Except in Texas, which did away with the policy in 2011, condemned men in prisons throughout the U.S. continue to eat a hearty meal before their date with the executioner—some heartier than others.
Consider the final earthly repast of murderer Gary Carl Simmons, who was put to death at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman on June 21, 2012. Simmons requested, received, and consumed two pizzas (one of them a medium Super Supreme Deep Dish pie from Pizza Hut), five pounds of Parmesan cheese, 10 cups of ranch dressing, two pints of strawberry ice cream, a family-size bag of nacho cheese flavor Doritos, a super-size order of McDonald’s fries with ketchup and mayo, and to wash it all down two strawberry shakes and 40 ounces of Cherry Coke. Total calories: 28,974.
The Daily Mail reports that the meal also provided 2,077 grams of fat, close to 35 times the USDA’s recommended daily intake for that nutrient. One might argue that the man should be more vigilant about his diet. Then again….
Although the typical death row last meal gravitates toward high-fat and often fried foods, not all inmates have plebian tastes. The article notes that Robert Dale Conklin, who used a screwdriver to kill his gay lover and then dismembered the corpse in Georgia in 1984, feasted on shrimp sautéed in garlic butter with lemon, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, a baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives, and real bacon bits, corn on the cob, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, French bread with butter, goat cheese, cantaloupe, apple pie, vanilla bean ice cream, and iced tea.
Simmons’s meal meanwhile has rekindled an argument that life on death row is too comfortable. In a piece published around the time of the execution, ABC News recalled a galling letter sent to a local newspaper the previous January by one Danny Robbie Hembree Jr., a death row inmate at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. In the letter, Hembree (who still awaits execution) boasted:
Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three, well-balanced, hot meals a day…. Kill me if you can, suckers. Ha! Ha! Ha!’
The spiteful taunt prompted death penalty advocate and New York Law School professor Robert Blecker to renew efforts to raise public awareness of the “undeservedly pleasant” life that has become the norm for prisoners inside America’s maximum-security prisons. “They’re playing on softball fields with lined base paths and umpires in uniforms, while other guys are hanging out, getting a suntan,” he told reporters. “Those who committed the worst crimes, who deserve to suffer the most, generally suffer the least.”
Blecker, who has produced a documentary and written a book about the pampered treatment accorded many of the nation’s most flagrant offenders, said most Americans are clueless about the reality of prison life. He said prison life can be so cushy that some convicts claim to have killed just to get put away.
But back to Simmons’s last meal. Lest anyone assume that his calorie-fest set some kind of world record, take note of food writer Waverly Root’s description in his delightful Eating in America of a “normal dinner” for financier and gastronome Diamond Jim Brady. The meal “began with two or three dozen Lynnhaven oysters.”
Then came half a dozen crabs, two bowls of green turtle soup, [six or seven] lobsters …, a double portion of terrapin, two canvasback ducks, a large sirloin steak with appropriate vegetables, and when a tray of French pastry was presented for dessert, its entire contents.
At the time of his death, Root later writes, Brady’s stomach was six times the normal size.