Death, or physically disappearing is scary in our culture, a fact that underscores the importance of adequate and excellent end-of-life care. This fact is especially true for prison inmates, who too often die without the dignity and compassion to which they have a right.

The American prison population is aging. From 1995 to 2010, there was an approximately 282% increase in the number of inmates ages 55 and older.[1] This fact is exaggerated by the fact that these legal ages translate to vastly different physiological ages. An inmate who is fifty-five is roughly sixty-five from a health perspective.[2] This age difference is largely due to the fact that inmates are typically in poor health even before arriving to prison, and, once there, prison conditions usually exacerbate their poor health.[3]

Declining physiological health takes its own toll on mental health, significantly contributing to anxiety. A recent study completed by Rachel Wion and Susan Loeb at the College of Nursing at Pennsylvania State University found that the idea of dying in prison significantly increased inmates’ stress levels.[4] Many fears stem from the simple thought of death for inmates, as a sentence to life in prison without parole is a sentence to die in prison.

Many inmates also rightly fear that they will not receive prompt and proper medical care. Often, the quality of health care for inmates is below standard due to the mentality that criminals should not receive the same level of care as law-abiding civilians;[5] thus, inmates are too often denied care altogether or do not receive it in time[6].

Beyond medical care, inmates fear dying without the presence and attention of their loved ones.  Rachael Bedard writes in the New York Times about one of her patients, whose wife and daughters struggled to receive permission to visit.[7] She goes on to make a compelling case for increasing the possibility of compassionate release available to ill inmates. Compassionate release or medical parole refer to those inmates who are elderly or terminally ill, and, as a result, may be released from prison prior to completion of their sentence.[8] However, compassionate release is rare and limited. In New York, only 371 individuals have received this treatment since 1992.[9] Given that approximately 100 prisoners die each year, this number is discouragingly low.[10] Beyond an emotional argument, Bedard argues that palliative care teams are able to care for the very ill much better than any prison can.

At the very least, elderly inmates who have committed nonviolent crimes should be granted compassionate release. Too often, inmates do not have control over their dying experience. Above all, death is an human experience and as humans we all deserve dignified and respectable end-of-life care while surrounded by the ones we love.

[1] CE: Original Research: End-of-Life Care Behind Bars: A Systematic Review Wion, Rachel K.; Loeb, Susan J.

[2] Aday, R. H., Krabill, J. J., & Deaton-Owens, D. (2014). Religion in the lives of older women serving life in prison. Journal of Women and Aging, 26(3), 238-256

[3]

[4]  CE: Original Research: End-of-Life Care Behind Bars: A Systematic Review Wion, Rachel K.; Loeb, Susan J.

[5] Aday, R. H., Krabill, J. J., & Deaton-Owens, D. (2014). Religion in the lives of older women serving life in prison. Journal of Women and Aging, 26(3), 238-256

[6]

[7] Bedard, R. (2015). When Dying Alone in Prison Is Too Harsh a Sentence. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/28/opinion/when-dying-alone-in-prison-is-too-harsh-a-sentence.html

[8]

[9]

[10] Bedard, R. (2015). When Dying Alone in Prison Is Too Harsh a Sentence. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/28/opinion/when-dying-alone-in-prison-is-too-harsh-a-sentence.html