When someone is sentenced to life in prison, that often means a sentence of about 25 to 30 years. Many violent crimes result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or someone is sentenced to multiple life sentences running concurrently. Both of those scenarios means that the inmate will die in prison.
You don’t have to be sentenced to life in prison to die behind bars. Some inmates have a terminal illness like cancer that will end up taking their life before their release. Other inmates are killed in prison at the hands of another inmate.
The answer to today’s blog question—can you die in prison—is “absolutely yes.” Of course you can die in prison. I think this question may have been prompted by the myth that you can’t be declared dead on prison grounds.
That’s not true, by the way. An inmate can be declared dead on prison grounds, but it just doesn’t happen very often because there isn’t always a doctor on site. Inmates who die or are near death are taken to a local hospital immediately.
In this blog post, I will dive a little bit deeper into what happens when an inmate dies. I will cover the following topics:
For many inmates, dying in prison is inevitable due to their age or their health. The circumstances vary based on each person, as well as the facility they are in. For some inmates, dying at “home” in their cell where their friends are nearby is the best possible scenario in the given situation.
According to Marvin Mutch—who was wrongfully convicted in 1975 and served 41 years in San Quentin until his release—dying in a cell is difficult for an inmate and their cellmate.
“In San Quentin [State Prison], there were many times when guys died on their cell floor. If you die in your cell, your cellmate goes to segregation until the autopsy is completed. Most of these guys have lived together as lifers for years, [and] now their grief process must start in total isolation,” Mutch explained to Social Work Today.
In other circumstances, an inmate will die in the prison infirmary where they are alone and locked in a cell. A nurse will check in, but they aren’t able to be there constantly. Another possibility is that the inmate will be sent to a local hospital, where he/she will die while shackled to a bed.
Documentary filmmaker Edgar Barens—who made Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door, a film that’s been used as a training tool for prisoners—says that “most people either die alone in their cells, in the prison infirmary, or they get sent off to a state or university hospital where they are shackled to the bed. If there’s a nurse in there when you’re dying, you’re lucky.”
Thanks to organizations like the Humane Prison Hospice Project, some facilities now have spaces for end-of-life care for terminally ill inmates. The goal is to implement hospice services in every prison so that people living behind bars can die with dignity and compassion. Barens’ films help train inmates to give that care to their fellow prisoners who need it.
At the moment, the prison population in the United States is aging quite rapidly. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the 55+ age group is the fastest growing age group behind bars. Only 75 prisons have official hospice programs, and there are more than 1,000 state prisons in the United States.
“When we are convicted of a crime, the system has a way of trying to dehumanize us, turn us into a number, a statistic, into an ‘animal the state has to control.’ When you bring hospice into prison, they share a humanity. It changes the way they start thinking about themselves,” says Jamey Boudreaux, executive director of the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Laura Bronstein, dean of Binghamton University College of Community and Public Affairs in Binghamton, NY, and executive director of the Institute for Justice and Well-Being says that having hospice in a prison is extremely important, just like it is in the real world.
“Outside of the prison walls, hospice is a caring environment whether it’s based in a hospital or based at home,” Bronstein says. “In the prison, this is often seen as the caring environment. [The hospice] is a primary area that is a compassionate, caring place to be.”
An inmate must be pronounced dead by a doctor, not prison staff. No matter if an inmate dies of natural causes or at the hands of another inmate, a doctor must see them and pronounce them dead.
If there is any doubt, the inmate is taken to the hospital immediately. If there’s no doubt, a doctor can pronounce it on site. The coroner will then arrive and take custody of the deceased. If the inmate has any next of kin or emergency contacts, they will be notified by the chaplain. Unfortunately, those messages often come in the form of a voicemail, email, or text.
The family has the option of picking up the body and making arrangements, or they can choose a prison burial or cremation. If the contact person or family opts for prison burial or cremation, the body remains in prison custody. However, the family may request a visitation.
If the family chooses a private funeral, the prison releases the body to the funeral director. If the family elects to donate the person’s body or organs, the prison immediately transports the body to the appropriate medical facility.
Have you had any experience with dealing with a prison after an inmate’s death? Oftentimes, the stories aren’t very positive. Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: End-of-Life Care in Prison https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/ND18p16.shtml#:~:text=%22Most%20people%20either%20die%20alone,re%20lucky%2C%22%20he%20says. What Happens When Someone Dies in Prison? https://www.joincake.com/blog/what-happens-when-someone-dies-in-prison/ What Happens When a Prisoner Dies in Custody? https://beyondthedash.com/blog/funeral-planning/what-happens-when-a-prisoner-dies-in-custody/7427 Human Hospice Project https://humaneprisonhospiceproject.org/ Your Loved One Dies. The Prison Leaves a Voicemail. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/06/21/your-loved-one-dies-the-prison-leaves-a-voicemail
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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