Fact Checked

What is Common Prison Food?

Tiffany Manley
Tiffany Manley

Prison food has long been a subject of discussion between taxpayers, prison inmates and community officials. Taxpayers and community officials want to spend as little as possible on prison food, and inmates generally want food that is good to eat. At the same time, health officials remind everyone that providing prison inmates with food that is healthy reduces the added costs of disease in future years. The type of prison food varies from prison to prison and country to country, but generally a focus is being put on healthy meals that incorporate fruits, vegetables, low carbohydrates and low sugar. In recent times, meals that are vegetarian or kosher have show up on prison menus as well.

In the United States, the dollar amount spent per day on an inmate’s food varies from state to state. The same is true for other countries. The primary focus is spending the least amount of money to feed a large quantity of people a meal that is as nutritious as possible.

Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.

Many prison systems have found that involving the prisoners in the growing or raising of their food has had a positive overall impact. Not only do the prisoners actively participate in the cultivation of their prison food, they also learn valuable life skills such as farming, animal care and food packaging. A prison in Italy taught inmates how to operate wine-making equipment, and one in the United States taught inmates how to raise tropical fish such as tilapia.

A prison.
A prison.

An ever-growing number of inmates have special dietary needs that must be met. Some do not eat pork, others are vegetarians, and others eat only kosher foods. Prison systems have had to adapt to these diets, and some completely abstain from certain products for all prisoners.

Prison commissaries are another source of prison food for inmates. At the commissary, prisoners are allowed to purchase items such as snack foods, rice, tortillas and other foods, as well as personal hygiene items. Many inmates take items purchased from the commissary and create complete meals out of them.

Another source of prison food is the black market operating throughout many prisons. Prisoners who work in the kitchen areas might smuggle food items back to their cells, where they can create a seemingly endless array of food for fellow inmates and charge a hefty price to do so. Many items such as sugar, cooking oil or fruit are restricted to prisoners except in the lunch room. Items also might be brought in by visitors to the prison.

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Discussion Comments


I was in jail for three years and the food in there is terrible. It is terrible ingredients cooked into terrible recipes by people who have no idea what they are doing and don't care about the finished product. You might be able to choke this stuff down in 2nd grade, but for a grown man it is pretty rough.

I remember hearing about an experimental prison program where the inmates were fed very decadent and well prepared meals. The theory was that if they were well fed they would be less violent.

I remember hearing that it worked but that the program was shut down because it was too expensive and too objectionable to people in the community. I don't blame them. I don't want to think of people going to jail and then dining in a four star restaurant every night


A few years ago I saw a picture printed in a magazine that has hung on my wall ever since. It was a reproduction of some of the last meals of famous inmates condemned to death.

The picture was fascinating for two reasons. One, people choose very weird things for their last meals. One guy wanted only ice cream. Another guy ate three taco salads.

But what really surprised me is that you would expect them to bring in the last meal from outside; to use quality ingredients and a competent chef to make it at least a little special. But from the way the picture looked, the meal is cooked in the prison cafeteria using prison ingredients. That means it is basically cafeteria food, even if you order steak and lobster.

I know that these men and women are killers, but there was something so sad of thinking about eating two lunch room taco salads right before you are sent off to die.

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    • Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
      Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
    • A prison.
      By: Jeffrey Zalesny
      A prison.