Doing Porridge: Understanding women’s experiences of food in prison

Researchers from the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey, Maria Adams, Vicki Harman and Jon Garland have been awarded a grant (£672K) from the Economic and Social Research Council to explore the issue of food in women’s prisons.

Aims and objectives

This project aims to analyse the experience of food in women’s prisons using an intersectional approach. It adopts an innovative suite of mixed qualitative methods in order to gain valuable insight into women’s experiences of this aspect of prison life. The study will open up wider conversations about food in prisons through an exhibition of prisoners’ art run in partnership with Koestler Arts. This project will make a significant contribution to understanding issues related to food, gender and ethnicity, and will provide an invaluable insight into how food forms part of women’s identities and experiences in prison.

The objectives are to:

  • explore the relationship between food and social identities (such as gender, social class, ethnicity, religion, nationality);
  • understand and explore the different spaces where food is consumed in women’s prisons;
  • explore the extent to which women have opportunities to show agency in their food choices and practices;
  • examine the ways in which food is used as ‘illicit currency’;
  • assess the extent to which food is a source of discontent and dissent among prisoners;
  • make policy and practice recommendations to improve food practices in the female estate.

Our impact objectives are to:

  • Facilitate a participatory element of the research to empower women through the medium of arts and via an exhibition. 
  • Communicate and engage with a range of audiences via a website, social media and podcasts; by utilising a project advisory group to gain further avenues of community and practitioner engagement, and by hosting a final conference.
  • To improve the quality of food and eating experiences in women’s prisons.

Project methods

To address the project aims and objectives we will utilise a multidisciplinary approach employing a mixture of methodologies, including focus groups, qualitative interviews, observations, diary-keeping and an art workshops.


Project Partners 

Koestler Arts

Our project is committed to communicating with audiences outside of academia and will be working with Koestler Arts to organise an exhibition of prisoners’ art work by women in the criminal justice system to promote a wider interest in food in prison and other settings. The exhibition will be open to the public, and those unable to attend will be able to view it via a ‘virtual tour’ or film of the exhibition uploaded onto the project website. In addition, to encourage artworks on the theme of food, Koestler Arts have set ‘Taste’ as the themed category for their 2022 Koestler Awards, leading to ongoing impact from the research. The Koestler Awards welcome entries from anyone in the criminal justice system. Entrants identifying as women will also be considered for inclusion to the Doing Porridge Exhibition in 2023. For more information, please visit Koestler Arts’ website.

Economic Social Research Council (ESRC)

This project is funded by the ESRC (Economic Social Research Council), under grant number ES/V010190/1. For more details about the work of the ESRC, please visit the ESRC website.

Advisory group

The research is supported by an Advisory Board which will meet regularly to advise and oversee the direction of the research, as well as being an important audience for the dissemination of the research findings.

Contact us

If you are interested in this project, please email and a member of the project team will contact you.

Related projects

Food, families and visiting rooms in a women’s prison

Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.

Centre for Criminology

Research themes

Find out more about our research at Surrey:

Contact us

  • Email: