A website for a restaurant calling itself Death Row Dinners had a series of black-and-white images of death row inmates with menus around their necks. Alongside the photos, it said, “Eat like it’s your last meal on earth,” and asked, “What would your last meal be?”
The £50-per-head restaurant experience promised Londoners the enjoyment of dining on their very own last meal, “without the nasty execution bit.”
The pop-up restaurant was set to open in the hipster neighborhood of Hoxton, east London, at a place called The Penitentiary. The owners described the unique penal atmosphere thus:
A backlash against the restaurant ensued on Twitter soon after it was announced as people explained why the idea is so utterly terrible. One Tweet read, “You’re not sorry. You’re using people about to be murdered by the state as props. At least be honest. You’re bad people.” Another read, “…using pictures of people who were executed with “menus” round their necks, how on earth did you think that was okay?!” Finally, a third read: “…using capital punishment as a gimmick for a tatty restaurant and they’re based in Hoxton how’d I fucking guess?”
After the backlash reached a deafening peak, the restaurant broke its silence: “We’re shocked and saddened by the response to Death Row Dinners and are genuinely very sorry for any offence caused. The pop-up is intended to explore the concept of last meals; anyone who has ever been to a dinner party has probably had this conversation – what would they love their last meal to be. In light of the response to the idea we are considering our next steps and will update everyone with our decision.”
There has been no word since.
I came across this article on Buzzfeed, earlier today. What initially caught my interest about this news story was the silly and unconvincing premise of the restaurant. I thought the pictures of the ‘felons’ were reminiscent of those old timey photo sessions, where families would dress up in the clothing of the Old Wild West or in convict stripes with ball and chain and Keystone cops. Never for an instant did I think I was actually looking at convicted felons, or worse, men on death row. When I read about what the concept of the restaurant was, I thought it was a good marketing gimmick, and would probably do well. But I was not shocked or repulsed by the concept, because it’s the kind of thing we do in America EVERY SINGLE DAY. There are tour guides giving tours of old west saloons where dozens met their brutal ends; guided tours of bloody battlegrounds where indians and frontiersman fought; there are Civil War cafes and restaurants in and around Gettysburg that play up the bitter feud between North and South. In San Francisco Bay, tourists take tours of Alcatraz, and visit related giftshops and theme restaurants. In Chicago, there are tours of ’30s era gangster Chicago, with all the notorious haunts of Al Capone, and the site of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In Boston, there are reenactments of fierce battles of the American Revolution. In most instances, the historical guides and educators are respectful and somber, but not always. In Salem, Massachusetts, the time around Halloween is a horror show of ghost tours and witch burnings, and the joyous delight in the macabre often overshadows the gruesome reality of the executions of innocent young women. The country is full of amusement parks that have themed sections, glorifying various battles and wars, and romanticizing America’s rough and tumble past. So if history and the present are any indication, a sensational, slightly tongue-in-cheek theme restaurant like Death Row Dinners would be very successful here. I can easily imagine it on the Las Vegas strip or in Atlantic City. Texas has a rich history of capital punishment, and a slightly twisted sense of humor, which might make it ideal. They might even argue its presence might help deter crime. Regardless, such a concept would likely thrive in the U.S.
And that became the very crux of this story. That I would look at such a restaurant, and ostensibly see no problem. I was viewing the concept through my American goggles, which appreciated the gallows humor of the ironic and glib scenario, the hyper-capitalist opportunity to seize on a unique business model, and the very grim reality that in many ways, the States were still untamed, and violent death was always all around us. The last execution here was only weeks ago, whereas there hasn’t been anyone hanged in the UK since 1964.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story is the very fact that it’s been decades since England’s last execution, yet these concerned citizens are just as fired up as if it were yesterday. It’s more than evident that if this small swath of Londoners speaks for a larger sample, then the average citizen is firmly anti-death penalty. Perhaps even more surprising than their committed fervor and resistance to capital punishment, was the vitriol and scorn directed at the restauranteurs for their perceived injuries against a group that simply didn’t exist in England anymore – death row prisoners. They were chiding on behalf of theoretical prisoners, perhaps in other countries. I was struck by how personal their words were, as if their sons was facing their last meals. I’ve grown with British television, literature, music, etc. and yet I’m continually surprised. Of course, I believe in free speech, and fiercely support those businessmen’s right to open that restaurant if they choose, but if that toxic sentiment is any indictor of success, I don’t expect the UK was the place to open such an establishment.
The place to open such an ironic, irreverent, garish, ambitious, and macabre business would naturally be the United States. Death Row Dinners could exploit America for all her weaknesses and vice.
We live in a culture divided — where have the population vehemently believes in the death penalty and the other half steadfastly believe in sparing lives. Those who advocate for death, cite statistics that affirm the practice is a reliable and provable deterrent to crime. Some argue that it is cheaper to execute a prisoner than to incarcerate them for life.
I am unquestionably against the death penalty. A July 2009 study titled “DO EXECUTIONS LOWER HOMICIDE RATES?: THE VIEWS OF LEADING CRIMINOLOGISTS” by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. LaCock, demonstrates an overwhelming consensus among criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment. A new study of the costs of the death penalty found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690).
Another imperative reason to abolish the death penalty is the potential for wrongful execution — considered a miscarriage of justice –when an innocent person is put to death by capital punishment. Newly available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 17 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States,but DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of capital cases. Others have been released on the basis of weak cases against them, sometimes involving prosecutorial misconduct; resulting in acquittal at retrial, charges dropped, or innocence-based pardons. The Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.) has published a list of 10 inmates “executed but possibly innocent”.At least 39 executions are claimed to have been carried out in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt. Even if just one inmate is innocent, that is too many to put to death. Lifelong sentences without parole ensure that would never happen.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Those who support capital punishment are not really that concerned with deterrents or the housing cost of prisoners. Not even prison overpopulation. They seek vengeance, masked as justice. This bloodthirsty hunt cannot be satisfied with rehabilitation, because they don’t seek redemption or the saving of men’s souls. Instead, they want the closest thing to suffering — death. As if a life sentence without parole wasn’t punishment enough. I’m afraid I can’t see the logic in murdering someone as a means of punishing murder. Some of us in this country still think we’re in the Wild West, and live by some cowboy code, but for the rest of us, we live in a civil society, and we invest in the principles of rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, and mercy. Why is it that we are one of the only countries left still practicing this outdated and barbaric practice?
It was right then that I remembered my own humanity, and that I did in fact feel very strongly about the death penalty. In fact, I have more of an urgent need, given its continued practice in this country. In truth, there is something cruel and inhumane about spoofing those on death row. We’ve somehow learned better than to depict concentration camp victims so scornfully, or African American slaves, and maybe even Native Americans. Yet, we view them as victims — often of our own avarice and aggression — whereas convicts got themselves there, and they deserve nothing in return. Sadly, this is how many feel.
I’m no prison reformer, nor in any position to judge anybody else. However, I cannot help but firmly believe that all men and women, no matter what their crime, deserve to be treated with humanity, dignity, and respect. Perhaps I am self-righteous, but I can’t see how any belief is virtuous that is rooted in hatred, vengeance, payback, or even justice. For those who believe in God, scripture is clear that justice only comes with the Judgement. Thou shall not kill. I can never understand how these people pick and choose what works for them. I believe in mercy and the hope that we all have the power to change. And I’ve changed my mind about Death Row Dinners. For all the lives that came before, and all those still on death row, may we one day spare a life, and save a soul.