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What’s on the menu behind bars?

Zubin Dsouza


There was a time in recent memory when India had incarcerated probably one of the most infamous and globally publicised prisoners. This was Ajmal Kasab and he was charged and later convicted of the inhuman terrorist activity that he participated and partly orchestrated which ultimately led to 177 innocent lives being lost.

He was detained at our government’s behest in a secure prison cell in Mumbai while the investigations and court hearings were conducted.

Somewhere between him being arrested and getting convicted for his role in the conspiracy, he managed to grab headlines yet again!

This time although it was not for an act that was as cowardly or bloody. He was in the news for demanding and receiving biryani for his meals.

Now biryani is a rice and meat dish that is usually prepared for celebratory events and considered rather fancy given the costs involved. It has the added advantage of having descended from a rather long lineage of royal patrons.

What followed immediately was a huge public outcry; the case was expedited to an early conclusion and ended with the prisoner at the receiving end of the gallows.

Now, I am not one to debate on capital punishment or whether Kasab got what he deserved.

It was only post the hanging being meted out that the special prosecutor mentioned that the entire ‘biryani’ story was fabricated in an attempt to direct public anger towards the convict and thus in a manner of speaking, sway the case in favour of the prosecution.

Although the prosecution did not have to go through such lengths since there was ample proof against the murderer, it was a case of how public anger could easily be enflamed should they perceive prisoners receiving culinary benefits.

Food is one of the basic human rights and even prisoners are entitled to it.

It may not get the same attention to detail or passion poured into the cooking process but there are laws and human rights watch groups that work on ensuring that the daily basic calorific values are attained.

But that is just it. Being in prison in most cases entitles you to food to survive which is billed to the taxpayers but that really does not mean that the chefs that prepare the slop are making any attempts to get the food to taste great.

When you fall afoul of the law, you get locked up – plain and simple.

All I am going to share with you is what you could expect should you find yourself on the wrong side of the justice system.

Many prison wardens have spoken up in the past where they claimed that solving the food issues would have halved their problems.

Politicians and tax payers do not share a similar sentiment and so the meals are chosen based on three criteria – budget, adherence to calorific requirements and lastly based on most widely accepted cuisine or religious sentiments.

Throughout the ages, food for prisoners has been a topic in the centre of fierce debate. Some feel that they are not entitled to be pampered for the crimes that they have committed while other factions believe that denial of appropriate food is akin to inhumane treatment.

During the years preceding the French Revolution, prisoners held in the Bastille had reportedly rioted because their meals were unfit for consumption. Their gripes were that apart from being badly cooked, their meals contained maggots, mice and to their extreme horror – lobsters!

Prisoners in the infamous concentration camps were systematically starved to death or given barely enough which made their appearances gaunt and skeletal.

There are also reports of prisoners-of-war being systematically slaughtered over time to avoid having to share rations during war dependent scarcity.

A lot has changed but some things do not.

The Italians apparently have the best food where they literally take the term ‘behind bars’ rather seriously. As part of their menu, they even offer a couple of ounces of wine to promote ‘better heart health’.

The British have taken notes from the Italians and offer prisoners a choice of five options for mains which include halal, vegan and vegetarian options.

The Norwegians specifically in their low-risk prison offer inmates a chance to self-cater and give them a monthly allowance through which they can budget their meals or alternatively they could grow and farm their own.

The Australians may have got a bit too excited in this respect and received flak for offering lavish gourmet meals in their supermax facility called the Goulburn Prison.

The Americans do not seem to share similar views on catering to the culinary whims of the folks that they have just imprisoned. Instead they concentrate on giving just the right amount of nutrition required per individual per day. They have even become innovative at turning meals into an effective punishment by creating a tasteless, hard and dry block of food called Nutraloaf which requires you to toss in grains, beans and anything else that is on the menu.

The Thai supermax prison with the moniker ‘Bangkok Hilton’ serves only one meal a day which consists of a watery rice soup which may often be infested with maggots.

I think prisons are meant to rehabilitate inmates. While the experience shouldn’t really make a person want to go back ‘in there’, it should not be so punitive that when the person does get out, turns into an even larger menace to society.

The right food will go a long way in maintaining that balance.

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