Fruit is becoming 'alternative currency' in youth prison

Children in young offender institutions in England and Wales are often given poor-quality food, leaving some so desperate for healthy meals that fruit has become an alternative currency in one prison, a charity has claimed.

Young offenders are able to purchase additional food, including bags of fruit, from prison shops. Children at one youth prison told researchers at the Howard League for Penal Reform that fruit was in such high demand that it was used as a currency.

Smaller and younger boys in the canteen queue are bullied into buying bags of fruit and handing them over to the "top dogs", boys told Howard League researchers during a six-month project.

Some boys bulk-buy fruit and exchange it for phone cards, the charity also discovered. In young offender institutions (YOIs), as in full-scale prisons, the underground economy is widespread and complex. Cigarettes, phone cards, sweets, deodorant, razor blades, jewellery, watches and drugs all form part of an intricate system of exchange. Anything for which supply is restricted – and that applies to most things – can be a form of currency.

Most items are bought legitimately from the prison shop, using the cash sent by friends and family. But vulnerable detainees can be forced to hand over their purchases to others.

Howard League researchers conducted interviews with 55 male young offenders aged between 15 and 18 in three YOIs, and with one youth offending team.

The charity has obtained some weekly menus from May and June last year from nine institutions, revealing significant variations in the range and healthiness of food on offer. One lunch option was grated cheese. Another offered corned beef salad baguettes.

More appetising-sounding meals included jerk pork chop with a choice of six salads, and beef hotpot with mashed potatoes and green beans.

The Howard League is concerned that some YOIs are not spending enough on food. One spends just under £2.50 per day on each child. This compares with the £1.85 typically spent on a child's free school lunch, according to the Howard League.

Frances Crook, director of the charity, said: "Hungry children in prisons told us they bully each other for an apple. Studies have repeatedly revealed a significant link between diet, behaviour and academic performance. We're feeding our most troublesome children with high-calorie, low-nutrient food that we know will make their behaviour worse and put their health at risk."

The Prison Service, which runs YOIs, insisted it provides food that meets nutritional guidelines.