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March|April 2004
The Problem of Prison Rape By Daniel Brook
Captive of the System By Jennifer Gonnerman
Lifers By Sasha Abramsky
The Last Supper By Brian Price
The Cuckoo's Nest By John Douglas
The Tinderbox By Don Cabana

The Last Supper

By Brian Price

I PREPARED MY FIRST LAST MEAL FOR LAWRENCE BUXTON, who was executed in February 1991. I was 2 years into a 15-year sentence at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Tex., where the state's executions are carried out. I had ended up there after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of my ex-wife. My job assignment in prison was preparing dinner meals for the general population, a responsibility assigned to me because of my work in a pizza parlor as a teenager. As a dinner cook, I was asked to volunteer for the morbid task of preparing last meals requested by men and women condemned to die. This was a job that most of the cooks declined to accept, saying it gave them the creeps. I too had shunned the responsibility, wanting to minimize my contact with death row. But that day there were no volunteers, so I decided that I would prepare Buxton's last meal.

Buxton, the 38th prisoner executed in Texas since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1982, had been sentenced to death for killing a supermarket customer in the course of a robbery. For his last meal, he requested filet mignon, pineapple upside-down cake, fruit punch, tea, and coffee. I hadn't had much experience cooking steaks but it was important to me to give Buxton the last meal he wanted. To my surprise, the kitchen provided me with a T-bone steak in place of Buxton's preferred filet mignon. I had always thought that condemned inmates received exactly what they requested for their very last meal on earth. But I did the best I could, grilling the steak to well done and arranging the items on Buxton's dinner tray, which I wrapped in plastic and covered with butcher paper to keep warm. When my task was completed, I prayed over the meal.

Later, as the hour for Buxton's execution approached, I found myself wondering whether or not he liked his meal. Though I'd never met Buxton and knew little about him, I felt a sympathetic bond to this man as his life drew to a close. The next day, my emotions were compounded when I was told by my supervisor that Buxton had sent a message of thanks to me through the prison chaplain. Buxton had said that he enjoyed his meal and appreciated the care that went into its preparation. After that cold February day, I volunteered to cook all of death row's last meals.

The last meal is an ancient tradition, which some say predates the death of Christ. I always thought of the last meals I prepared as a version of the Last Supper, when Christ knew that he would die the next day. I took my job seriously, and it made me feel good that I was able to give the condemned at least a piece of a free world as they remembered it. The meal requests were rarely complicated; many prisoners ordered food that they had eaten as children. I think that through their meals, they were seeking a small bit of comfort and courtesy. Food can take you back to a better time in your life, and it gave me comfort to give these dying men and women some comfort in their last hours.

Last-meal requests were always released to the media exactly the way the state received them. But like Buxton's filet mignon, many of the meals that prisoners wanted were replaced with less expensive or more accessible alternatives, which forced me to be creative in honoring prisoners' wishes. The policy of the Texas Department of Corrections was that only food items kept on hand in the Walls Unit kitchen commissary and butcher shop could be used. If the condemned asked for lobster, for example, he would be served a filet of processed fish. The last real steak I prepared was in 1993. Afterward, hamburger steaks were subbed in. Most vegetables came out of cans. Requests for large quantities of food were pared down to more practical servings. David Allen Castillo requested 24 tacos in 1998 and got 4.

I did my best to give the men and women what they wanted. I added spices to the canned vegetables to make them taste fresh. I made banana pudding by mixing the prison-issue vanilla pudding with fruit and crumbled cookies. I snuck extra cheeseburgers onto the tray of a prisoner whose menu had been reduced. Very occasionally, food items from the free world were brought in for me to prepare. Karla Faye Tucker, the pickaxe murderess who underwent a religious conversion in prison, received the bananas and peaches she had requested. I believe prison officials bent the rules for inmates who behaved well on death row.

I left Huntsville after earning parole in January 2003, but the 10 years and over 200 executions that I participated in as last-meal chef changed my life forever. I used to be a strong believer in the death penalty—thinking that what goes around should come around. But my experience cooking for the condemned forced me to weigh my values and look at the death penalty from both sides of the fence.

Brian Price is a co-host of Here Comes the Light, a Christian prison outreach radio program in Texas. His forthcoming book, Meals to Die For, was adapted from the journal he kept at Huntsville.

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