Humane Prison Hospice Project is Transforming the Way Terminally Ill People in Prison Die
Nov 17, 2023
By: Stephen Hyde
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than two million people living behind bars. The prison population is aging rapidly, from 1991 to 2023 the percentage of prison populations aged 55 and older increased from 3% to 15%, with more than 30% of people facing life sentences being 55 years or over. That represents almost 61,000 people who are sentenced to die in prison. Without access to basic end-of-life care options like hospice, people in prison die in their cell, in a prison hospital, or at an outside hospital chained to their bed. There are more than 1,566 state prisons in the United States, of those 1,566 only 75 have hospice programs.
Faced with these realities, the Human Prison Hospice Project was conceived as a way “to transform the way incarcerated people die through education, advocacy, and training to support their incarcerated peers as caregivers and grief companions.” Humane offers training to peer-volunteers in end-of-life care and grief support, who work with staff to address the needs of an aging prison population. Hospice looks much the same inside and outside of prison: there is an interdisciplinary team of nurses, doctors, therapists and other end-of-life care professionals. The main difference in Humane’s model is that people who are incarcerated are trained in end-of-life care to become volunteers and provide companionship to the dying.
This can become a transformational experience for both the caregiver and the one receiving the aid. Fernando Murillo, Training Manager at Humane, says that in these spaces where incarcerated individuals are train that “they feel like they're finally allowing their voices to be heard as opposed to the narratives that are written for them, the narratives that are written on paper and how the courts define them, how the board of prison terms defines them, how society defines themselves. They’re finally provided this platform in which their voices can actually be heard through action, what they personify and how they redefine themselves.”
Since 2017, the organization has been involved with San Quentin State Prison in California, training incarcerated persons as peer support staff. Under the leadership of Lisa Deal and the contributions of its dedicated staff and volunteers, Humane has also completed training for 13 peer support staff at California Medical Facility and training for 27 peer support staff at Central California Women's Facility. There has been a historical lack of hospice care provided in women’s prisons in California.
If you would like to learn more about the Humane Prison Hospice Project, including ways to get involved, please visit their website.