“Come on, Mr. Jacobs,” he said.
Mr. Roberts is one of a dozen inmates at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility who volunteer to sit with fellow prisoners in the last six months of their lives. More than 3,000 prisoners a year die of natural causes in correctional facilities.
Mr. Roberts recalled a day when Mr. Jacobs, then more coherent, had started crying. Mr. Roberts held his patient and tried to console him. Then their experience took a turn unique to their setting, the medical ward of a maximum security prison. Mr. Roberts said he told Mr. Jacobs to “man up.”
Mr. Jacobs, serving two to four years for passing forged checks, cursed at him, telling him, “‘I don’t want to die in jail. Do you want to die in jail?’ ”
“I said no,” said Mr. Roberts, who is serving eight years for robbery. “He said, ‘Then stop telling me to man up,’ and he started crying. And then he said that I’m his family.”
American prisons are home to a growing geriatric population, with one-third of all inmates expected to be over 50 by next year. As courts have handed down longer sentences and tightened parole, about 75 prisons have started hospice programs, half of them using inmate volunteers, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Joan Smith, deputy superintendent of health services at the Coxsackie prison, said the hospice program here initially met with resistance from prison guards. “They were very resentful about people in prison for horrendous crimes getting better medical care than their families,” including round-the-clock companionship in their final days, Ms. Smith said.
The guards have come to accept the program, she said. But still there are challenges unique to the prison setting. Some dying patients, for example, divert their pain medication to their volunteer aides or other patients, who use it or sell it, said Kathleen Allan, the director of nursing. She added that patients can be made victims easily, “and this is a predatory system.”
But she said the inmate volunteers bond with the patients in a way that staff members cannot, taking on “the touchy-feely thing” that may be inappropriate between inmates and prison workers.
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