The Myth of the Elaborate Last Meal

sacco vanzetti

(The last meal of Sacco and Vanzetti. Photo by Henry Hargreaves.)

Leftists like to pass the time by sharing stories of their sordid former lives as reactionary youth. It’s a process of transformative self-criticism, like AA but for people who got hoverhanded by John McCain.

I appreciate these spaces, but I don’t often share in them. I once spent a weekend browsing Libertarian message boards on Myspace. That’s as close to identifying with the right as I ever got.

My radicalization has been learning to break from indulgent, isolating habits and actually do the work with other people. In that regard, a lot of my comrades who phone banked for the Republican Party two years ago are at least two years are more ahead of me.

If I had to think of an “old shame”, though, supporting capital punishment ironically definitely counts. At the time, state murder seemed more humane than state-sponsored indefinite incarceration, and in my naivete I hoped forcing people to confront the brutality of incarceration would enable them to interrogate their faith and compliance in the carceral state.

It didn’t. Presenting the carceral state merely as an instrument of torture, without a historical analysis of the political and economic purposes of the police state is just free advertising.

The same can be said for the way we profile the carceral state’s victims. We have a morbid intrigue, as a society, with the last meals of the incarcerated.This obsession has been explored through photography—the work of Henry Hargreaves and James Reynolds’ campaign for Amnesty International has a way of speaking to our (literal) gut feelings about the frailty of life and the humanity within monstrous actions.

There’s a lot you could assume to derive by reviewing the last meals of the condemned; John Wayne Gacy’s pound of fresh strawberries and Timothy McVeigh’s two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream speak to bemused remorselessness; Aileen Wuornos’ black coffee suggests a sober, exhausted resignation; Ronnie Lee Gardner’s lobster tail while watching the Lord of the Rings movies demonstrates a certain class aspiration.

And all the steak, fried chicken, fried eggs, toast, pizza, cheeseburgers — the contemporary menu of the carceral state is dominated by these common denominator cuisines. In a time where our millionaire demagogue president used photos of himself eating McDonald’s and the weak, submissive media apparatus that cowered in his wake’s current debate as to whether millennials have killed or saved the fast food chain, it’s easy to see ourselves, wherever we come from or intend to go, in those simple pleasures.

You don’t have to dig very deep through the mounds of fried meat to understand the economic class of person the death penalty is reserved for. One could argue that Louis Buchalter, the union racketeer and founder of Murder, Inc, himself born working class immigrant, is among the richest, if not the richest, man executed for murder in the US. He requested steak and french fries for his last lunch, and chicken with shoestring potatoes (basically long, thin potato chips) for his last dinner.

This reminds of me a quote from Jerry Rubin: “‘I’m a child of America. If I’m ever sent to Death Row for my revolutionary ‘crimes’. I’ll order as my last meal: a hamburger, french fries and a Coke.”

It’s beautiful and a little tragic, this seemingly stymied imagination. No matter how high you get up the ladder and how many people you betray or kill for your modicum of ephemeral wealth, when the other shoe drops, you will reach for those old, unrefined comforts.

The fable of the elaborate last meal of the condemned is a tried-and-true means of the carceral state’s apologists to warn us away from compassion and solidarity with inmates. My generalization is intentional. The main thrust of the carceral state’s ideological argument for its right to leech away the wealth of society is by casting the act of having to keep its prisoners alive and managed as an imposition hoisted upon them by society.

Prisoners are too comfortable, have it too easy — these “extravagant” last meals are the final indignity.

And like, before we go further, we need to understand that when assholes talk about “extravagant last meals”, we are talking about a guy asking forsteaks, or 24 tacos. These are not cases of death row inmates asking for foie gras and beef bone marrow. It is extravagant in the context of poverty, where being able to buy a three-piece chicken meal instead of a two-piece meal is the difference of two dollars to most but can mean a profound statement of improved economic mobility to you.

The one meal everyone cites as proof that death row inmates are the aristocracy of the incarcerated is the last meal of white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, which he then refused:

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.

This is, easily, under $200 worth of food. If you went store-bought on some of these things, you could probably make it all yourself for under $150.

But it was enough to get Texas prisons to discontinue the practice of providing a requested last meal.

In 1992, it was reported that death row inmates in Texas cost the taxpayers $2.3 million each. You can see how that fudge, if made in-house, would cut into their profits.

I mean this somewhat sincerely; my first organizing experience was picketing with the Arizona teachers union for better wages from the state. Teachers love touting the disparity in pay for teachers vs the cost of housing an inmate and hate having to engage with what that says about them and their politics. And it’s not just them. A lot of us are guilty, at one time or another, of using prison conditions as some baseline for a greater economic argument — because we are encouraged to think of prison as a static, fixed element of our society, and not one with ever-evolving methods and motivations.

When we narrow our criticism of the police state on the violence it enacts on the poor, the struggling, the sick, the moral we convey to those around us a caution to never be that poorthat desperate, or that sick. Likewise, if you critique the amount of money the carceral state extracts from society to incarcerate people without interrogating the incentive and analyzing it from a perspective of class, race, gender, and ableism, we misdirect our interrogation onto the prisoners themselves, who have the least amount of power in determining how much housing them costs.

But by combining these threads, we are able to grasp the true nature of the carceral state; the commodification of those criminalized by society. Prisons are not a failure of justice, they are the obstacles obscuring it from reach. For prisons to exist, for wardens and guards and the stockholders of private prison stock to be paid , there must be crime, and the crime must maintain a comparable growth to the demand for that profit.

So more people must be incarcerated, and in the meantime, every accommodation, amenity, and basic dignity afforded the incarcerated — which include teenagers purposely sentenced to private prisons in exchange for kickbacks and countless people held indefinitely in prisons without trial all over the country — is an affront to the prison’s entitlement to the wealth of society.

This isn’t about the limits of hospitality the incarcerated can expect from a society they have disobeyed; if jails could get away with it (and I imagine many of them do) they wouldn’t feed the condemned anything. What’s the point, if they’re gonna die anyway, as so many say to point out the absurdity of giving a death row inmate necessary surgery.

We aren’t invoking class struggle here to overlook the severity of irreparable harm done by murderers and rapists. I’m not saying white supremacists like Lawrence Brewer deserve to be forgiven or even to live — just that the prison system shouldn’t murder him for money and scam the people for rent and expenses along the way. All the ritualism around state executions aside, a death row inmate is just a line of numbers in the ledger. The source of those numbers, the why you’re incarcerated, is largely irrelevant to the carceral state. This is the cornerstone of recidivism and re-arrest in America — crime is not a thing people do, it’s a thing people are, and so our justice system is built accordingly.

This is why people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who proudly underfed inmates as a matter of course, and Sheriff David Clarke, who murdered a man in one of his prisons by denying him water, are heroes to the right wing. They lay bare the teenage dream of the prison industrial complex: long, sprawling prisons filled with people kept on the brink of death, ransomed to the state and to their families for the slightest improvement of conditions, and prevented any meaningful contact with outside society that could provide actionable reintegration and rehabilitation. Generations of repeat customers; a brand loyalty for the whole family.

As Pride comes around, remember: these people were the oppressors our modern queer movement was mobilized against. They are not your friends. Neither are the military they seek to emulate, the banks that fund them, or contingents representing the Israeli state, who mass incarcerate the indigenous Palestinians as part of a campaign of genocide.

Raving on social media about how a movie with an ex-IDF soldier who committed atrocities against Muslims inspired and moved you as a woman is the equivalent of saying we will correct sexism with more female death camp guards.

But you can move forward, you can grow with and into the struggle. Contrary to what the carceral state has told us, we are not stunted forever by the harm we do in the past. This can be your old shame. This can be your photo op with Mike Pence, or going on dates with an anarcho-capitalist because they paid for dinner and had a nice car that vibrated beneath you in an arousing way when she drove (another previous L of mine).

Forgiveness is a foundation of prison abolition. We forgive ourselves (and each other through accountability processes), and then forgive others by smashing a system built only to punish them.

Prisons and police are not noble institutions. They’re bean-counters. Don’t you read the papers? We’re wasting enough food as it is.


Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

Leave a Reply