By Victoria Janicke
Being a ‘Battle Born’ state means never shying away from challenges and always stepping up to the plate. It means, “You’re never wrong doing the right thing.” And, that is exactly what a highly trained group of professionals and inmates at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (NNCC) have been doing.
On Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, NNCC opened the first of its kind dorm-style hospice unit in the Nevada prison system to serve inmates with severe life-ending illnesses. Today, there are approximately 100 prisons across the country that acknowledge the unique long-term physical, psychological, and spiritual needs of aging inmates. Hospice programs are a part of the solution to tackle the heavy financial burden and growing medical needs of what is reported to be the fastest growing incarcerated population: those age 55 and older.
Approximately 10 percent of inmates serve life sentences and another 11 percent are sentenced to serve 20 years or more. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, Nevada has the nation’s second highest aging prison population at 44 percent ages 40 to 55 and older.
Longer and stricter sentencing lengths to help enforce public safety is one contributing factor. However, the reality is that a majority of the aging population are first-time, violent offenders who will be facing longer sentences (2018). Inmates age two to three times faster while in prison, and an aging body with limited access to preventative health care creates its own set of challenges. With this seemingly insurmountable problem, this ‘Battle Born’ state and a team at NNCC are taking the challenge head-on.
Assistant warden Lisa Walsh leads the way with the team at NNCC. With the guidance and collaboration of other professionals, including Dr. Karen Gedney and the dedicated staff at Saint Mary’s, Nevada’s first prison hospice has been established. Kathryn Beck is CHRN at Saint Mary’s. As a registered nurse and trainer for the inmate volunteer hospice program, Beck taught the first 6-week training course. The selection process for the program is rigorous. Only 17 of the 70 inmate volunteer applicants were approved by the NNCC. Concerns over safety, medical, financial, and staffing problems, and pain management, are only a few.
When asked about Beck’s overall experience training to implement a hospice program in a prison environment, she immediately smiled and responded: “I have to say, each one of them touched my heart. It’s life-changing for them, but it’s been really life-changing for me. These volunteers, and why they want to do this, is amazing. Just ask Beau!”
Volunteer Beau Brown proudly clarified that the essential role of the hospice unit is well-trained volunteers. “Society’s compassion is measured by how they treat their sick, their dying, and their inmates. This program epitomizes the heart of Nevada and its people. [Here] You spend so much time feeling like you’re just taking; you just really want to give back. And in this [hospice] unit, it’s not about us. It’s about them.”
On The Web: Aging Prison Populations Drive Up Costs http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/02/20/aging-prison-populations-drive-up-costs