Criminals to be fed vitamins to improve behaviour

Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent
Sunday November 28, 2004
Source - The Observer

Criminals are to be given vitamin supplements in an unusual attempt to reduce anti-social behaviour which will test the effect of diet on the brain.

The move is controversial, with many in the prison service sceptical that healthy food could make much difference to hardened criminals.

The proposals being drawn up within the Home Office reflect a growing interest in the potential link between junk diets laced with additives and disturbed or hyperactive behaviour. American research has shown a link between poor diet and aggressive or impulsive tendencies, including a recently published US study of young children from Mauritius which found they were significantly less likely to grow up to have criminal records if fed an enriched diet from a young age.

The Youth Justice Board is helping to organise the British trial, which would involve young offenders who are serving community sentences, or who have recently been released from jail, being given daily supplements of fatty acids, trace minerals and vitamins to see if it reduces anti-social behaviour.

'We have agreed to assist them by facilitating access to young people where necessary,' said a spokesman. 'We are interested in seeing the results of this.'

The project raises ethical questions. While only volunteers will take part, if dramatic results from changing offenders' diets can be shown, that will raise the question of whether prison diets should be altered to 'dose' prison inmates in to better behaviour.

Conversely, the approach is likely to be attacked by right-wing critics as allowing offenders to escape responsibility for their own crimes by blaming their diets.

However, a small previous study of teenagers in a young offenders' institution carried out by the research charity Natural Justice, found that boosting offenders' diets with supplements reduced disciplinary incidents - such as attacks on fellow inmates and officers, or breaking prison rules - by a third. While prison menus did offer healthy options, the researchers realised that inmates avoided them in favour of a diet of junk food that left them deprived of nutrients.

The charity wants to try to replicate the findings using a much larger group of young offenders, and examine the effect on their reoffending rates.

Bernard Gesch, chair of the charity, said: 'We are very pleased that they are interested enough to look at this. The implications are fairly massive: the government is forced to pump millions into anti-social behaviour programmes, and surely given the scale of findings we demonstrated [in the young offenders' institution] the dots aren't too difficult to join up.'

Prisons Minister Paul Goggins disclosed recently in a parliamentary written answer to the senior Tory MP Alistair Burt that the Home Office is considering research on offenders' diet.

The Prison Service is currently awaiting the results of a similar study involving offenders in Holland.