Where compassion knows boundaries

Death with dignity is not a passage often afforded to the incarcerated.
Death with dignity is not a passage often afforded to the incarcerated.

I wanted to share this thoughtful piece from Newseek with you because hits home on many levels.  As a prison activist, it highlights the serious gaps in health care endemic to the prison system and how lack of oversight and regulation is allowing prison officials to, quite literally, get away with murder. And on a personal level, it is heart-breaking because sadly, the cases documented in the piece are far from exceptions to the norm. I have spent the last several years watching a fellow inmate deteriorate on a daily basis. In many ways, the article might well serve as a prototype for how far too many prisons in this country deal with health issues.

Despite the prison doctor insisting my prison cellmate be seen by a specialist, prison officials refused send her to a neurologist. It took three years for her to see one and things have not improved with the diagnosis that the condition that has been slowly crippling her is, in fact, ALS. We can only assume that their motivations for delaying treatment are similar to those outlined in the article, and boil down to the all-mighty dollar.

But even for those for whom there is no “cure,” prison affords few options. As anyone who has had a loved one suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease can attest, there is no peaceful “into that good night” awaiting him; it is a torturous disease that shows no mercy and I fear for what awaits her if there is no compassionate release in her future. There is an incredible lack of uniformity in quality of care across prisons (which privatization efforts are exacerbating), and palliative and end-of-life care rarely feature in much more than a footnote of a prison health care guidebook.

I wish that examples like this one out of India represented the norm, I truly do. Because our prison population is aging almost as rapidly as it is expanding—and the institutional capacity simply does not exist to deal with the inevitabilities of time.  And I have to believe that as a society we are not sadists who take pleasure in watching the torturous ravages of illnesses like cancer or ALS overtake another human being—even one who has committed a crime.