Hospice program provides care, comfort for Maine’s aging prison population

Posted Sept. 19, 2012, at 6:31 p.m.

WARREN, Maine — Santanu Basu has been a resident of Maine State Prison for a long time already, and has a lot more time to go before he’s released.

If he’s ever released, that is. So Basu, a convicted murderer, has resolved to do good during the remaining decades of his 62-year sentence by acting as a hospice volunteer. He will provide end-of-life care to some of the prison’s oldest, sickest and most vulnerable inmates.

“I’m probably going to die in here,” the 45-year-old said Wednesday at the maximum-security prison. “I want to give back to the program, because I’m probably going to need it myself.”

Basu was among the 14 prison hospice volunteers who helped host a daylong conference on the ethical considerations for the state’s aging prison population, which attracted more than 100 attendees and was sponsored by the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End-of-Life Care.

Elderly prisoners are a fast-growing segment of the incarcerated population both in Maine and nationally.

Being part of the prison’s new hospice program has meant a great deal to him, Basu said, describing the murder he committed in 2002 as a “horrendous mistake.” The former life insurance agent from Standish was convicted of shooting an Iranian immigrant in a Cumberland gravel pit in order to collect the $100,000 insurance policy he had sold her.

He said that before taking the intensive hospice training, he saw death as a difficult obstacle. But now, he said, that has changed, and his sense of compassion and care for others has increased significantly.

“I feel that whatever I can do to help others makes me feel better about myself,” Basu said. “Maybe that’s a selfish way to look at it — but the hospice program has brought out that part of me that was always there.”

With more and more aging and chronically ill inmates, prisons in Maine and other states have looked to hospice programs and prisoner volunteers such as Basu to help ease the last days of those living and dying behind bars.

“When you teach people how to care for another human being, for some of us, it’s the ultimate in rehabilitation,” said Kandyce Powell, the executive director of the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End-of-Life Care.

Nationwide, there are 124,900 prisoners age 55 and older, with that number projected to increase to more than 400,000 by 2030, according to a study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Maine, 163 of the state’s 2,063 prisoners are over 55, or nearly 8 percent of the total prisoner population, according to Judy Plummer of the Maine Department of Corrections. Ninety-five prisoners are over 60.

The Maine State Prison hospice program has been in the works for more than a decade, but the first class of volunteers graduated in 2010 after undergoing intensive training. The second class graduated earlier this year.

So far, the prison hospice volunteers in Maine have spent time with chronically ill prisoners, as well as one longtime inmate who died not long ago.

Tracy Meggison, a 43-year-old inmate from Cornish, said he has been getting a lot out of helping others.

“It keeps you on the straight and narrow,” the inmate, who also is serving a long sentence for murder, said. “I’ve got a lot of good friends in here that probably won’t make it out again. I just think the guys should get the chance to die with dignity, and not to die alone.”

Officials say the program is practical as well as beneficial to both the prison patients and the prison hospice volunteers. Hospice care can ease the costs to the health care system, by reducing emergency hospital trips, for example. And hospice programs in the “free world” might be able to learn some lessons from successful prison programs, including one at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where prisoners have been trained to provide medical and emotional care to their fellow prisoners.

“There’s no other group of folks like this in the United States,” said Kristin Cloyes, a nursing professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing, who has studied that program. “These men really get that hospice ethic.”

But while prison hospice programs are a good thing, they won’t fix the underlying problem of the aging prison population, said Jim Bergin of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

“The real way to cope with aging prisoners is sentencing reform,” he said during a break in the conference. “It’ll be a long time coming. You have men in here serving 40-year sentences, 55-year sentences, whose point of rehabilitation is probably 20 years at most.”

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said that for him, the conference brought up a larger topic than the benefits of hospice care. Many people assume that nothing good can come out of prison because nothing good is sent to prison, he said.

“I think this program allows us to question what is the purpose of corrections,” the former law enforcement official and current defense attorney said. “Rehabilitation always presumes you’ll go back to an earlier, better state. But this is a chance for these guys to grow, and create an ability to exhibit empathy, and more importantly, to be self-reflective.”

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