Profs to Design “Toolkit” to Help Old People Die Right in Prison

Over the last few months I have been posting articles on the graying of the U.S. prison population. Beyond the humanitarian implications, this is a cause of growing concern because of inflating costs due to treating people with arthritis, cancer, hip and knee replacement and so on behind bars. Older people fall more often, have trouble climbing into bunk beds because of arthritis, and suffer from depression and dementia. Unlike younger prisoners, they tend to be a fairly docile lot, and are more often the victim than the aggressor in prison assaults. They are obvious candidates for early release as prisons are eyed as targets for cuts in cash-strapped state budgets.

For years prison rights organizations and families have sought to persuade states and the federal government to free elderly  terminally ill inmates into the care of family or friends. But prisons and politicians have generally deemed such compassionate release programs too “high risk” because of the possible security threat to the general populace–in other words, they worry grandpa might get out and go berserk, and they’d be left holding the bag if he committed a new crime.

Places like Angola, the giant Louisiana state prison where most inmates have such long sentences that they are destined to die inside, have dealt with this situation by setting up their own hospices. Now, Penn State has received a $1.27 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to develop what Susan Loeb, an assistant professor, described to the student newspaper the Daily Collegian as a “comprehensive toolkit of tailored resources for end-of-life care in prisons.” The article continues:

Leaders of the program plan to apply study findings at six different prisons state-wide in an attempt to improve care for inmates reaching the end of their lives, wrote Loeb, the principal investigator for the study.

“Since prisons are among the most restrictive, most complex organizations — prisons are the best context for this study,” Loeb wrote. “Our hope is that findings will benefit not only dying inmates but also others who spend their final days in a complex organization.”

Though the study is still in the early stages, researchers are quickly learning, said Christopher Hollenbeak, associate professor of surgery and health evaluation sciences and an investigator on the study. “The real goal of it is to come up with a tool in prisons to improve the quality-of-life care,” Hollenbeak said. “We want to provide a toolkit that would be cost-effective as well.” Current end-of-life prison programs only offer limited low-cost medications. One proposed change is the “buddy system,” where healthy inmates are paired with a terminally ill inmate to help look out for them, Hollenbeak said.

I suppose it’s a worthy effort, given the current situation. But none of it would be necessary if American society could get over its desire for punishment and revenge just enough to let these inmates die in the free world.

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