Texas served its final last meal to condemned prisoner Lawrence Russell Brewer, who, on September 21, 2011, was executed for the infamous racially-motivated 1998 dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. Brewer requested an extensive last meal and then didn’t eat any of it, which prompted state Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, to call for ending the practice of special last meals for death row prisoners.
“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,” Whitmire wrote in a letter to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) executive director Brad Livingston.
Livingston agreed and quickly ended the tradition of last meals. “Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made,” he stated. “They [condemned prisoners] will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit.”
“It’s long overdue,” said Senator Whitmire. “This old boy last night, enough is enough. We’re fixing to execute the guy and maybe it makes the system feel good about what they’re fixing to do. Kind of hypocritical, you reckon?”
Calling the traditional last meal “ridiculous,” Whitmire noted that “Mr. Byrd didn’t get to choose his last meal. The whole idea is so illogical.”
But Senator Whitmire had his facts wrong. The tradition did not begin because the “system” was trying to make itself feel good about an execution. Rather, the tradition of a last meal existed in ancient Greece, Rome and China. The original purpose was an offering to ward off possible haunting by the spirit of the person who was executed. This tradition has continued into modern times.
Likewise, most people are misinformed about how last meal requests work. The media published Brewer’s lavish final meal request of two chicken-fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover’s pizza, a pint of ice cream, three root beers and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts, then groused that he didn’t eat anything. But did he really get all that he asked for, and is it really surprising that a man who knows he will die in a few hours might lose his appetite?
The truth about last meals in Texas is more complicated than the list of food that a condemned prisoner requests. According to Brian D. Price, 60, who prepared last meals for about 220 Texas prisoners while serving a 14-year sentence and who has written a book titled Meals to Die For about his experiences, death row prisoners could ask for whatever they wanted, but what they got were reasonable portions of foods already available in the prison’s kitchen. Thus, the last meal that Brewer received did not contain all of the items he requested, and what was provided was in smaller portions.
Price gave an example of the type of substitutions he made when preparing last meals by describing what he did if a prisoner asked for lobster, an item not available in the kitchen food inventory. The condemned prisoner would “get a piece of frozen pollock. Just like they would normally get on a Friday, but what I’d do is wash the breading off, cut it diagonally and dip it in a batter so that it looked something like at Long John Silver’s – something from the free world, something they thought they were getting, but it wasn’t.
“They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that. The press would get [the last meal request] as they requested it, but I would get the handwritten last meal request about three days ahead of time and I’d take it to my captain and say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ And she’d lay it out for me. I tried to do the best I could with what I had.”
After Price was released from prison, he opened a restaurant. When he heard about the elimination of last meals for death row prisoners, he offered to deliver them to the prison for free. The TDCJ declined his offer.
“We should not get rid of the last meal,” Price said. “Texas has always been coldhearted about these types of things. Not to minimize these crimes, the majority of [death row prisoners] have earned their place at that dinner table. But with my offer it would not cost Texas taxpayers anything.”
He also opined that the decision to end the last meals was politically motivated. “They waited for a heinous crime – the most heinous one in years in Texas, first off – and then someone who ordered a lot of food, which they do that quite often anyhow. And they decided to stop the last meal request and give them what was on the line for that day.
What raised the fur on my back was – how can one person do this? The State of Texas sends these people to the death chamber. It’s up to the folks of Texas if they want to stop a tradition, an age-old tradition. One or two men shouldn’t have the stroke of power to do that.”
In fact the public has a morbid fascination with last meals, and an online blog, “Dead Man Eating,” is devoted to that topic. In August 2012 researchers at Cornell University released a study of 193 last meal requests, which found they tended to include fried foods, desserts, soft drinks and high calorie counts. Some condemned prisoners did not want a last meal; one asked for a single pitted olive, while another in Tennessee, Philip Workman, asked for a vegetarian pizza to be delivered to a homeless person (his request was denied, but members of the public responded by ordering hundreds of pizzas for local homeless shelters).
Last meals for death row prisoners aren’t the only meals being cut in Texas prisons. In October 2011, 36 TDCJ facilities stopped serving lunch on weekends. Instead, “brunch is served between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and dinner is served be-tween 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.” The only exceptions are for prisoners on work details.
Prison officials justified the change as a necessary component of efforts to reduce prison food expenditures by $2.8 million, to help close a large state budget gap. Other changes, which affect all Texas prisoners, include the replacement of carton milk with powdered milk and the replacement of hamburger and hot dog buns with sliced bread. Previous budget cuts had resulted in the elimination of desserts except for one meal a week.
Such meal reductions appear to violate the food-service standards set by the American Correctional Association (ACA), which recommend three meals a day but allow variation for weekend and holiday demands provided the meals still meet basic nutritional guidelines.
“I’ve never read the standard to mean that you can do it every weekend,” said Davidson County, Tennessee Sheriff Daron Hall, who serves as the ACA’s president.
Prisoners’ rights advocates agree that providing only two meals per day falls into a legal gray area. Texas has a statute mandating that prisoners receive three meals a day, but the law only applies to jails, not state prisons. Plus the ACA standards do not constitute “rights.”
TDCJ officials have argued that prisoners can supplement the weekend meals with snacks purchased from the prison commissary. However, the commissaries sell mostly unhealthy food items such as candy and chips, and the 60% of state prisoners who are indigent have no access to even those less-than-nutritional snacks.
“Going from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. without an authorized meal is too long,” said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutritional clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “With fewer meals, it’s difficult to get enough nutrients. It’s likely to negatively affect mood in people who are used to having regular meals.”
And a prison system full of hungry prisoners in a bad mood is a recipe for trouble.
Sources: New York Times, ABC News, http://deadmaneating.blogspot.com, www.foxnews.com, CNN, Associated Press
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