately literally ‘bad house’ in French) Hotel, which is a conversion of the Oxford Castle prison, a ruined Norman castle converted to a prison in the fourteenth century, which was then subsequently redeveloped into a hotel when the prison closed in 1996. The rooms are a little more comfortable than the original cells, but they do retain many of the original features. The food is we understand, a lot better, but then you do have to pay for it these days.

PS the site of the historic Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane, which closed in 1992, will be redeveloped this year with bars, restaurants and cafes planned alongside refurbishment of three of the original cell blocks to their original condition and a new museum. More details here – http://boggoroadgaol.com/.

*in case you’re wondering, the US has the second highest incarceration rate in the world at 4.6 times Australia’s (698 per 100,000) and the UK is about the same as Oz at 148. NZ is a little higher than Australia at 202.

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