Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This week, we’re chatting to Lucy Vincent, prison food activist and founder of Food Behind Bars.
“I’ve had people say, ‘I think they should only get bread and water,’” says Lucy Vincent. “I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t think they should get any food at all; starve them to death’.”
She’s describing some of the reactions she’s received after speaking out about her campaign, Food Behind Bars, which aims to improve meals in prisons. It’s safe to say that not everyone understands why Vincent has chosen this particular cause – but she appreciates why people are sometimes hostile.
“The way that people see prisons in this country is, unfortunately, largely shaped by the media,” she says. “I can’t really blame people for thinking that prisoners all have PlayStations or whatever, because I see those stories in the news as well.”
But Vincent, 25, knows that life in prison isn’t as cushy as certain sections of the press would have us believe. Since launching Food Behind Bars a little over a year ago, she’s visited jails up and down the country, speaking to inmates as well as the employees – from kitchen managers to governors – who keep the prison system running. And she’s seen how bleak the state of food in jail really is.
“You don’t need a lot of money to eat well,” she says. “But in most prisons, £2 – and in some instances, £1.80 – has to cover three meals a day [per person]. A lot of these meals are being prepared for 700 people or more. It’s very difficult to provide decent, healthy food on that small a budget for that many people.”
It was while conducting research for an article that Vincent, who has a background in fashion and beauty journalism and currently manages a hair salon in east London, first became aware of the problem of poor food in prisons. She came across a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons titled Life in Prison: Food, and it opened her eyes to an issue she’d never considered before.
“The report’s ultimate conclusion was that food has a much bigger impact than any of us think,” she explains. “In instances where the food isn’t great, this seems like it might actually be contributing to violence; it might be promoting bad behaviour. Prisoners might be calmer if we gave them better food.”
Vincent had no prior knowledge of the prison system or experience in prison reform activism, but her interest was piqued. “I’ve always cared about helping people whose lives are a bit out of control,” she explains. After her article – about the food that women eat in UK prisons – was published, she decided to use what she’d learned to raise awareness of the problem. Food Behind Bars was launched as a standalone campaign at the end of 2016.
The campaign, she says, is two-fold. “There’s me being shouty about the issue and trying to gain awareness, and then there’s the more nitty-gritty stuff.” The nitty-gritty stuff involves the aforementioned trips behind bars, where she discusses how meals can be improved with staff and works with inmates to improve their cooking skills and educate them on the importance of healthy eating.
The education and cooking side of things is key, Vincent says. She had no interest in barrelling into prisons and putting enforced quinoa and salmon on the menu, even if that would have been possible on a budget of £2 a day. A keen cook herself, she understood the emotional significance of being able to exercise choice in the kitchen.
“Unfortunately and statistically, the majority of people in prison come from quite deprived socioeconomic backgrounds, where things like healthy eating have never featured into their lives before,” she says. “I realised early on that if I just went in and changed the menu and said ‘here you go, here’s healthier food’, a lot of [prisoners] would be like: ‘What? I’m not going to eat this.’”
“I’ve always cooked, and I notice a real difference in myself when I’m making decent meals,” she continues. “I get a real buzz out of it, and I can imagine what it’s like having no control over food. So giving people power in food is important.
“The education side of things is about getting them to understand the impact that better food can have on them in jail – and after jail as well.”
The positive influence of healthy eating on prisoners’ after-jail lives is something Vincent often cites when explaining her campaign to naysayers.
“The more you learn about the prison system, the more you learn that the sole aim [should be for prisoners] to be rehabilitated, leave prison and not commit the same crime again,” she says. “Health and wellbeing is a really big part of rehabilitation, and therefore what people are eating is a really big part of rehabilitation.
“If we want these people to come out and not offend again, we’ve got to acknowledge the importance of their health and emotional and mental wellbeing – and that means eating decent food.”
Vincent is the first to admit that she isn’t the kind of person you’d expect to find working in prison reform: she’s creative, she’s young, she’s female. “In my personal life, my friends would not describe me as a serious person,” she says. “I like to party, I like to go out and have a laugh and – unfortunately – there is a well-worn stereotype that if you’re an activist then you can’t be a fun, light-hearted woman either.”
But, she says, she’s learnt to push back against that stereotype.
“Why can’t I spend my days talking about a serious subject and standing up for men locked in cells before spending my evenings dressing up, dancing and drinking margaritas?” she asks. “As a woman in 2018 you don’t have to be one or the other. You can be both, be completely yourself and embrace the variety that this inevitably brings to your life as well.”
Images: Laura Allard-Fleischl / Getty Images