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Was Lobster Prison Food?

A Brief History of Lobster as a Food Source

Lobster is considered a luxury food today, often served at high-end restaurants and special occasions. However, this wasn’t always the case. Up until the late 1800s, lobster was viewed very differently.

Lobster as a Poor Man’s Protein

For hundreds of years, lobster was considered a low-class food, fit only for slaves, servants, and prisoners. There are several reasons why lobster had this reputation:

  • Abundance: Lobsters were incredibly abundant along the coasts of New England and maritime Canada during the 1600s-1800s. Huge numbers could be caught easily from shore or in traps. This extreme supply made lobster unvalued and cheap.
  • Perception of Bottom Feeders: Lobsters feed off the ocean floor, eating dead animals and fish. This caused them to be viewed as bottom-feeders, equivalent to rats scavenging for garbage. Their diet gave lobster meat a bad reputation.
  • Difficulty in Preparation: Lobster meat spoils incredibly quickly once the animal dies. Transportation from the ocean to inland areas was difficult without refrigeration. Cooking techniques were also primitive, often leading to tough, rubbery meat. Overall, proper lobster preparation was challenging.
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Due to these factors, lobster was not desired by wealthy colonial families. There was no prestige in eating bottom-feeder “cockroaches of the sea” that were hard to cook properly. The abundant crustaceans were instead fed to prisoners, apprentices, slaves, children, and other underclass members of society.

The Role of Railways and Refrigeration

In the mid-1800s, new technologies allowed lobster to be transported to inland cities for the first time. The construction of railway lines connected coastal fishing towns to major cities. Simultaneously, refrigerated rail cars and canned lobster allowed the product to be preserved over long distances.

With improved transportation and refrigeration, fresh lobster could be delivered hundreds of miles into the interior. Lobster was no longer restricted to coastal areas. It began appearing on menus at restaurants across the country.

Lobster in Prisons

Now that we’ve explored some history, let’s examine the use of lobster specifically in prisons. Was lobster truly considered a standard prison food in the past?

Evidence of Lobster in Prisons

There are a handful of historical anecdotes that describe lobster being fed to prisoners:

  • In the colony of Jamestown, a court judgment in 1623 mentioned feeding a poacher “mussels and lobsters”.
  • British prisoners in the American colonies in the 1700s were supposedly fed lobster two times a week.
  • Ireland’s Dublin prison served lobster to inmates in the 1800s.
  • Massachusetts town records from the 1800s also mention serving lobster to imprisoned drunkards.

Additionally, lobster shells have been found in archaeological digs on old prison sites.

So while concrete data is limited, there are numerous examples in the historical record of lobster being provided as cheap sustenance in prisons.

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Nutritional Content of Lobster

What was the nutritional value of feeding lobster to prisoners?

Lobster meat is high in protein and low in fat and calories. A 3.5 oz serving (100 grams) contains:

  • Calories: 89
  • Protein: 20 grams
  • Fat: 1 gram

Lobster provides prisoners with an excellent source of protein to maintain muscle mass. The high levels of phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, copper, and B vitamins also make lobster nutritious and healthy.

Overall, while considered low class, lobster was a smart food choice for institutional feeding. Cheap, abundant, and packed with nutrients, it helped keep prisoners alive on minimal budgets.

Decline of Lobster in Prisons

As lobster prices increased in the late 1800s, it was served to prisoners less frequently. Improvements in prison food standards also led to its removal from prison dining halls.

By the early 1900s, the “cockroaches of the sea” were no longer on prison menus. Lobster had completed its transition from prison grub to luxury cuisine.

Here is a table summarizing some of the history of lobster as prison food:

YearLobster as Prison FoodReasoning
1623Present in Jamestown prisonsCheap food source
1700sServed in British colonial jailsEasy access along the coast
1800sOn menus of Irish and New England prisonsNo refrigeration needed close to coast
Early 1900sRarely served in prisonsRising price due to transportation improvements

Questions About Lobster as Prison Food

There are still many questions surrounding the use of lobster in old prison systems. Further research could help fill in some of these gaps:

How Often Was Lobster Served in Prisons?

  • The frequency of lobster meals is still unclear. Was it provided daily, weekly, or only occasionally? Records are sporadic on this topic.
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Were Other Seafood Items Also Common Prison Foods?

  • Lobster was likely not the only seafood served. What other fish, shellfish, and seaweed may have been prison staples?

Did Prisoners Appreciate Eating Lobster or Did They Dislike It?

  • Prisoners may have had negative views of bottom-feeding lobster. Did they enjoy eating it or consider it disgusting and intolerable?

How Was Lobster Prepared for Prisons?

  • Cooking techniques greatly impact lobster flavor and texture. How was it prepared in large prison kitchens to be edible?

How Does Prison Lobster Compare to Modern Prison Food Standards?

  • Prison food services have evolved dramatically. How does historical lobster fare in nutrition, quality, and cost compared to today’s institutional dining?

Further examining these questions could reveal more about lobster’s forgotten role in early American prisons.


In conclusion, while lobster was clearly served in certain prisons during the Colonial era up through the 1800s, evidence of it being a widespread or daily prison food is overstated. The use of lobster aligned with its working class status at the time. As market prices and cuisine tastes changed, cheaper proteins replaced lobster in prison kitchens.

The historical perception of lobster as a bottom-feeder indelicacy is the most compelling evidence for its inclusion in prisoner diets. Prisons utilized whatever abundant, affordable sources of nutrition they could obtain. So lobster’s past reputation as a low-class food directly led to its presence on prison menus.

Though lobster is now a delicacy, its use in prisons highlights a forgotten time when the crustacean was synonymous with cheap subsistence dining. Careful research of historical records provides glimpses into this unusual era when the king of seafood was deemed only worthy of slaves, servants, and inmates.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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