Prison Are there any last meals?

For some time now, a list has been circulating on the Internet that gives the reader a strange shudder. Originally part of the website that is supposed to represent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (www.tdcj.state.tx.us), it has gained greater prominence in recent weeks through distribution via mailing lists. The list includes the hangman's meals of all delinquents executed since lethal injection was introduced in Texas (from December 7, 1982 to July 12, 2000 that numbered 224 people). A string of favorite dishes, the reading of which takes place in the awareness of committing a transgression, of taking a forbidden look behind the scenes. People are familiar with the question of their favorite dish: during an invitation to dinner among friends, when the subject of conversation threatens to run out, or in the magazine section of the newspapers in which celebrities reveal which dish they would only eat if necessary. From the peculiarities of the sense of taste one hopes for information about the identity of the human being.

On the TDCJ's list, however, this question takes on existential importance. In fact, this is where choosing a particular dish becomes a kind of legacy. In an interview, the Huntsville prison chef, who is believed to have prepared most of the dishes on this list, said, "I believe these are foods that convicts have fond memories of their youth." to review their lives, to draw the sum of their own existence from a certain point of failure from the taste of the familiar dish. Feuerbach's famous sentence "Man is what he eats": In connection with the ritual of the executioner's meal, it unfolds its full truth.

What special features can be seen on this list? First of all, the unexpected uniformity of the menus. Burger, steak or chicken: these three dishes account for well over half of all orders. The fact that the delinquents want one of the typical American meals again probably points to the early memories they associate with this meal (just as the death row inmates of South American origin almost without exception order dishes such as tacos, enchiladas or fajitas). Nevertheless, the choice of the national dish as the executioner's meal has the disturbing effect of integration that has become meaningless: With their taste, the delinquents once again approach that society for a moment, whose order they have damaged so massively that they are killed by it a few hours later .

The surprisingly narrow spectrum of hangman's meals also has an administrative reason. In the course of the 20th century, American prisons gradually restricted the free choice of food. Around 1900, the delinquents made a kind of sport out of commissioning the most out-of-the-way and luxurious in order to challenge the prison administration for the last time. In Huntsville, on the other hand, there is only what is available in the kitchen. Even an order such as "Shrimp with Salad" (Pedro Muniz, executed May 19, 1998) is rejected because there is no seafood in stock. The executioner's meal, as the unregulated breakout of the prison diet, is now regulated itself. Alcoholic beverages and cigarettes have been banned since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The death row inmate should be led to face his fate with full awareness, untroubled by the calming effects of alcohol or nicotine. Even the traditional desire for one last cigarette, for centuries a symbol for the expiring lifetime of the delinquent, is denied with reference to the "TDCJ Policy".

But it is not primarily the limitations that affect the reader; it is rather the accuracy of the orders. Because the meticulousness with which the delinquents describe the amount and method of preparation of their wishes stands in strange contrast to the inevitability of their fate. "Four to five fried eggs" (Noble Mays, executed April 6, 1995), "Medium-sized pepperoni pizza" (Richard Brimage, Jr., March 12, 1997), "Fried chicken, white meat only" (Richard Foster, May 24, 2000), "ten quesadillas, five filled with mozzarella, five filled with cheddar" (Jessy San Migule, June 29, 2000): That the prisoners in their desperation over the impending death still have the strength to these degrees of differentiation , has something disproportionate at first glance. As if it were important that the steak be prepared "rare" (Robert Drew, Sr., August 2, 1994). But perhaps there is also something reassuring in this last permission for exact differentiation: so shortly before death, to have the opportunity to emphasize a peculiarity, a particular preference. Some orders therefore even specify the arrangement of the meal on the plate: the dressing for the salad should be served separately (James Clayton, May 24, 2000), the melted butter for the honey rolls not on the pastry but next to it (Orien Joyner, July 12, 2000).

Also irritating are the orders of those delinquents who keep their measure on the eve of death and take care of their bodies. Ronald O'Bryan, for example, executed on March 31, 1984, asked for sweetener instead of sugar for his tea, Kenneth Dunn (August 10, 1999) wanted a "Diet Cream Soda", and Cornelius Goss (February 23, 2000) even wanted it nothing more than "an apple, an orange, a banana, a coconut and peaches". Even the irrevocably final meal seems to be geared towards its future benefit, fitness and health. Not a final celebration of lust, but the maintenance of a dietary program. As if dealing with one's own body as economically as possible still mattered at this point in time.

More in line with expectations, however, the menus of debauchery, the "two dozen scrambled eggs" by Robert Streetman (January 7, 1988), the "twelve pieces of fried chicken" by Domingu Cantu, Jr. (October 28, 1999) or the order from David Castillo (August 23, 1998): "24 soft-shell tacos, six enchiladas, six tostados, two whole onions, five jalapenos, two cheeseburgers, a chocolate milkshake, a carton of milk". This is how we imagine a real executioner's meal: Immediately before his execution, the delinquent is once again granted every culinary wish in excess; a last flicker of love for life just before it finally fades. What is striking, however, is how much this ritual violates the usual order of prison life, the regulation of everyday life, work and meals to which the death row inmates were exposed for years. As Foucault has analyzed, the prison's punishment consists less in a passive act of deprivation of liberty than in an active act of education and transformation. "Perpetual Discipline" is the principle of this institution; their "action on the individual does not tolerate any interruption". In part, this discipline takes place through eating. A meager meal plan, the proverbial "bread and water", compiled independently of the will of the inmates, is intended to contribute to moderation and to make the offenders useful citizens again.

Against this background, what does the last debauchery of the executioner's meal mean? Everything about her - the opulence, the individual composition - makes a mockery of the prison rules. Apparently this order no longer applies to the death row inmate; the institution no longer feels responsible for its disciplinary measures. It would therefore be a misunderstanding to believe that the delinquent would be given back a little dignity and self-determination at the moment of the executioner's meal. Rather, the opposite is the case: with the permission to indulgence, one gives him to understand that he has finally fallen out of the economy of the legal system. This body, which will be extinguished the next morning anyway, no longer needs to be shaped by predetermined rules. In his cell, the prisoner is allowed to beat the strings that were knotted for him a few rooms further.

When the hangman's meal is no longer for the living person whom one still wants to give one last pleasure - to whom is it addressed? The lawyer Hans von Hentig investigated this question in his book "On the Origin of the Executioner's Meal" from 1958. His ethnological investigation of this millennia-old ritual expresses the suspicion in the first lines that the well-being of the executed might play the least role: "The peoples inviolably hold fast to a measure that no law prescribes as if it were more useful to them than the delinquent. "Hentig brings together materials from a wide variety of cultures that confirm his thesis that the executioner's meal was never an act of humanity, but rather a kind of appeasement ritual. Like the cared for human sacrifices in archaic societies, those who were forcibly killed should be tempered before the execution so that they do not return as a spirit of vengeance. This would explain "the old, puzzling contradiction between cold cruelty and a tender final favor".

In the ritual of the executioner's meal, as it is still practiced in the US prisons, this fear of the return of an angry soul survives. The way to the gate of death therefore leads for a short time through the land of milk and honey, in order to restore that "mental state that the poor sinner should take with him into the spirit world". It is not for nothing that American prisons establish a kind of transition space between life and death in the period before the execution, which no longer has much to do with the barren everyday life in prison. The so-called death row, to which the prisoners are being transferred, is not, as one might think, even more unadorned than the ordinary cells, but a place of relaxation: better bed linen, more neat clothes and a last luxurious meal. With these advantages one no longer wants to flatter the living body of the delinquent, but rather his immortal soul. The executioner's meal: a grave gift given during his lifetime.

Hentig tells of a case in which the prison director begs a defiant death row inmate to please touch his food. At such moments it becomes clear that the ritual of the executioner's meal is by no means a brief, magnanimous departure on the way to execution, but an elementary condition for its smooth operation. Because by ordering and consuming his favorite food, the delinquent signals his consent to what is coming; in a sense he plays along and authorizes his imminent death. What happens, on the other hand, if the hangman's meal is refused, if a "discord mixes in with the edginess of the procedure," as Hentig says? Obviously something disturbing and irreconcilable emanates from the prisoner's empty stomach. It has been known since the major hunger strike actions of the IRA or the RAF that emaciated bodies cause difficulties for the penal system. They seemed so dangerous for the order of the prison that in many cases one had to resort to force-feeding measures (in the spectrum of prison food, the absolute opposite of the executioner's meal). But what makes the starving body of the delinquent so threatening? He does not make peace with his judges, refuses to sign his own judgment. The hunger strikers are known to have repeatedly been martyrs, threatened to transform themselves from perpetrators into victims. The prison must stop such a development with all its might. The executioner's meal is one of the most effective instruments to cushion a final rebellion of the delinquent. Even if alcohol is no longer allowed as an additive, she should anesthetize him a little on the way to death.

Most of the 224 people executed in Huntsville accepted this anesthesia. Just under a tenth refused to order a hangman's meal and allowed themselves to be led soberly onto the bunk in the injection room. 224: If you click on the document in the near future, this number will no longer be correct. An average of three to four people have been executed each month recently. On the TDCJ's list, the well-known notice "Last Updated on..." information as to whether the number of executioner's meals listed has increased again. Needless to say, this date and the day of the most recent execution always coincide. Seldom has the Internet websites' endeavors to be up to date been swept up in a similar cynicism.