Our fascination with prison food is usually limited to death row prisoners' elaborate last meal requests and urban legends about disturbingly low-grade meat. But nowadays, the walls between the prison cafeteria and the outside world are coming down, at least metaphorically.
In early June, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia sponsored a tasting of prison food through the years. Now a museum, the penitentiary closed in 1970 but reopened to give visitors a sensory experience of prison life. Lately, that experience has been expanded to include taste.
"We wanted to talk about the food served in prisons today, because the prison population has increased so enormously over the last 40 years, driving the cost per meal, per inmate all the way down to $2.30," Sean Kelley, a senior vice president at the penitentiary, tells The Salt. "It's institutional food, and it tends to be heavily processed — canned, frozen or fried."
Back in 1949 and 1830 — the two eras highlighted in the penitentiary's tasting — Kelley says the menu was less predictable and almost always made from scratch.
"The 1949 menu we have on display is filled with all sorts of quirky things inmates were able to make," he says. "There is a lot of disagreement about whether food was better or not back then, but it reflects that the inmate chefs had to make do with what they could get."
Back in 1830, the food was monotonous but hearty: A typical meal was salted and broiled beef, served with "Indian mush," or boiled cornmeal flavored with molasses. "During all those periods, the food was relatively high quality and nutritious," Kelley says.
Ironically, one of the most nutritious meals served to Pennsylvania inmates today may be "food loaf," an intentionally bland meal used as punishment food. It's made from carrots, potatoes, garbanzo beans, cabbage and oatmeal — but no seasonings.
Kelley asked the event's caterer, who also works as a correctional officer, to make the meal for the tasting. Each state has its own version of this type of "nutraloaf," and it's regularly presented as evidence in court battles over whether food can be a form of "cruel and unusual punishment."
While using food in punishment is common practice, some prisons also try to turn food into an opportunity for inmates. At Angola Prison in Louisiana, inmates have long been involved in growing corn, wheat and soybeans to feed themselves and inmates at other correctional facilities. And as we've reported, the Northeastern Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in Concord, Mass., has a restaurant open to the public, staffed by inmates enrolled in a food service training program.
That model of turning prison food service into a job-training program is gaining traction in the U.K. as well.
The Clink Charity, an organization that opened a restaurant serving seasonal fare at High Down prison in 2009, just opened another one inside the visitor center at Cardiff Prison, according to The Telegraph. Customers at the new Clink restaurant, which seats up to 100 diners, can get three-course meals for about $30. The organization says the recidivism rate among inmates who participate in their High Down restaurant is 12.5 percent, compared with a national average of 47 percent.
Apparently, American restaurateurs believe that jails can stimulate the appetite as well. In Salem, Mass., the Great Escape Restaurant is housed in a building that used to be America's oldest active jail until it closed in 1991. Today, the restaurant is "designed with a jail theme featuring brick walls, the original 2-foot thick granite floor, a bar made out of recycled cell doors, and cell bars all around," according to the website.
And over in Jefferson City, Mo., Prison Brews opened a brewpub located in the city's historic east side, two blocks from the old Missouri State Penitentiary. One thing they better not be serving there: pruno, that homemade hooch that's been the source of several cases of botulism in prisons in the past year.