Thursday, October 23, 2008

Last Suppers

I've been the teaching assistant for an undergraduate class called Prisons two years in a row. In sections, our discussions invariably turn to what prisoners "deserve" and, predictably, many students make zero-sum arguments about limited resources and the mere idea of prisoners receiving more translates into the rest of us receiving less. It wasn't a far cry from Marxism if one deigned to think that maybe, just maybe, the welfare state in the U.S. was too weak to provide rights for all, and instead encouraged this sort of base competition for rights among citizens. Often the discussion would turn to food, and how it's often used by prison authorities as a weapon. Nutritional legislation requires certain minimum caloric intakes, but that's interpreted liberally by authorities who want to punish bad behavior with dietary restrictions. The superintendent from a nearby maximum security penitentiary bragged that giving prisoners "the loaf" single-handedly stopped the practice of prisoners throwing feces on their guards.

But meals play another important role in correctional facilities, particularly when we start thinking about "last meals" afforded to death row inmates. In debates over whether modern societies should still use the death penalty, or what particular means to death should be allowed, the ritual of a prisoner's last requests is rarely discussed. Typically, inmates are granted a final meal 'within reasonable limits' that is often prepared by prisoners themselves. Often there's a disparity between what prisoners receive in actuality and what the prisons report on their websites or in their press releases. The public could hardly be bothered by the daily content of these inmates' diets, but news of their last meal meets morbid curiosity. Some examples of recent inmates meals:

  • Charles Edward Smith--nine tacos, nine enchiladas, french fries, a salad with ranch dressing, beef fajitas, a bowl of picante sauce, a bowl of shredded cheese, six jalapeno peppers, a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting and 16 Pepsi's.
  • Clyde Smith, Jr.--a cheeseburger.
  • Ivan Murphy-- four pieces of fried chicken, five pieces of deep fried fish, four deep fried breaded pork chops, extra-large order of french fries, large order of onion rings, ketchup, tartar sauce, one pint of Blue Bell Moollennium Crunch ice cream, two quarts of chocolate milk.
I can't figure out what bothers me most about listing off details of executed men's last meals like that. It could be the fact that the only reason we care what these individuals were eating is merely the fact that the state was about to take their lives immediately after the meals' consumption. Or it could have to do with the eery similarity between menus; the requests don't correlate with inmates' crimes, but they do seem to reflect a certain geographical contiguity. The majority of the states that still employ capital punishment are southern and so repeated requests for fried or barbequed items with cornbread and other southern side dishes all serve as stark reminders that this country's federal structure has enabled very distinct legal cultures to evolve regionally.

I'm guessing what bothers me most, though, is where I got the information-- the site that collects this information on inmates' last meals, Dead Man Eating. It lists each meal before a graphic description of the crime for which the prisoner was executed and does so in such a flippant way that you can't figure out whether the site is for or against the use of capital punishment. The worst part of the site advertises its own merchandise--most disturbingly amongst the lot, a thong--with the following slogan scrawled across each: Dead Man Eating... looking for a killer meal?

While some early societies had the superstitious predisposition towards feeding those who were about to die in order to appease their spirits in the afterlife and deter them from haunting their murderers from the beyond, it seems that the last meal is now imposed upon prisoners as a final attempt at redemption... on the state's behalf. Take, for example, the last request of James Edward Smith, who asked for a lump of dirt; he was denied and settled for a small cup of yoghurt. Apparently the state only abides by last requests that flatter its own potential as a benefactor--to rationalize taking men's lives, it must appear to do so begrudgingly, not smugly.

And where do our dear presidential candidates fall on capital punishment? Both of them support the death penalty, but Obama's record as a state legislator in Illinois shows that he simultaneously fought for reform against wrongful convictions and supported IL's moratorium against capital punishment until the system could be fixed. He also partnered with law enforcement officials to require videotaping interrogations and confessions. I find it interesting that most supporters don't seem to be bothered that his veep pick was the author of a bill in 1994 that expanded the application of the death penalty to federal, non-violent drug traffickers, certainly compromising Obama's position of reform. Is reform too idealistic? Is drug trafficking just that awful? Or do we just not care how much of an outlier the U.S. is in relations to other democracies that have promoted abolition for ages?

While numerous other societies have long believed that a shift from authoritarianism to democracy requires the abolition of practices such as capital punishment, some of our states proudly post their executed inmates' last meals on websites of their Departments of Criminal Justice. Three cheers for democracy, right?


Tariq said...

great post j... its such a morbid ritual although thought of as essentially a sign of humanity. The idea of collecting and publishing these meals is horrific, and I think signals our increasing blase-ness as a culture which is increasingly comfortable with prisons being viewed as entertainment

L'el said...

I agree with you about the primary source of the fascination... but I think a part of it, too, is that most people don't "get" to choose a last meal before they die-- at least not knowingly, since they don't know when they will die. In a small way, I think that paying attention to what the condemned choose as last meals is 1) a chance to ponder how we would approach this "fantasy" if we were in that position, and 2) an oblique way of considering our own mortality.

But as you say, it is also often treated with flipness.