Ruth Starseed

Dying with Dignity: The Hospice Volunteer Inmate Program at Graterford SCI

Volunteer: Hospice Inmate Program

What will it be like to die? Will I die in pain? Will I die alone? Will there be someone to comfort me and answer my questions? Will I be forgiven? No one wants to die alone, and people are afraid of dying in pain. Generally, what people want at the end of life is to have their pain managed, to know their life had meaning, and to be forgiven for their mistakes. 

End of life issues are a complicated time with strong emotions and anxious anticipation about the future and the unknown. Often people want to make amends and unburden their hearts. This is easier to do in a home or medical setting with the support of family and professional hospice staff. When incarcerated, dying with dignity is dependent on whether or not there is a compassionate well-trained group of hospice staff and volunteers in place. In Graterford SCI there is a hospice volunteer program and I have been privileged to be a part of it and provide support services to the hospice inmate volunteers, men who sit vigil at the bedside of the dying prisoner.

Following an age old tradition of helping sick and weary travelers hospice care at end of life can be traced back to Medieval Times. People in search of healing and perhaps a cure sought shelter a safe haven looking for rest in monasteries and other religious institutions places that opened their doors to the sick and dying for refuge. In Graterford SCI, one of approximately “75 state and federal prisons in 40 states” (National Hospice and Palliative Care, 2009), a carefully screened group of inmates guided by an interdisciplinary team of professionals medical, psycho-social and chaplaincy, are trained to sit vigil, a quiet period during the day or night. They provide comfort, support, companionship and a receptive non-judgmentally listening ear to the patient at the end of their life. 

The inmate volunteer program provides a hospice end of life presence to fellow-inmates, men who like themselves are serving time. In addition to providing support services, the hospice volunteers observe the comfort level of the patient and if pain is expressed or the volunteers “sense” discomfort in the patient they report their observations to the medical staff for further evaluation. They help the dying person with the last phone call to family members. With continuous training the hospice volunteers learn the importance of sitting quietly being “present” at the bedside of the dying giving the gift of compassionate and open listening helping the patient to die with dignity as he takes his final breath.