Insider`s Guide: What Do Prisoners Eat?

What do prisoner`s eat? Ask 100 people what they ate while in prison and you`ll get 100 different answers. But that`s probably not what you`re looking for. You likely want to know how eating in prison actually works, especially when someone`s on a special diet or has allergies. Let me give you an inside look at how eating in prison works.

There`s a National Menu the BOP Follows

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a national menu that its prisons are supposed to follow. If they deviate from this menu, policy says they have to file a report on why. Reality is that the menu is usually followed, with changes here and there if something is out of stock. The problem is that most prisons usually don`t completely follow what`s on the menu. It could be as simple as no syrup with the pancakes or no jelly with the peanut butter. But those little things make a difference.

If you want to see what`s on the national menu, you can do a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the BOP and get a copy. There`s also separate menus for religious diets (called “certified diets”) and other diets. Be specific with your FOIA request as to what menus you want.

Federal holidays are special and the prison may deviate from the national menu. This is the only time the food service administrator can create an entire meal without using the national menu. I`ve seen all sorts of decent holiday spreads, like stuffed peppers, charcoal-grilled Cornish hens, corn on the cob, etc. Over the years, though, these holiday dinners have become rather lame.

There are Special Diets Available

If you`re on a special medical diet or simply choose to eat a certain diet, like vegetarian, the BOP provides all kinds of special diets. While most special diets require medical authorization, such as gluten-free or dialysis, some are open for self-selection. These include heart healthy and no-flesh diets. I`ve seen the BOP go nearly all-vegan with the no-flesh diet lately, but it`s still not technically “vegan,” so keep that in mind.

If there`s a lockdown or any other situation where food must be delivered to you, the BOP requires that you notify food service staff ASAP if you want a special diet. Otherwise, you get a regular tray.

There are Religious Diets Available

The BOP has been sued enough over its failure to provide diets that conform to various religions that it`s pretty easy to get on a religious diet now. Usually, this request is made through the chaplain, who then arranges this with food service. The main religious diet is called “common fare.” This is a kosher tray that typically follows the menu posted in Aleph`s guide for orthodox Jews (it`s a magazine put out by the Aleph Institue in Miami).

The food quality on common fare is terrible, at best. It`s highly-processed and has a chemical taste. It`s a TV dinner type of tray and the portions are small. It`s also rather expensive for the BOP to provide and they have strict rules on what you can buy at commissary or eat. If you buy anything non-kosher or eat food from someone`s tray and get caught, you`re off the diet for at least six months.

There`s also a halal diet for religions under the Muslim faith. I hear the quality is much better than the common fare diet, though the portions look about the same: small. The same strict rules apply that can get you kicked off the halal diet as with common fare.

Religious fasts are recognized by the BOP, if they`re listed by the chaplain. The way this works is that food service provides a pre-fast bag (usually PBJ) to eat before sunrise, and then at sunset they give you all of the food you would`ve gotten at all three meals. It`s ridiculous but the BOP counts calories for the whole day, no matter when you get them. Good luck eating all that food in one sitting! Thankfully, they let you bring it back to your unit to eat when you want.

What Kind of Food and How Much Do You Get?

I was in a state prison that got rid of meat and went with textured vegetable protein (TVP) for all its trays. That was hard. Compared to that, the BOP`s offering looks like a gourmet line up. And I hope you like chicken. The BOP is known for using and re-using chicken in almost everything it serves. The menu rotates through five weeks and almost every meal involves chicken.

Certain days are always the same: Tuesday is a chicken patty, Wednesday is a burger, Thursday is a chicken leg, and Friday is fish. Monday always changes. Lunch is the big meal in the BOP, so the main dish is served during lunch.

There`s a national menu that has the portion sizes, but the BOP is reluctant to provide that info. You`ll have to push them through FOIA for it. This is because the BOP hardly ever follow the recommended portion sizes. For example, spaghetti requires an 8 ounce scoop. The scoops are color-coded and the 8 ounce is black. But I routinely see servers using the green 6 ounce scoop for spaghetti. This is just one example of many. It`s safe to say that the BOP “shakes the spoon” on the food it serves.

Some prisons might still have a hot and cold bar, where they put out the side dishes. You can eat all you want from these bars, but it`s usually rice, potatoes, or lettuce. Most prisons have removed these bars, however.

Cooking for Yourself

Entire books have been written on how prisoners get creative with commissary items to make dinner for themselves. Sure, food service will prevent you from starving to death, but you`ll still be hungry. That`s where commissary comes in. It could be as simple as my go-to meal supplement: PBJ on crackers (they don`t sell bread). Some guys, though, go all out. Ever heard of pasta-nacho wraps? I know a guy who made these and had a waiting list weeks before he made them. It`s pasta, nacho cheese, pepperoni, all rolled in a tortilla and deep-fried. Amazing!

That`s ingenuity, of course, since the BOP doesn`t exactly sell deep fryers. But some BOP prisons still have microwaves, and all of them have hot water taps (190 degree). I`ve seen guys take old clothes irons and make griddles, and even some have made them into pizza ovens. The options for food made with commissary items are only limited by your imagination. I could make you a “cheesecake” with coffee creamer you`d swear was made in a bakery.

When to Eat, Where to Sit, and Time Limits for Eating

The BOP calls the time it serves food “mainline.” They`ll announce “mainline`s open” (or closed) over the speaker and then call units to go eat in the order of the rotation for the week. In all, it takes about an hour or less. Roughly speaking, the mainline times are 6 am, 11 am, and 5 pm. “Shortline” is for certain workers who need to eat early and get back to work. This occurs just before mainline. The BOP says you`ve got 20 minutes to eat, but don`t count on it. The last two units to eat get rushed out the door before that time is up.

Where to sit and eat is important in most BOP prisons. Tables are reserved by certain groups and I`ve seen many fights because someone sat at the wrong table (usually on purpose, mind you). Still, you don`t want to be chased away and embarrassed. The easiest way to find a safe table to sit at is to ask others who have your kind of charge or belong to your group. Chances are, you`ll be told where to sit by others who are in the same boat you`re in. The different groups in the BOP co-exist mainly because they respect each other`s boundaries.

And that`s how eating works in the BOP these days.

Dale Chappell is the author of the upcoming book Insider`s Guide to Doing Time as a Sex Offender, and has other prison life books in the works. Stay tuned for more info!

Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a federal litigation consultant with the Zoukis Consulting Group. Follow his blog at and on Twitter at @zenlawguy.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: