Saturday, October 17, 2009

Prison Hospice

Given that 1 out of every 32 is under "Correctional Supervision" (that's 6.7 Million people), it's not surprising that there is a large geriatric population in jail. More than 3,000 inmates die from natural causes in prison each year, so many prisons are starting to develop hospice programmes staffed with inmate volunteers.

As courts have handed down longer sentences and tightened parole, about 75 prisons have started hospice programs, half of them using inmate volunteers, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Susan Atkins, a follower of Charles Manson, died last month in hospice at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla after being denied compassionate release.

Joan Smith, deputy superintendent of health services at the Coxsackie prison, said the hospice program here initially met with resistance from prison guards. “They were very resentful about people in prison for horrendous crimes getting better medical care than their families,” including round-the-clock companionship in their final days, Ms. Smith said. (source)

Not surprisingly, the experience has become transformative for the volunteers in a way that the rest of their prison experience has not been.
Benny Lee, 38, has spent half his life in prison for manslaughter, and for most of that time, he said, “the only thing I regretted was getting caught.” Four months ago he began as a hospice volunteer, feeling he needed a change. “I’m trying to offer some payback,” he said. (source)

Recently I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in many years. Turns out, several years ago he spent 18 months in jail for DUI and Cocaine possession. He says that it was the best thing that ever happened to him--really turned his life around. He told me that when you are sent to prison you really have a choice--you can waste the time passing the hours or you can use it to improve yourself mentally, spiritually, or physically. He took advantage of the time to change himself and was glad for it. He also said that prison is like anywhere else, there are good people and bad people and you can survive if you make wise choices.

This situation of the Prison Hospice programmes reminds me of the cemetery in New York where they bury the abandoned dead. If they can't find a family to claim remains, they are eventually buried in a cemetery which is maintained my prisoners. Being on the cemetery detail is considered a privilege, as the inmates take the care of the cemetery very seriously.


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