Death visits the incarcerated frequently. Some greet it with open arms; some brush it off without incident; some crumble under its emotional weight. Either way, we must be able to cope within the limited environment where we stand.
At the state prison where I am serving my sentence, incarcerated people receive notice of a loved one’s passing only after the Colorado Department of Corrections has verified both the death and the relation.
Occasionally, this process causes delays, but it better prepares the staff to answer any questions. When a family member calls the facility, CDOC automatically connects the caller to the correct staff member, who asks various questions about the hospital or funeral home and the deceased to expedite verification.
The chaplain typically breaks the news to people imprisoned in our facility, regardless of their religion. Otherwise, it falls on the volunteer coordinator, case manager or, on rare occasions, the shift commander to ensure the information reaches people in custody within 12 hours of confirmation.
All emergency notifications come with a free phone call home. Residents can request a mental health peer assistant. Family members can work with the volunteer coordinator to send video recordings of funeral services to the facility.
For those who decide to grieve alone, the library at our prison has self-help books full of strategies.
“[Today] staff are cognizant that inmates have feelings,” said Mark Wilkinson, a fellow resident. “It’s a much kindlier, gentler [place],” he added.
During Wilkinson’s 22 years of incarceration, he has lost both his parents, his older brother, several extended family members and dozens of inmate friends — including two close friends amid COVID-19.
Any bit of comfort
Chaplain Bill Humphreys said he has seen grief in all its forms at our state prison — some men are indifferent or act annoyed, while some have buckled to the floor.
Sometimes the news is expected, but most of the time the news comes as a shock. In such cases, he sits and listens. If he can, he leans on that person’s spiritual beliefs. For Christians, he draws from the Bible. For those of other faiths, he finds a different way to relate.
Tissue boxes sit ready in every office, but case manager Carla Gomez deliberately buys ones with aloe because she said even the manliest of men will stop crying long enough to comment on its softness. Any bit of comfort helps. When anyone dies, she said, the impact reverberates.
Mental health counselor J.D. Scollard carries tissues so men can “leak” tears. “Tears are like the rain — they help cleanse your soul,” she said, adding that she will also draw from the person’s belief system to provide support.
Releasing emotions as they come prevents the inevitable explosion from bottling them up. Stages of grief can arrive in any order and any number of times. A person can struggle with a death from decades ago as if it happened yesterday.
The chaplain’s office, case managers, the volunteer coordinator and mental health counselors all give the same advice to friends of a person coping with loss: “Just listen.” Then, if necessary, speak from the heart.
Grief from the inside
The death of a person who lived on the inside can be more complicated and harder to process.
If someone is dying from a sickness, they are unable to receive the comfort of their families they crave at the end of their life.
After a death, confidentiality rules can restrict the ability of the Colorado Department of Corrections to provide answers to other incarcerated individuals and, sometimes, even the deceased person’s family.
Prisons often fill the empty bunk quickly because beds come at a premium. This can seem callous.
Bradley Marcotte is one of the men facing death in prison. Interstitial lung disease brings a pain that only cancer patients can comprehend. He is perpetually attached to his oxygen supply and he has lost the ability to laugh. He has been offered palliative care at another facility, but he doesn’t want to die alone in a prison infirmary.
“This machine is part of my body now, and I hate it,” he said. “It makes me angry.”
Nevertheless, Marcotte said he extinguishes fear, anxiety and depression with love.
Not everyone manages to keep as positive an outlook as him.
Sometimes, death is the result of suicide. Prisons see higher rates of suicide because the nature of human confinement can breed mental illness.
“Everyone has suicidal thoughts,” mental health counselor Scollard said, but a healthy person can generally counter them. She gives people in custody the following advice: “When you feel you can’t cope, reach out. Ask to see someone.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.