The food in Australian prisons isn't as terrible as what you see in movies. It's not slop on a tray, slid through a hole in the cell door. In Australia (I only have experience in NSW, but I'm led to believe it is the same around the country) the dinners are frozen meals that are sent to every prison (excluding privately owned jails) and heated up before being served. Twice each week in NSW, you get cold dinners (such as the egg and pasta salad shown here) and these are typically better because they are fresh, not frozen. The dinners are much better than slop, but you would not describe them as being good. Mostly they are not enjoyable, and they are NOT nutritionally sufficient. There are some meals that inmates look forward to, like the chicken wings (called Chicken bites, or Devil wings) but you only get three tiny wings, served with a potato salad or pasta salad.
What are examples of jail food?
Some examples of dinners are lasagna, fried rice, chicken curry, chicken schnitzel, chicken and corn rolls, beef with black bean sauce and beef ravioli. Although they may sound appetising, trust me, they are not. They are obviously not what you would see in a restaurant, and they wouldn't even compare to a poorly cooked home meal.
For weekday lunches, you are given a packaged wrap or a packaged sandwich, that could have been made months earlier, then frozen. Sometimes it's only half thawed by the time you receive it. Some examples of sandwiches are corned beef, ham and cheese, eggs. You will also get a small plastic tub of fruit salad or yoghurt and an apple.
On weekends, the lunches are hot, usually meat pies, sausage rolls, or pigs in a blanket (or cock in a sock, as we like to call it).
Boiled eggs and pasta salad - one of the standard dinners
Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Do inmates eat the same thing over and over?
Lunches and dinners are on a four week roster, so if you start noting down what you ate on a certain day, you know it will come back after 4 weeks. For special occasions such as Easter and Christmas, you may also get something a little extra, or better than the usual dinner.
For breakfast, you will get bread, jam, margarine, cereal, tea, coffee and milk. This will be the same every day, and does not change. You also get regular snacks such as muffins, cookies and bananas.
Is the food the same in every prison?
At privately owned prisons like Junee and Clarence, the dinners are higher quality. Instead of frozen meals from Corrective Services Industries, the dinners are prepared by inmates that work in the kitchen. The lunches are better, they are freshly-made sandwiches on weekdays and hot food on the weekends (sausage rolls, pies) but the breakfast is the same. At some minimum security prisons like Clarence, Glen Innes and Muswellbrook, inmates can buy a limited amount of perishable food per week that they can cook themselves. The food they can buy includes frozen meat and fresh veggies. Some examples of food on the perishable buy-ups are chicken drumsticks, chicken wings, rump steak, lamb chops, mince meat, bacon, eggs, pasta, broccoli, oats, ice cream tubs, olive oil. Inmates receive this in addition to their normal meals, so many inmates that cook will throw away the dinners provided by the jail. Clarence is an exception - they provide their inmates a certain amount of perishable food that they can buy each week but do not provide them a regular dinner.
What if you're still hungry?
Each week, you can buy grocery items from a set list, which is delivered once a week (for example, each Wednesday). This is called a buy-up, and specifically bubble buy-up. It is referred to as a bubble buy-up because you fill in a form similar to the multiple-choice answer sheets from school, with the small bubbles that you fill in. There are also monthly activity buy-ups, which is where you buy clothes, doonas, shoes, and other recreational items such as TV, playing cards and radio.
There are quite a wide variety of items you can buy on the bubble buy-up and inmates are allowed to spend $100 each week (which was raised to $150 during the worst period of COVID). Popular food items are canned tuna, instant noodles, soft drinks, chocolate bars, chips, lollies.
To purchase buy-up (as well as pay for phone calls) you need money in your jail account. If you do not work, you receive about $15 each week which is referred to as 'yard money'. If you work, you will earn more, but the wage is very low, typically about $1 - $2 per hour, on top of the yard money received. At a working jail, the starting wage for most inmates is around $35 per week (which includes the yard money), and the highest paid inmates may get close to $100 per week, but often they are working 7 days (for example, in the kitchen). Your family and friends can also send money into your account, although the limit is $600 per month in NSW.
Want to know more?
If you want to read more about life in prison, read my quick overview of prison life or search for a particular topic using the search function at the top right of the page, or checking the menu. If you are about to face jail time, I suggest you read my post about how to survive prison. I am regularly adding more information to the site, so I may not yet have written about the topic you want to know about yet. If that is the situation, please leave a comment or send me an email via the Contact Me form below, and I will endeavour to reply as soon as possible, or even publish a post so that others can also benefit from it.
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