Ever since 2009 I have kept to a strict vegetarian diet. This is something which, on paper, the prison service caters for entirely. However, the reality is sometimes very different and, in my case, it led me to finding myself over £10,000 in debt!
Prison serveries are supposed to be staffed by prisoners who have been fully trained in food service and hygiene and safety. But very often the prisoners given this job are given no training whatsoever. I know this because I was once one of them. I also know this because my friends who continue in this job have also told me that they received no training and are not appropriately qualified.
One result of having untrained servers and staff who simply don’t care is that serving procedures break down in favour of ease and convenience. That has led to a situation where, despite the prison service providing menu options suitable for a variety of specific diets (Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal, and Ordinary Diets) that extends only up until the food reaches the point of service. At this point the breakdown in serving procedures renders all of that effort and expense a waste of time and money. This is because the different menu options are consistently cross contaminated by one another. It is obvious that when non-halal meat drops into an halal curry, that curry is no longer halal. Similarly, when meat of any kind drops into the vegetarian casserole, that casserole is no longer vegetarian and when the cheese sauce drips from the vegetarian option into the vegan lasagne that is no longer vegan. Well, that is exactly what happens on prison serveries.
But the cross contamination doesn’t end there. Splashing, dripping, and dropping are only one type of cross contamination. Another type is caused by the order of service. Most prison serveries are coordinated to place the main menu option on a prisoner’s plate first, and only then to serve the side dish. For that reason, when one prisoner orders pork sausages (which are not suitable for anyone on an halal, vegetarian, or vegan diet) those sausages are put on his plate before he gets his chips. When the chips are then put onto the plate too, the chip scoop rubs up against the sausages before being placed straight back into the tray of chips in order to serve the next prisoner. Since the chips are now contaminated by the oil from the pork, anyone who keeps to a specific diet now cannot take the chips themselves.
The final type of cross contamination comes as a result of prisoners serving multiple menu options using their hands. Serving procedures are clear in that they state that, where utensils are used to serve menu items, separate utensils must be available for each option (no two options should share a utensil). However, when prisoners decide that it is easier to serve a menu item with their gloved hands, they use the same gloved hand to serve all items. It is quite obvious that it you pick up a pork pie with your hand and then pick up an halal sausage roll, a vegetarian pasty, or a vegan pie with that same hand, cross contamination occurs.
When I arrived at HMP Frankland these issues had already been raised by several prisoners on repeat occasions but nothing had yet been done. So, when I gained a place on the Prisoner Diversity Committee in 2010, I took this up as something I would repeatedly raise in the hope of finding a solution.
The prison had other ideas. To be fair, a couple of senior staff members did turn up on the wings to observe serving practices, and they reported back that they saw no problems. However, there are three real reasons for this. The first is that those members of staff only seemed to be interested in the first kind of cross contamination: splashing, dripping and dropping between menu items. They didn’t observe the other types of cross contamination because they didn’t look for it. They simply weren’t interested. The second reason that it was not witnessed by observers was that the sight of a manager standing over you tends to remind you not to be complacent. In this case it isn’t that you directly intend to cover things up, it’s just that you pay more attention to what you should have always been doing. The final reason that observers witnessed no cross contamination is a little more sinister. I have directly experienced changes in the way staff conduct themselves when they are being observed. Changes which are so drastic that they cannot be simply put down to those staff members paying more attention. Changes that can be explained only by the fact that when there is no observer, staff don’t care at all, but when there is, they have to.
The funny thing was, although the prison management claimed not to have witnessed any cross contamination, they still admitted that there was a valid issue which needed to be addressed . The only problem was, they couldn’t think up a solution that would address it. So I came up with one for them. I wrote up a short document explaining the problems and how they are caused, and came up with a solution which would have eliminated cross contamination in two easy steps, involving no extra work or expense.
I proposed that the order of service should change. Instead of serving the main food option first, the side dish should be dished first. That way, there is nothing on the plate when the chips, or rice, or potatoes are placed on it and the utensils used to serve those things therefore cannot be contaminated by the main food option. All that would need to be done in order to facilitate this is to put the trays out in a different order. Easy and effective.
The second step involved a small increase in work for the servers, but nothing significant. The second suggestion was to ensure that hands are never used to serve any option, and separate utensils are available at all times. This necessitates getting extra utensils out of the cupboard, but that is all. And so, in two easy steps, cross contamination could have been reduced to an absolute minimum. And the prison management seemed grateful. They said it was good. It was workable. It would be implemented as soon as possible.
But then it wasn’t. It wasn’t implemented in whole, and it wasn’t even implemented in part. I chased it up, both through the diversity meetings and through personal complaints, and at every turn the Kitchen manager asked me to be patient and to give him more time to organise it. And I did. I gave him more time every time he asked me for it for almost three years. But no changes were seen. Eventually I complained again and this time I had had enough. For four years I was patient. For four years I put up with only receiving half of a meal or even no meal at all because the vegetarian food had become contaminated. So I took it further.
I commenced a court action through the County Court on the grounds that the prison had failed to provide a full suitable meal. As part of my evidence, I compiled a diary of every food item provided at the servery for one month, together with a log of whether each item had been contaminated. I found that the prison failed to provide a suitable meal on a massive 88% of occasions.
During the progress of this case I was transferred to HMP Wakefield and have spent most of the last year preparing for trial. The Ministry of Justice’s defence basically came down t a few simple points. They said that they had no obligation to provide vegetarian food at all. So I pointed out that the legally binding prison service instruction stated that they absolutely do have an obligation to do so. They then stated that, if there is such an obligation, they are under no obligation to ensure that vegetarian food is not cross contaminated. So I directed them to the section of the instruction which stated that it is “essential” that cross contamination between food options cannot be allowed to occur. Then they stated that they do not accept that any such cross contamination did occur. So I provided copies of the complaints and diversity committee meeting minutes in which prison staff had admitted that it occurs. Then they claimed that even if it did occur, it was no more than should be expected in any servery point. So I directed them back to the Prison Service Instruction and the passage that states that cross contamination between food items cannot be allowed to occur “even briefly”. At which point they claimed that I did not suffer as a result of this cross contamination as I was able to cook for myself. So I pointed out that I am paid less than minimum wage and this level of pay has always been justified by them on the grounds that I do not have to pay rent or bills or even for any of my meals. Their failure to provide a full suitable meal on 88% of occasions had left me with two options: starve or spend my already pitiful wage on food to feed myself. Since I was entitled to a meal and had not received one I had lost financially. In the five years that it took for the case to come to court I calculated that I had lost to the tune of over £5,000. To say that the cross contamination had not caused me to suffer was ridiculous.
But all of these arguments happened pre-trial. At the beginning of this year the Court made orders for the sharing of documents between the parties in preparation for a final trial date in July. And then it fell apart.
When I was put into segregation from April until June I had no access to any of my property and despite multiple requests for my legal papers to be provided from my cell on the wing, this was refused. As a result, I was unable to provide the necessary paperwork by the deadline set by the court in May. The Ministry of Justice didn’t hesitate to put in an application requesting that the Court order that I should not be allowed to rely on witness evidence as a penalty for my non-compliance. I protested on the grounds that it was the defendant themselves who had made it impossible for me to comply by refusing me access to my legal papers, but when it came to trial and the judge considered the application he said that he had to consider first and foremost whether the delay had been significant and he found that it was. The reason, according to him, was unimportant. The fact that it was significant meant that sanctions should be imposed and that therefore I would not be allowed to rely upon witness evidence.
What was most shocking was the effect that had. The witness evidence was not just limited to third party witnesses. It also included my own evidence. And, since my case could not possibly succeed without me being able to give evidence, the claim would surely fail and was therefore dismissed. Not only that, since the case was dismissed, I became liable for the Ministry of Justice costs. Costs to the tune of £10,000.
I explained I had been in prison since I was 16 years old. That I have never worked. That my National Insurance number is entirely unused. That I have no savings and no assets. That I don’t have a penny to my name. That I earn less than minimum wage in prison and that I am expected to buy telephone credit and stamps in order to maintain meaningful family contact as well as essential toiletries and food simply in order to survive. But the Court paid no heed to that. They said I was liable for the costs regardless and would be expected to pay them back at a rate of £5 per month at a minimum. I worked out the maths. It would take 67 ½ years to pay that off. I would be 96.
This is the Justice System we hold so highly as an example to the world. A system which makes the rules up themselves, breaks them, claims there was no rule there in the first place, backtracks when shown otherwise, and imposes £10,000 of debt upon someone who has absolutely no money or means to obtain any, and who had already been rendered £5,000 out of pocket by their failures.