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The food revolution that could transform life behind bars

Prisons have staggering levels of HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases in many of the countries where VSO works.

Poor nutritrition makes inmates more vulnerable to infection. Grow-your-own initiatives could be a simple, innovative way to improve health behind and beyond bars.

Infection rates are up to 10 times higher in prisons in Southern Africa than in the general population.

This is not just a problem for inmates. Most people in prison are serving sentences of under a year. Most then return home, where infections caught in prison can be passed on.

For this reason prisons have been called ‘breeding grounds’ for disease and ill health.

Prisoners in the yard in a prison in Zimbabwe VSO

HIV and tuberculosis rates are much higher among incarcerated men, women and children, than in the general population 

So what’s the problem?

Prisons struggle with a severe lack of resources and space available for the huge numbers of people they have incarcerated.

These problems are not easy or cheap to fix. Prisons are not a popular area for spending with the public anywhere in the world.

But there is one simple and surprising area that prisons can turn to make a real difference: food.

Prisoners harvest cow peas in Zimbabwe

Prisoners harvesting cow peas for their own consumption at a facility in Zimbabwe

The importance of nutrition

Malnutrition is widespread in prisons. Food is in short supply– as is everything else.

When you’re well nourished, your body is much more able to fight of infection. But when you’re run down and malnourished you are much more likely to get sick and find it harder to recover.

For people with HIV, getting enough nutritious food could be the difference between staying health and succumbing to a dangerous opportunistic infection like tuberculosis.

Mighty mushrooms

But what if prisoners could grow their own food?

That’s what’s happening in Zomba Central Prison in Malawi. Prisoners have constructed apparatus for growing mushrooms.

Mushrooms grown at Zomba prison | VSO VSO/Isaac Phiri

Mushrooms ready to harvest

Using bags of compost, a reasonably big crop of oyster mushrooms can be grown in a small space, with not much water required.

It is cheap and the mushrooms are nutritious, helping HIV positive prisoners stay healthy. They grow so quickly that they can be harvested twice a week.

Mushrooms not eaten by the prisoners are packaged and sold on to the market. Any profit made is invested back into the programme - providing seed for a variety of vegetables ready to sow in the next planting season.

The vegetables grown also provide essential nutrition and help the inmates stay healthy.

New skills

The prisoners have been trained in techniques of growing, harvesting and processing the mushrooms.

Prisoners preparing grow bags for mushrooms in Malawi VSO/Isaac Phiri

People in prison have been trained in preparing grow bags to cultivate mushrooms

As an added bonus they now have skills to take back with them when they are free again. Many people find it very difficult to find a job when they come back to their communities – these skills could help.

Mushrooms packaged up for market in Malawi VSO/Isaac Phiri

Packaged and ready to be sold


This low-cost experiment is showing real promise. By expanding this work VSO hopes to reach 500 inmates who are living with HIV and AIDS.

Initiatives like these are taking place in 22 prisons VSO is working with across Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Find out more about our work in prisons.

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