Our collective DNA
Central to the spirit of Humane Prison Hospice Project is the organic involvement of communities inside and outside of prisons . . . caring, supportive people too numerous to name in a brief history, yet vital to the work. You are seen and deeply appreciated.
A catalytic question
The seed of Humane Prison Hospice Project was sowed in the Law Offices of Michael Satris, in Bolinas, California. Sandra Fish, who has experience with dying people and prison work, was working part-time there.
When Michael mentioned that one of his clients had terminal lung disease, she wondered aloud, “How are they dying in San Quentin?”
“Badly” was his immediate and solemn response.
Sandra immediately began looking for ways to begin offering humane end-of-life care for incarcerated people.
Insight from the beginning
Sandra made endless connections in the intervening years. One of those was to Brothers’ Keepers, a peer crisis support program in San Quentin, which had begun independently. Marcia Blackstock and Diane Beynon, the founding facilitators, took note when the Brothers asked for hospice training.
Sandra had learned from her research that when individuals experiencing incarceration care for their peers at the end of life, the experience is transformational — a profoundly rehabilitative experience for all involved. It became clear to her that this work needed to be implemented by trained incarcerated people.
From 2010 to 2012, she gave the Brothers’ Keepers information about the new work they aspired to do, organized speakers from Hospice by The Bay and the Zen Hospice Project to meet with the men, and screened the film “Serving Life,” about a working prison hospice, for the group.
Late in the year, Sandra met Ladybird Morgan from Hospice by the Bay. Ladybird was a highly trained social worker and nurse with expertise in end-of-life care. Ladybird approached Sandra with great interest in joining the mission and Sandra felt thrilled as Ladybird possessed all the credentials she lacked. However, Ladybird was leaving to work for Doctors Without Borders for three years and told Sandra, “Don’t start without me!” She assured Ladybird the mission would still need her upon her return.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
Katherine Pettus, a leader at the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (who would become a Humane board member two years later), introduced Sandra to Edgar Barens who had just released his Oscar-nominated documentary, “Prison Terminal.”
His film became a pivotal tool for Humane, educating and inspiring the public, end-of-life care workers, prison staff — including wardens, and incarcerated people.
REFINING THE APPROACH
Sandra and Ladybird already knew that training incarcerated people to be caregivers would be crucial to the success of Humane. By this time, they had determined that formerly incarcerated people must be involved as well.
GAINING A HERO ADVOCATE
Ladybird returned, and just months after Marvin Mutch aka the “Mayor of San Quentin” was released from prison for a crime he did not commit, she and Sandra met him for lunch on his first birthday in the outside world in 40 years. Not only had Marvin finished his sentence at California Medical Facility, where he witnessed its hospice program firsthand, but he also had been a founding member of the Brothers’ Keepers. Humane Prison Hospice Project was officially born. Men incarcerated in San Quentin and enrolled in a computer programming training course offered by The Last Mile created Humane’s logo and first website.
ONE CHAPTER CLOSES, MORE DOORS OPEN
Marcia and Diane retired and transitioned the Brothers’ Keepers, which had been overseen by Insight Prison Project, to Humane’s management. This gave Sandra and Ladybird weekly access inside San Quentin in order to facilitate the program and officially add end-of-life care training. In June, seeking support, Ladybird, Marvin, Edgar, and Sandra met with two Mission Hospice & Home Care staff members, Lisa Deal and Susan Barber. At the time, Lisa was chief clinical officer at Mission and Susan served as the organization’s volunteer coordinator. Mission offered to sponsor the end-of-life training at San Quentin, leveraging the curriculum that Susan had developed for a community-based model. Susan joined Ladybird to train the Brothers’ Keepers.
A group of nine Brothers’ Keepers graduated from the first Compassionate End-of-Life Care Training on April 23.
A global pandemic
Humane was preparing to graduate a second cohort of Brothers’ Keepers trained in end-of-life care when COVID-19 hit. Prisons were shut down.
Coming back together
“Five years after their first meeting, Lisa, Susan, Ladybird, Marvin and Sandra began working together as a team, with Lisa as the chief executive officer of Humane, Susan filling the roles of community liaison and volunteer manager, and Edgar as an integral part of the team.
With the California prisons still on lockdown and online meetings suddenly a popular way to gather people from around the globe, Humane redoubled its efforts to educate key audiences and stakeholders about the needs of those aging and dying behind bars and how to support them. Humane reached more than 1,000 people during this time alone.”
Dr. Michele DiTomas, the newly appointed chief executive for a palliative care initiative at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, invited the Humane team to partner. Together, the two organizations began developing a robust palliative care and hospice peer support training curriculum to expand the use of peer palliative/hospice workers in additional California prisons. The new curriculum will be completed in early 2023.
Humane will pilot the new palliative care and hospice peer support curriculum at California Medical Facility (home of the only formal prison hospice program in California and one of the first in the nation, built in 1993 in response to the AIDS crisis) in Summer 2023, then at Central California Women’s Facility later this year. The plan is for broader implementation at other California prisons in the coming years.
“Before my cellmate of five years passed, he begged me to take care of him. So I did. I fed him. I cleaned him up. When he had to go to the hospital, he fought them. He wanted to come back. Him dying made me want to change. He was my friend. The person who took care of him, that was a good part of me.”
– Lenny, a Brothers Keeper, trained in end of life care by Humane Prison Hospice Project team