When Dying Alone in Prison Is Too Harsh a Sentence
Date:  12-29-2015

As many of us look forward to the New Year some in prison know a lonely death awaits them
Via New York Times Opinion Pages

When Dying Alone in Prison Is Too Harsh a Sentence


My patient, a man in his 60s, whispered “Gracias, God bless” over and over as I moved his legs during an exam. Our palliative care team had been called in to help manage his pain after his liver cancer recurred. The cancer had already metastasized to his spine, creating pressure on his spinal cord that left him nearly paralyzed from the waist down. He seemed like a felled tree. We found him tearful and scared. But he wasn’t alone.

At his side were the corrections officers who had accompanied him from the prison where he was incarcerated on a conspiracy charge related to a drug arrest. They guarded his door day and night and screened all his visitors. As the doctors told him that his life would soon be over, his officers watched television, ate snacks, and read the newspaper. One day on my way out of his room, I asked an officer whether the patient would be told that he was being moved to a different prison once he left the hospital. He wasn’t entitled to know, said the officer flatly, because he was “property of the state.”

In our prison system, there are various programs called “compassionate release” or sometimes “medical parole,” whereby elderly or seriously ill prisoners may be released to the community before the end of their sentence. Since 1992, 371 people have been released through the medical parole program in New York State. (For the sake of comparison, about 100 inmates die from natural causes every year in the New York prison system.) Only 30 inmates filed applications for medical release in 2014, of whom 17 were released and six died before their review. In the federal prison system, the numbers are even more dismal; 101 federal inmates were approved for compassionate release in 2014 out of a total federal prison population of 214,000 people.

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