You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

If You Were an Inmate, You'd Want to Keep Kosher, Too

The semiotics of prison food

John Moore/Getty Images News

Kosher food isn’t usually popular among non-Jews. Why conform to a set of stringent dietary rules if they aren’t religiously mandated?  But lots of normal things are reversed in prison, and it turns out gentiles’ aversion to kosher food is one of them: The New York Times reports that more and more prisoners are requesting kosher meals, even if they don’t generally observe the laws of kashrut—or identify as Jewish.

Inmates have figured out that the kosher meals prisons are required to offer tend to be cleaner and tastier than regular prison grub. They’re also up to four times as expensive. And prisons have a tough time turning down religiously based dietary requests, since the qualifying criterion—“sincere belief”—is so nebulous.

But when prisoners procure special food, it satisfies more than their palate. In a 2006 paper in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Rebecca Godderis, a sociologist at Canada’s University of Calgary, argued that prisoners use food to exert symbolic agency over their lives. Godderis conducted interviews with 16 inmates in three Canadian prisons to “explore food-based resistance as an important theme in prisoners’ stories about institutional food,” concluding that food is “a site of contention where struggles over power, and identity (de)construction and maintenance can be played out.”

Food represents captivity

"Many of their stories focused on the overt and covert food-related techniques that the institution used to express power over the prisoner population. Perhaps the most significant demonstration of this authority was conveyed in a tale about the institution feeding prisoners cow’s tongue without informing them what kind of meat was being served….The majority of narratives focused on the monotonous and repetitive nature of the food and the inability to access ethnic dishes. …They commented that the inability to direct how their food was cooked (for example, baking versus deep-frying) reflected their inability to make beneficial consumptive choices and thus, they could not be in full control of their own health."

So they rebel in "approved" ways

"Participants said that the attainment of food was frequently the inspiration and ‘organising principle’ for such group activities…. The inability to use food as an expression of ethnic identity was frequently addressed during the prison interviews…prisoners began to organise ‘food groups’. Interview participants listed a number of different culturally based food groups including East Indian, Black Inmates and Friends Association, Latino, Asian and Native Brotherhood. Group members could either come together to cook an ethnic meal in the kitchen or prepare the food individually in their own units (unless the prison authorities deemed that the security risks were too high). These institutionally sanctioned groups allowed individuals to access foods that were not normally available on the inside, to prepare the food as they desired and to have the opportunity for a social meal outside of the regular dining area."

And less approved ways. Like food fights.

"The dining area can be a site of contention where prisoners confront the institution and other prisoners in a battle to regain authority over their lives. This opportunity is partially due to the fact that the large number of people gathered in one area provides prisoners with the chance to outnumber authority figures:

There’s lots of conflicts between inmates and kitchen staff over the food – verbal conflicts. Sometimes they relate in a charge from the kitchen staff to the inmate. So, yeah, lots of times there is frustration and, I guess, you know, the inmate expresses it verbally.” (Participant 4)

Although not as frequent, prisoners’ narratives also described physical displays of defiance: ‘Oh, I remember years ago, I haven’t seen it lately, but years ago there were instances where stewards would have plates thrown at them and stuff like that’ (Participant 12).

Prisoners talked…about the stealing of institutional food by prisoners who worked as kitchen employees:

But cons don’t work in the kitchen over there [a specific institution] so the food is great and the reason for that is because most of the food gets stolen out of here to feed the guys that don’t come down. I mean they pay guys in the kitchen to steal food out of there so they can eat up in the units rather than going down there. (Participant 15)"