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Research Says that Poor Nutrition is Causing Prisoner Re-offences

In America, we imprison more than 2.3 million people. But what does our society expect of persons who committed crimes that warranted a prison sentence?  Simply put; 1) the individual is to be re-educated; 2) the offender to become contributing and constructive members of society in a meaningful way; and 3) the offender to construct a support system that ensures success in society upon release. And yet, none of this can happen, if the inmates we wish to see transformed are given nutrition-deficient meals and diets.

On Prison Food

Every individual knows that balanced diets are vitally important to maintain sustained emotional wellbeing and good health. It is also a great social pleasure of civilized life. But, too many people in prisons are constrained to consume a poor diet, which sadly lacks nutrition. Research suggests that over 50% of food items purchasable in UK and US prisons are high in sugar and/or fat. In USA, prison food has been termed as joyless, scant, and extremely unpalatable. But it isn’t necessary that it has to be this way. Italy’s Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi is counted among the best-fed penitentiaries across countries, where prisoners themselves grow organic vegetables and fruits and are even said to leave as healthier versions of themselves than when they were first admitted.

Poor nutrition has an impact on learning and concentration and could result in incidents of aggressive or violent behavior. In prison, this unhealthy diet also contributes to increase in poor physical and mental health of prisoners, when you compare it with the general population. To handle this issue, a relatively new government strategy hopes to give the prisoners, young and old, healthy eating advice, when they arrive at the prison. Inmates less than 21 years in age, are provided nutritional guidance and make learned choices regarding their daily diets.

Poor Diet- Aggression and Impulsive Behavior

The nutritional value and amount of food in prisons and the dietary choices which are made by the inmates, has a significant part to play in the quality of his or her life. Consuming sugary and over-processed foods may give rise to sudden ups and downs in the blood glucose levels of a person leading to fatigue, insomnia, irritability, dizziness and puts the person at risk for depression, especially men. Studies verify that a wholesome foods diet offers protection against depression. Deficiencies in essential minerals and vitamins can push up the number of health issues. Low levels of zinc, iron and magnesium can lead to low moods more anxiety, and poor concentration, resulting in sleep disturbances and attention deficits. Fatty Oils rich in Omega 3 are needed to improve cognitive functioning.

Recent administrative policies have acknowledged the problem of high sugar content and additives in food, and move to address the use of colorings, which are found to have detrimental effect on hyperactivity and behavior. Recently the UK government intervened in the buying decisions of the youth by outlawing the sale of energy drink to those under 16 years of age.

The problems, which arise out of a poor diet; such as attention deficits, aggression, and hyperactivity can easily, lead to impulsive behavior. Studies show that a heightened level of impulsivity are liked to high levels of offending.

Addressing the Issue – The UK example

A freelance journalist, Lucy Vincent, has a background in both fashion and food, started a campaign to bring better food to UK prisons as she is of the opinion that decent nutrition can positively impact health, learning, development and self-esteem. The younger crowd in prison has struggled with such issues and ensuring a wholesome diet is definitely a crucial step for improving emotional health and mental wellbeing.             

Obvious difficulties exist in improving collective diets, particularly of young offenders. For instance, Public Health England indicates that to provide a balanced diet costs the government £5.99 per person, a day. But some reformatories have very stringent food budgets, which can be as low as £1.87 per person, a day. There is an obviously shortfall of money, but offering a balanced diet for younger offenders would become an expensive exercise, especially when other components of prison service are deprived of funds.

With seasoned penitentiary officers leaving the service in USA and their remaining colleagues objecting the intolerable levels of violence, the matter of improving the prisoners’ diets may not even feature on the government’s ‘To Do’ list. But to break the vicious cycle of reoffending, respect for basic human rights and the basic needs of prisoners with respect to adequate nutrition, must be met. Prisoners need healthy food if they have to stay healthy in jail.

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