Last Meals: Communication with Prisoners in Everyday Action

face of a prisoner

Executed prisoners’ last meals have attracted considerable attention. A prisoner who helped to cook last meals for more than 200 executed prisoners described last meals as relating to empathetic identification with a different time:

many prisoners ordered food that they had eaten as children. … Food can take you back to a better time in your life^

After being released, this prisoner-cook wrote a book entitled Meals to Die For. A 1991 BBC film, The Last Supper, documented executed prisoners’ last meals. The film director shifted empathy to the third person:

{prisoners’ last meals} really reveal a kind of personality at work. You don’t see them just by the horrors of what they’ve done. There are deeper insights in their choices, and you see by those choices that some are not quite mentally there.^

A prize-winning academic essay, in contrast, displayed a high-authority style that dispels almost any common-sense engagement:

the last meal requests and last words are devices in contemporary executions that mitigate this contradiction by allowing for the representation of offenders as autonomous, volitional individuals within a structure that simultaneously maintains them as irredeemable, controllable others. … The state, through the media, reinforces a retributive understanding of the individual as an agent who has acted freely in the world, unfettered by circumstance or social condition. … Ultimately, this kind of paradoxical representation is crucial for executions to retain their relevance and coherence.^

This scholarly work further declared:

The practice of allowing the offender the opportunity to speak immediately prior to execution signifies to the public the state’s commitment to due process; procedural rights to speak and object are offered as a distraction from violations of the offender’s substantive rights.^

Underscoring the social construction of such work, a footnote to the above declaration thanks “an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to me.”

Other artists have focused on preparing plates of executed prisoners’ last meals. Drawing on publicly available textual descriptions of prisoners’ last meals, one artist recreated the meals and made a series of large-scale photographs of them. A reviewer described these photographs as looking “cheap and lurid, befitting their subject matter” and evoking “a kind of prurient fascination.”^ Another artist painted plates with executed prisoners’ last meals. He lettered on each plate the prisoner’s name and execution date. He arranged the plates in a room.^ A subsequent artist shifted to the blue-and-while porcelain look that was the focus of a late-nineteenth-century British craze for Chinese pottery. In a significant artistic move, she did not include the executed prisoners’ names on the plates.^

The last-meal artistic works have focused on the last-meal requests of prisoners executed in Texas. Texas features a relatively large number of executions. Executed prisoners’ last meals were for years conveniently available on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice webpage. A blog focusing on executed prisoners’ last meals listed executed prisoners’ last meals from states across the U.S. It also featured an associated online store that sold its own branded goods such as t-shirts, hats, bags, and intimate apparel.^

Public discussion of executed prisoners’ last meals has been bound in conventional status hierarchies. Consider an award-winning quarterly magazine of art and culture. It signifies its mission with an excerpt from the writing of Michel Foucault. This magazine presented a lecture article entitled “Debt, Guilt, and Hungry Ghosts: A Foucauldian Perspective on Bigert’s and Bergström’s Last Supper.” With little appreciation for comparative analysis across status fields, the lecturer observed:

Today, a whole “last supper” industry has emerged. … The last meal and the last words of the condemned have become commodified objects circulating in the market, a trend that is receiving critical commentary in the recent artworks, films, and books treating the subject.^

UC Davis Magazine featured a prize-winning student essay written in a course entitled “Crime and Punishment in American Culture.” UC Davis Magazine republished the essay in Prized Writing: 2007-2008, an anthology of student writing at the University of California, Davis. This essay, entitled “‘I Did Not Get My Spaghetti-O’s’: Death Row Consumption in the Popular Media” reports:

Websites, novels, movies, television shows, newspapers, and even cookbooks report, dissect, criticize, and speculate regarding last meals real and imagined. When confronted with the ultimate consumption of dying people in so many areas of our popular media, the truth becomes alarmingly clear: This is odd behavior.^

Regarding the prisoner-cook’s book, Meals to Die For, the essay observes:

The last things that our allegedly deadliest murderers eat, then, are not only published for the public, but published again with extra details for sale to the public. This doubly-consuming public just eats this stuff up.^

Conveying insights from such work in a much lower-status production, a late-night television talk-show host in early 2010 began a recurring segment entitled “Value Meal or Last Meal?”^

Public texts seem relatively uninterested in with whom, if anyone, an executed prisoner ate his last meal. One text notes that one executed prisoner in Indiana was allowed to have his mother prepare a meal for him. The prisoner, his mother, several other relatives, and a spiritual adviser ate the meal together.^ A film documents that a prisoner executed in Mississippi in 1987 ate his last meal with family and friends.^ More generally, prison policies and practices concerning sharing the last meal with a prisoner don’t seem to be publicly documented. In public deliberation, who shared the last meal with a prisoner is less interesting than the food that constituted the prisoner’s last meal.

With whom, if anyone, death-row prisoners eat their last meals is more communicatively significant than what they eat. Persons who share a meal together address each other second-personally. They can make strong claims of accountability on each other. Persons who share meals together typically know each other well. Their concern is not to discern each other’s character but to discuss what has happened and what will happen in the plot of their lives. Even the emotionally fraught circumstances of a death-row prisoner’s last meal are likely to have a more slowly changing emotional tone than that of a successful public work about prisoners. With its distinctive communicative qualities, personal communication counterbalances structural biases in public works.

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