Hospice Program: Compassion in the world of prisoners!

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A way for prisoners who are serving life sentences to give back; a chance they thought they’d never get.

Do you believe in second chances? What if the second chance was given to a violent prisoner serving a life sentence for a violent crime that he’s committed years ago?  A crime so grotesque, the thought of allowing such a person the right of a second chance seems unbearable for those who’ve lost family members and friends to him.


Image Credit: HBO

There are over 100,000 elderly now in prison and will probably die there due to their unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies which generated longer sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners all over the country.  About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years, reports NPHA.org.


Inmate Hospice Volunteers: Bertram Berkett, Michael Glover, Michael Williams, Charles Watkins

According to prisonterminal.com, from the early 1990’s until now, the number of state and federal inmates age 50 and older has grown an astonishing 172 percent. Some estimates claim that within the next fifteen to twenty years, over 20 percent of the United States prison population will be classified as elderly.

Pastoral care worker John Paul Madrano, right, takes care of fellow inmate Gary Smith in the X-Corridor, the inmate hospice inside the California Medical Center in Vacaville. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Pastoral care worker John Paul Madrano, right, takes care of fellow inmate Gary Smith in the X-Corridor, the inmate hospice inside the California Medical Center in Vacaville. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Over the last decade, prisons all over the country have started hospice programs for their terminally ill inmates/patients. These patients are cared for by the inmates and not the official medical staff members you’ll usually see in a hospice facility.  Although the medical treatment is received from doctors and nurses as required by the state, the psychological aspect of this is provided by the inmates who care for these patients on a deeper level.  Some of these inmates dedicate as much as 10 hours a day 5 days a week for one purpose and that’s to give back, hoping to one day receive the same opportunity and that’s to die with dignity.  These inmates understand that leaving prison is not in their future, but perhaps it’s a way to give them comfort during their last days on this planet.


Figure 1: Growth in State and Federal Prison Population, by Age, 2007-2010 www.hrw.org

According to National Prison Hospice Association, an enormous number of inmates are now age 65 and over living with diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s are now requiring care and inmates such as Secel Montgomery Sr. who stabbed a woman in the stomach, chest and throat so fiercely that he lost count of the wounds he inflicted. In the nearly 25 years he has been serving a life sentence, he has gotten into fights, threatened a prison official and been caught with marijuana.  Despite that, he has recently been entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility. He and other convicted killers at the California Men’s Colony help care for prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, assisting ailing inmates with the most intimate tasks: showering, shaving, applying deodorant, even changing adult diapers.

“The dementia population is going to grow tremendously,” says Ronald H. Aday, a sociologist and the author of “Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections.” “How are we going to take care of them?”


Image: www.dailyundertaker.com

This is a silent crisis that nobody wants to talk about for obvious reasons. The punishment should fit the crime and the one who committed the crime should suffer eternity is what everyone believes. Would it make a difference if it was your dad trying to make a difference and work hard for that second chance? Would your views be a little different in that situation?

The prisons are now overcrowded with not enough staff to monitor or treat them all. Some prisons are working with skeleton staff in order to just maintain their day to day operations of the facility, but if an emergency strikes, most don’t have the resources to deal with so many patients that are now over 65 and serving life in prison.

These patients/inmates age at a faster rate than those who are of the same age but living free. Those individuals, who experience less stress, take better care of them, visit doctors as often as they can, don’t experience periods of depression, not surrounded by violence and who can come and go as they please, life is different for them.

Since the mid 1990’s, prison healthcare spending in the United States has increased 27 percent, from $2.7 billion to $3.4 billion a year. The average cost of healthcare per inmate rose 31 percent during that same period, from $5.62 to $7.39 a day. The annual cost of incarcerating elderly, chronically or terminally ill inmates has therefore risen dramatically – to an average of $65,000, compared to about $27,000 for a healthy inmate in the general prison population.

Although the laws are different from state to state, inmates who are terminally ill and possess no harm to themselves or anyone around them maybe granted permission to spent their last months at home with their family and friends taking care of their needs.  But this compassionate early release has become amongst one of the political topics and not medical.  Even with this early release program, most die within the walls of the prison waiting for their paper work to be completed and approved, a harsh reality that most understand is a huge possibility in their future.


Image: Tim Gruber

To eliminate and decrease these annual medical costs within our prisons, should the state possibly consider allocating the billions of dollars spent on inmates a year for something other than this.  Perhaps allowing their loved ones to take over this responsibility and provide the support these sick inmates need during their last days on earth.  Or do we continue to provide billions for health coverage for inmates, putting this country into further debt.  Instead, allowing these prisoners to live out their life sentences at home, under house arrest and putting the money towards children’s educational/recreational programs, after school programs or even camp.

This topic is so delicate and further research is still required whether to allow these inmates early release to die with their families or allow another inmate to play the role of hospice volunteer so they can die with dignity.  It is inmate/volunteers the patient connects with because of their common ground and the direction life has taken them both.  Those who volunteer their time and effort by providing compassion and support to the dying inmates will surely not be forgotten but perhaps allowed that chance to give back to society, a chance they hope another will be provided for them too.

By: Ida Lombardi









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