Life without parole has turned Pa.’s prisons into hospices for the hopeless | Opinion

People were aging and dying in prison, withering away to nothing with no chance of ever returning to the free world

By David Garlock

Over 10 years ago I was in prison, tasked with the strange job of changing diapers, bathing paralyzed men, and preventing bedsores.

I watched incarcerated people enter hospice and die, with me as a volunteer and stranger serving the role of their only family. While I’d come to think prisons were intended to rehabilitate people, my time spent incarcerated opened my eyes. People were aging and dying in prison, withering away to nothing with no chance of ever returning to the free world.

The reality of prison hospice was unknown to me when my incarceration began in 1999, after a murder charge when I killed my abuser as a teen and found myself facing a long sentence.

It wasn’t until a hospice program began at my prison when I stepped into the world of incarcerated elder care, as one of about 30 volunteers. After a two-day training on basic skills—including repositioning people so old they couldn’t move themselves, brush their teeth and adjust their  glasses—20 of those people dropped off. By the time that we actually began working with those men who were dying, there were only three of us left.

My first day was eye-opening. The man that I was going to be working with, Mr. House (*not his real name), was in a single cell across from four solitary cells. The location was one where the nurses really couldn’t hear him if he was crying out for help and there were no video cameras for them to monitor him.

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He was in this room all by himself.  Mr. House was being eaten up by cancer, and looked like he weighed 80 pounds soaking wet. Because of his condition, he could not move himself which led to him starting to get bed sores.

The men that were in hospice were not treated like those in hospice in the free world. They didn’t have a specific nurse for them or get to spend all day with their families. They might have received two or three more visits a week. In the state’s eyes, they had committed a crime, and were not worthy of being treated like human beings.

My imprisonment was in Alabama. But here in Pennsylvania where I now reside, the situation is even worse.

This is because of the chronic use of mandatory life without parole sentencing here, otherwise known as Death By Incarceration because people with the sentence die from imprisonment.

Compassionate release is so extraordinarily rare  that only a handful of people are released each year. A person must be both not able to walk and terminal before they are even eligible. For those who were not terminal enough and don’t die within a year of their release, their congratulations for living is a one-way-ticket back to prison. 

This is such common practice that each state has had to create a prison hospital for those who are in deteriorating health and in need of palliative care. Just recently, Pennsylvania created a new Neuro-Cognitive CARE Unit at SCI Rockview in Centre County.

This unit will house up to 12 people who have dementia and other memory issues. The cost of care for those in person care units is upwards of $500 every day, per-person. As care units expand, so too does the amount of money the state Department of Corrections  sinks into keeping the elderly and sick incarcerated.

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I will never forget one day in one of those specialized units, I assisted the nurses in changing the diaper of Mr. Cook (*not his real name).

This particular man had been incarcerated for over 30 years for a murder charge.  He was partially paralyzed because of a stroke. Anytime he had to use the restroom, shower or go anywhere we would have to pick him up and put him in a wheelchair.

When Mr. Cook went up for parole, he was denied every time because of the violent nature of his crime. The parole board was judging him as the 30 year old who had committed the offense, and not the 60-plus-year-old man who couldn’t even care for himself.

On that day we changed his diaper, and when we rolled him over, he just died in our arms. We were all in a state of shock. After a few moments that seemed like hours, we rolled him over and pulled the sheet over his head.

I did this work the last three years of my time incarcerated. Had I been sentenced in Pennsylvania, I would have received life without parole and ended up on the same life path as these men.

My motivation came from knowing that if I was in that condition I would want someone to be there.  I became their family-by-proxy, and that was both the best and worst part of it. I poured my heart into those men, and I watched them die.

Right now, Pennsylvania is one of 26 states creating legislation around geriatric and medical parole.

Legislation now before the state Senate (SB835) would allow the possibility of parole to anyone 55 or older or chronically/terminally ill.  If this becomes law, there could be hope again for those mistreated by the prison system and waiting to die by incarceration.

The population that is over 55 — considered geriatric inside prisons because people’s lifespans are much shorter there — is nearly one-third of the prison population.

That is not because there is a crime wave by senior citizens. It is because of the amount of life without parole, life and lengthy sentences that are being handed out. In fact, when elderly people over 65 are released, their chance of committing another crime is less than 1%.

My view of prison was wrong. Our prisons don’t rehabilitate: if they did, those people would have a chance to try again once in their lives.

The prison system was never designed to become a nursing home or hospice, but it has become one. If we truly believe that our prisons are about correction and rehabilitation—shouldn’t we begin to release the elders who have shown that they have changed?

David Garlock, a formerly incarcerated individual, is the Pennsylvania stage organizer for Straight Ahead, a group that is working to end death by incarceration.  He writes from Coatesville, Pa. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.