“Jail food” is a derogatory term indicative of the abysmal fare often served in prisons, especially in India.
They are typically overcrowded and operate at a national average of 119 per cent occupancy, according to data published by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2020.
The guidelines in the Model Prison Manual, published in 2003 by the Bureau of Police Research and Development Ministry of Home Affairs, lay down adequate dietary provisions for inmates as 600 grams of cereals, 100g of pulses and 250g of vegetables a day.
However, the uniformity of standards is not a given when it comes to the food actually served — and by most anecdotal accounts, the food is watery and tasteless.
But this is slowly changing as various state authorities across the country launch programmes to improve the quality of the cooking and, in turn, make prisoners more skilled and ultimately employable.
Ranveer Brar to the rescue
The latest institute to do so is Lucknow Model Jail in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s largest states. The prison invited chef Ranveer Brar to teach inmates how to cook and, eventually, become self-reliant and find employment once they leave the prison.
It’s something of a culinary coup. Brar is a celebrity chef, MasterChef India judge, The Great Indian Rasoi host and founder of an eponymous culinary academy. He has worked in restaurants across the world, including Banq in Boston, US, Mayura in Ontario, Canada, and TAG Gourmart Kitchen in Mumbai, India.
“Food is a giver. I have seen the power of food and its ability to transform lives. I’ve always believed in that power and I wanted to be a medium for others to feel that power as well,” Brar tells The National.
“Food is inherently noble and cooking is primarily a noble profession. This was the driving thought behind teaming up with the National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development for the initiative to help rehabilitate prison inmates economically and socially.”
The Lucknow-born chef, who has handled banquets at the residences of Indian presidents and prime ministers, visited the prison’s kitchen and dining room in a bid to train inmates about making food healthier.
“During my interaction over lunch with the budding chefs, I shared some fundamental tips about being mindful of the cooking process holistically, which in turn makes the cooked food even healthier. For instance, soaking lentils overnight and using the same water to cook them the next morning to make a staple such as dal helps increase the nutritional value of the lentils exponentially,” explains Brar.
Apart from cooking, the inmates will also be taught packaging and how to hone their cooking skills with junior chefs from Brar’s team, as well as learning how to make confectionery in the bakery on the prison’s grounds. The goods will eventually be sold to the public.
“What inspired me about these inmates was their zeal to better their lives, that genuine thirst to pursue life-changing opportunities with a view, hope and positivity to get back in the mainstream and be economically self-sustaining,” says Brar.
Other rehabilitation initiatives
While Brar’s celebrity status helps promote this initiative, it is not the first time an attempt has been made to impart culinary skills on prisoners.
More than 17,000 inmates in South Asia’s infamous Tihar Jail in Delhi have been trained in cooking meals and baking biscuits, which are then packaged and sold to the public.
In Sambalpur Circle Jail, inmates grind flour, gram flour and turmeric powder, which are then sold to the public via a counter in the prison.
The prisoner-run Food for Freedom cafeteria in Central Prison, Thiruvananthapuram, is a hit among patrons in the Kerala city thanks to the delicacies offered at a low price.
Six other jails in the south Indian state have been selling local dishes such as appam and parotta, and also grow vegetables such as aubergine and snake gourd in a kitchen garden. Food delivery firm Swiggy even signed up to transport biryani made by Freedom Food Factory, which is run by inmates of Viyyur Central Prison in the Thrissur district of Kerala.
Coimbatore Central Jail runs an initiative called Freedom Prison Bazaar, which enables visitors to buy food and other products made by the inmates.
In Himachal Pradesh’s jails, many inmates are trained by professional chefs each year to prepare high-quality baked products such as cookies, biscuits, pizzas, burgers, and doughnuts.
Pinch of salt
However, some believe the programmes do not go far enough to help integrate former inmates into society, leaving them facing economic, social and personal challenges.
Vijay Raghavan, a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, has more than 30 years’ experience in the field of prison reforms and rehabilitation.
"What India needs is a clear policy on vocational training and rehabilitation assessing each prisoner’s education level, skill sets and social background, which then attempts to teach them skills that will make them employable when they leave prison," says Raghavan.
“Most of what we see is prison industries that give meaningful work in units such as carpentry or weaving, for which they are paid wages according to guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. However, the goods are usually bought by government departments, like police uniforms or furniture and are therefore self-sustaining," he says.
“Such trades are fine to keep them occupied in jail, but most of them are not relevant when they leave. Unless there is a comprehensive system of rehabilitation and follow-up that trains them in skills that have a market outside, and tracks the efforts of the convicts once they leave jail, it may not give expected results."
Other than their employability, factors such as stable relationships and shelter also play a part in their success after release, Raghavan adds.
"Of course, that is not to ignore the efforts of philanthropists and other good Samaritans who offer to teach skills free of charge, but we have to move beyond these isolated cases to really make a difference.”