Politics & Law

Dying inside: Lifers, the dying and California’s correctional paradigm

Jonathan Simon

Before the hospice program started by prison chaplain Lorie Adolff, dying prisoners in California’s state prison in San Luis Obsipo (California Men’s Colony) just expired alone in their cells, with prison nurses looking in periodically until their vital signs ceased.  Adolff’s project, Supportive Care Services, trains other prisoners, most of them lifers, to sit with and comfort dying prisoners.

The hospice, featured this morning on KQED’s California Report (listen to it here), sounds deeply moving and likely a powerful healing experience for everyone involved.  I have had the privilege of being at the bedside of the dying myself (my father) and I have no doubt that that small space is one of freedom and transcendence even in the midst of prison.  It has been movingly described in the correctional setting before (see Ben Fleury Steiner, Dying Inside).

Any bit of humanity and kindness is worth encouraging, but I hope the prison hospice is an idea that spreads fast enough to put itself out of existence. First, by underscoring the barbarity of California having a large stock of aging “lifers” fated to die in prison (perhaps alone at the prisons that do not have a Lorie Adolff on staff). There is no penological justification for allowing people to linger in prison long enough to die of  old age after serving decades in many cases.

Prison is, for the moment, our society’s way of expressing moral outrage against heinous crimes and protecting the community against people with a habit of using violence to get their way, and spending a piece of your life in a humane prison may be considered justly deserved punishment for crimes that deprive other people of their lives or physical or mental integrity. But prison sentences must have limits to be rational and just and almost everyone agrees that  California’s years of penal populism led legislators and prosecutors to produce sentences that having little relationship to either moral desert or risk.

Prison hospices might help eliminate themselves by driving home a different point. Prisoners experience change.  Prisoners can change through the the kind of work described in the Supportive Care Services project in which they touch their own humanity. Prisoners also change through the processes of aging and recognizing the profound gifts of family, community, and freedom. Our current correctional was built on the premise that such change does not happen, but it happens constantly.  Its the paradigm itself that remains caught in a kind of time warp, like a 1980s mainframe where the calendar is permanently locked on September, 1971.

We now know that crimes are highly situational, contingent, dynamic events. The best way to reduce crime, even violent crime, is to identify and interrupt the spatial/temporal patterns of human activity that presage and promote violence. Prison does not do that (by and large, used precisely it might).

Our current mass incarceration policies were baked into our correctional commonsense back in the 1970s (remember when lapels were wide and Jerry Brown was governor). Back then most criminologists were throwing up their hands at any way to stop the escalating violent crime rate and some endorse increased prison sentences as the only hope. Crime went down long after prison populations skyrocketed and even the most supportive criminologists credit incarceration with no more than a quarter of the national crime drop that occurred in the 1990s.

California’s heavy investment in incapacitation has been particularly counterproductive. Indeed, having abandoned rehabilitation and reentry, California allowed the formation and stabilization of a racist gang system in prisons that helps prevent prisoners from desisting from criminal lives and life styles. (Even the gangs have evolved as the recent peace calls and hunger strike suggest, and I currently rate the gangs and the correctional officer’s union more ready for change than California’s fear based correctional leadership).

Prison hospice can indeed be a model for prison projects that breed a sense of humanity in everyone involved, which both prisoners and prison officers need to prevent dehumanization and demonization from setting in. But all prisoners need a realistic hope of life on the outside if prison is to be a truly humane and penitential place. Dying on the inside may happen, when arrangements cannot be made quickly enough for compassionate release or when a prisoner prefers to remain among close prison friends, but dying on the inside should be a rare and unfortunate event.

Governor Brown, to his credit, has unblocked California’s executive heavy parole process but it is still far too slow, too cautious, and a huge backlog remains.  Far too many prisoners remain caught by long determinate sentences that do not allow for parole. Governor Brown, who faces no real challenge to a second term, should use his executive clemency powers to speedily move aging prisoners out of prisons, with those needing the most health care the first in line.

This would help the state cope with the Brown v. Plata medical and population orders and begin to create a climate of compassion and dignity in which the state might begin to revise its pointlessly punitive sentencing laws.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "Dying inside: Lifers, the dying and California’s correctional paradigm":
    • Judy Davis

      I appreciated reading a humane response to the growing length of years for crimes committed here in California. I noticed that most everyone gets life without parole (LWOP).

      I do know in the women’s facility in Central valley of Chowchilla they do provide hospice care.

      I also agree that many crimes are ‘situational”. I have a daughter that received LWOP under the “felony murder rule”. Her fear is to die alone in prison. She was only 25 years old. However, she chooses to be productive and chooses to make a difference where she is.

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