Working with the Dying in California Prisons

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Reverend Lorie Adoff has trained over 130 inmate-volunteers to sit with and support dying prisoners at California Men’s Colony, a minimum- and medium-security prison in San Luis Obispo. After training inmates for eleven years, Adoff retired in 2013. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Many people hope to die surrounded by friends and family. But for prison inmates death can be unusually isolating. As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we hear from retired hospice chaplain Lorie Adoff. More than a decade ago, she helped launch a project called Supportive Care Services at the California Men’s Colony — a prison in San Luis Obispo. The program trained inmates serving life sentences to sit with other men dying behind bars.

By Lorie Adoff

First of all imagine, it’s very, very stark. There is nothing pretty about a hospital in prison. Nothing.

But I have discovered, working with the dying in prison, there is transformation. 

They have the opportunity to have family come and visit them on a limited basis. A lot of times because they’ve been there so long though, they don’t have anybody who it matters whether or not they die in prison. They’ve been in prison for 30 years or 40 years and who cares? So, dying alone is a very, very real situation in prison.

Before Supportive Care Services, there really wasn’t anything in place to be with the dying inmates. Patients who were dying in the hospital would be put in a room. A nurse would check on him periodically, until he died.

Inmates are involved in prison hospice programs at the California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo and the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville.

In California’s prisons, the number of inmates over 50 years old grew from 4 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2013.

All the men I had work [as hospice volunteers] in the program were lifers. That is they had committed a murder or were accessories to it, and they were given a life sentence.

The men are sitting vigil with them. They hold their hand. They talk to them — whether or not the person can respond.

And what happens is those human qualities are given a safe space. They can be more caring and more compassionate and more sensitive.

You know, before I started working at the prison I used to think, well, we die the way we lived. But I have discovered, working with the dying in prison to say we die as we lived is not true. There is transformation. There really are really deepchanges that happen.

I remember one of the psychiatrists said to me, “The last four weeks of my patient’s life has been the best that he has ever known.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because he had friends who weren’t trying to get something from him.” And those were the hospice volunteers. And they made sure he didn’t die alone.

Listen to Adoff’s story:

HEAR FROM A FORMER VOLUNTEER

Roger Brown sat at the bedside of 34 dying men at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. After serving nearly 35 years of a life sentence, Brown is now on parole. He talks about how the Supportive Care Services program changed him.

Ryder Diaz was the reporter for this story.

Listen to more Vital Signs stories here or share your own.

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