In recent days Texas has decided to end the ancient custom of offering condemned prisoners a last meal. After a recent execution, the fact that the prisoner requested the following:
Two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.
And didn’t eat any of it, didn’t sit well with one state senator.
From a fiscal standpoint, I understand and agree that it is unwise and fiscally irresponsible to offer prisoners condemned to die for their crimes a last meal. However as a historian, and one familiar with the custom I have to disagree. The cost is small in the grand scheme of things. The cost of putting a prisoner to death is very high, $620,932 if you beleive those who would have us toss the penalty in favor of life imprisonment. Still the act of taking another life intentionally is a horrific crime. I think the cost is justified if you look at the value of a (statistical) life as our own government calculates it.
You may or may not agree that the loss to society is X million, when someone commits murder (just one), but its hard to say that we should preserve the life of a murderer, actually make an effort to prolong that life, in the face of those who have committed no crime and want for that same care. In fact it’s hard to say that we should even house and feed someone so depraved as to take the life of another. There is great symbolic value when the cost of taking a life is to give up your life in return.
Getting back to the issue at hand, should the government offer the condemned a last meal?
I say yes. The reason I say so, not being particularly full of respect for the life of the average murderer and their comfort, is that there is, once again, tremendous symbolic value in the last meal. Something which Patrick, of Popehat, also recognizes, at least in passing.
The custom of a last meal for the condemned actually predates the Romans and goes all the way back to at least the Greeks. (perhaps further back, but I focused in western civ, and don’t give a damn about the rest of the world, sorry.) The Greeks, and indeed the Romans typically offered the condemned prisoner a last meal, the idea being that a meal freely given and accepted symbolized forgiveness. That is, that the prisoner forgives his judge and executioners and so forth.The symbolic value of a meal should not be over looked.
As Patrick, also notes, we are not savages. We should recognize that this person is to be executed for their crimes, and is soon to find out the truth of what the religious and atheists argue about over drinks all the time. In our recognition we should show that we are not for the death of anyone, that we forgive this person, so long as they pay the known price for their crimes, their life. That does not continue so far as to wish a standard prison meal on them, not even I am that cruel.
Most states put a limit on what the prisoner may order. I find that just. We should afford these individuals more dignity than they afforded their victim(s), however, an unlimited menu is not altogether the same thing.
I think that prisoners should be granted their requested last meal. I also agree with reasonable restrictions. Some states require that the meal be selected from the prisons standard menu, anything may be picked. Other states permit the prisoner to have anything, as long as the cost is below a certain amount, typically around 35-40$.
I think both of those restrictions are reasonable and dignified. We don’t need to let death row become a circus, a place for prisoners to request extravagant meals than refuse to consume them. We also don’t need to let death row become a place where the day we put a person to death is treated like any other. To me that is too much like the crime that landed them there in the first place.
I support the death penalty. I can’t support removing the humanity that is offered through a last meal. It’s also not right for them to get whatever they want, at whatever cost. A reasonable price to pay for murder is to be put to death, a reasonable meal, therefore, should also be expected.