Doing Porridge: Understanding Women's Experiences of Food in Prison

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Sociology


As highlighted by the Farmer Review in 2019, there is still a pressing need to understand the experience of women who are in prison. Women prisoners are likely to be drawn from more disadvantaged backgrounds and more likely to enter prison with experience of drug and/or alcohol dependency, domestic violence and self-harm. Food forms an important part of daily life in prisons. However, research has yet to provide a detailed exploration of food and the experience of eating in women's prisons in England. This study will provide an important opportunity to hear women's voices, in relation to food in prison and by doing so, will provide a window into life in women's prisons more generally.

The proposed research analyses women's experiences of food in prison using a range of qualitative research methods including observations, interviews, reflective diaries and art workshops. These will provide insight into women's perceptions of food in prison, with the aim of exploring the connections of food in situated spaces; the use of food in relation to consumption and preparation; and the extent to which ethnic and cultural needs are catered for in practice.

The main contribution of this project will be to apply an intersectional perspective to understanding the dynamics of food, in relation to conceptualising issues of social control; agency; and power in women's prisons. This study will look deeper at the intersections of gender, race and social class, with regards to how these have influenced the use of food in prison: for example, by looking closer at the essence of day-to-day prison life, food practices and daily diets. Fieldwork will take place in four women's prisons: HMPs Styal, Send, East Sutton Park and Downview. All four prisons have been selected because they are distinct from one another in terms of their location, capacity, architecture, length of sentences as well as the facilities available for the preparation and consumption of food. They also have differing governing practices and diverse ways of managing the provision of food.

Twenty women and five members of staff will take part in interviews in each location. The women from our study will also be invited to participate in an art workshop and to complete a reflective diary of their experiences of food in prison. This will provide rich multi-sensory findings from a total of eighty women in four prisons. We will conduct one-to-one interviews with women twice during the fieldwork. This will be at the beginning as well as after delivering the art workshop. During data collection, we will also be conducting observations as well as completing fieldwork diaries.

To celebrate the women's participation in the workshop, we will hold an exhibition to display their artwork for the public. We will manage and coordinate the planning of the exhibition in partnership with Koestler Arts, while Koestler Arts have agreed to set 'food' as a theme within their annual competition, leading to ongoing impact from the research. Within this context the study will make a practical contribution to knowledge by campaigning to improve the quality of food in women's prisons. We will develop a practitioner toolkit which will be disseminated to prison governors. Furthermore, we will share our findings with policymakers and practitioners to help with campaigning for change in the context of the quality of food in prison. This research will contribute to academic knowledge on food, women and prisons, in which we will draw out key themes in relation to: social control, agency as well as resistance. The findings from the project will be disseminated at national and international conferences in the fields of criminology and sociology.


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Title Artwork from women participants in the project 
Description We delivered art workshops in each prison to contribute to the project. The art work was made by the women in prison to understand their experiences and feelings towards food in prison. The art work was then displayed in the exhibition curated by Koestler Arts. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2023 
Impact One of the key impact factors has been response from the public about the exhibition. Testimonies included: "An inspiration to women around the world. Proving that art and creativity has no limits, even when life is not so ideal. Stay stars girls" "So colourful, creative, different. Cheered me up a lot seeing all your work. Gives out lots of positivity." "All the artwork is absolutely awesome and inspiring." "Very creative and interesting. Makes me feel happy." "All the artists put in so much effort - showing talent and humour. The entire exhibition is fantastic, well done girls, hope it was therapeutic for you" "Thank you - wonderful exhibition which produces lots of thoughts. Congratulations to the exhibitors" In this, many of the women who participated in the art workshops spoke about feeling inspired to further develop their art skills and to be able to use the equipment provided to produce further artwork. 
Description At the moment, we are still finishing data collection including data analysis of key findings. However, the most significant achievements made in this award has been the art exhibition, prison staff workshops and the collaborations made with the prisons and charities. We are currently still active and therefore it is quite early to know if the objectives have been made. The aim of this project is to share our findings with charities, prison system and policy makers, and therefore, we would like to work with the key stakeholders on how we can translate our findings in to practice. This is already been developed by the design and facilitation of the workshops dedicated for prison staff. In this, we are working closely with voluntary organisations like PACT that supports families of prisoners, and we are organising a seminar to disseminate our findings to practitioners to improve the quality of food in visiting room in prison.
Exploitation Route At the moment, this funding is still active, so we are still at the beginning in putting forward our findings to others and to see the response of those who will recieve this.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description We are still at the beginning of analysing data, however, we have are working on designing the impact activities. The first set of activities include workshops for prison staff- in partnership with food behind bars- we are working on developing strategies that can improve the quality of food in prison by identifying key findings significant to the prison and to work on recommendations that could be forward which is economic feasible but improve the eating practices for women. We will be working on other areas impact over the course of this year, including a recipe book that will illustrate meals made in the prison, organising a house of commons policy network and to design an animation on our findings that can be shared with organisations to promote an awareness about the project on food in prison.
First Year Of Impact 2023
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Description Prison Staff Workshops
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Blogs, Podcasts, website and social media posts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have had over 100 views for our website on the project. We regularly post on Instagram and Twitter about updates on our project. These are always positively received with retweets and likes. We also organise podcasts with a number of speakers from voluntary organisations to those who were released from prison. We publicise this on the project's social media and the website. This is well received with views ranging from 60 to 100. The PI has also been invited on BBC radio Surrey to discuss the art exhibition which launched at Southhill, Bracknell. We were published in the Big Society-cultural- section this article also publicized the art exhibition. We have also been working on a range of seminars to disseminate our findings to charities and the prison.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022,2023