Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Many of the elderly inmates of the Maine State Prison have committed crimes that earned them a lifetime behind bars. But that doesn't mean they should die without comfort or companionship, Anne Haskell says.
"They're still human beings," said Haskell, a Democratic state representative from Portland who became familiar with hospice care 20 years ago, when her first husband died of lung cancer.
"I know there are people who say, 'Who cares? Look what they did in society.' And they did some horrible, heinous things," said Haskell, a member of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. "They are still our responsibility. I don't want to be part of the society that says you have to have a painful, awful death because of what you did."
The state prison is in its third year of a program that allows prisoners who are trained in hospice care to tend to terminally ill prisoners near the end of their lives.
The program -- and the benefits of hospice in the prison setting -- will be the focus of a conference Sept. 19 at the prison in Warren. The conference will explore the ethics and the expense of end-of-life care in prisons.
The nation's prison population is aging. There are 14 times as many prisoners older than 55 as there were in 1980, according to a report in June by the American Civil Liberties Union. The total prison population is four times what it was then, the report said.
A report this year by Human Rights Watch said that from 1995 to 2010, the segment of prisoners older than 55 grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population. The Department of Justice says there were 119,000 state and federal prisoners in 2010.
Harsher sentencing laws have contributed to the increase in elderly inmates, as have medical advances that help people to live longer.
169 PRISONERS OLDER THAN 55
Maine has 169 prisoners who are older than 55, which is 8 percent of the total of 2,022 state prisoners. Ninety-six inmates are older than 60.
The Department of Corrections doesn't track changes in the average age of prisoners, but Warden Patricia Barnhart estimates it is equivalent to the national rate of growth.
An aging prison population means more inmates face dying in prison.
"It's almost a demographic imperative for us to get our arms around this -- providing care and comfort and ensuring it's done in the most cost-effective way," said Kandyce Powell, executive director of the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End of Life Care.
The council has been involved at the Maine State Prison for 12 years as part of its mission to reach out to underserved populations. It started with classes about end-of-life issues and then trained staff members.
VOLUNTEERS DRAWN FROM PRISON
In the past three years, the council has trained volunteers drawn from the prison population and graduated two classes with 14 volunteers. They supplement the infirmary staff and sit with men who are dying, providing round-the-clock attention, sometimes just sitting and listening, Powell said.
There is little enthusiasm in the public for programs that appear to coddle people who have done terrible things, but Haskell said that misses the point of prison's role.
"Being locked up is the punishment," she said. "They go there not to have a hard life but to have their freedom taken away from them.
"When they have to spend their whole life in that prison, they're going to die there within those four walls," she said. "As human beings, the way somebody dies is one of the important hallmarks of us as a society."
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