August 24, 2023, marked the 19th anniversary of the transition of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. As we pause to celebrate Elisabeth’s life, we also celebrate the first “graduation” for a group of twelve men incarcerated within the California Medical Facility in the California prison system. Six of these men were sentenced to life without parole and many of them have served more than twenty years in prison. These twelve men along with twelve facilitators from the Humane Prison Hospice Project participated in a Palliative Care Peer Support Training Program, which was one of the seeds that Elisabeth planted before her death, in order to reform prisoner end-of-life care. This pilot program was developed over the last year by the Humane Prison Hospice Project and the California Correctional Health Care Services, which provides health care services for the almost 100,000 people incarcerated in the CA. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
These twelve men, consisting of six long-time workers in the hospice, dementia, or palliative care units, along with six newcomers to the program spent two months learning end-of-life training, utilizing the tools that Elisabeth created in understanding death, loss, trauma, grief (their own and of others with whom they live in prison). And they did so wholeheartedly, determined to seek out the knowledge required in caring for their fellow incarcerated peers so that they do not die alone.
The hospice program at the California Medical Facility came to fruition in the 1980s when Elisabeth called upon her student and friend, Irene Smith. Irene was a San Francisco massage therapist who had sought to offer massage therapy to patients dying of AIDS at San Francisco General Hospital. AIDS patients had become a centerpiece of Elisabeth’s tireless work and she knew that people were dying horrific deaths in prisons across the country because of AIDS, as well.
Irene heeded Elisabeth’s call and went to the California Medical Center to assist with an AIDS support group that was eventually turned over to Elisabeth’s friend Nancy Jaicks Alexander and her husband Bob. Nancy and Bob worked tirelessly to create a hospice program that was different from anything else that was happening within the prison system. Eventually, that program became the gold standard. The key to the success of the program was training incarcerated people as workers in the hospice, and eventually adding the palliative care and memory care units to their service.
Until yesterday’s graduation, those workers had never been formally acknowledged or celebrated. Ken Ross, President of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, Advisory Board member of Humane Prison Hospice Project, and son of Elisabeth, spoke to the many gathered for the graduation ceremony to officially welcome these twelve men into a lineage of people whose work reflects Elisabeth’s deeply held belief that everyone deserves a death free of suffering, that is dignified, and that is well supported by loving, caring people.
Life can be terribly challenging to some and as Elisabeth would often say, “When life puts you through a rock tumbler, it is your choice to come out polished or crushed.” These incarcerated people have made the pragmatic choice to shine in an environment that is often considered to engender quite the opposite in people. And due to a single phone call 40 years ago, everything has now changed for the better for those living and dying within the California prison system.
In this photo you can see the Humane Prison Hospice team, CCHCS’s Dr. Michele DiThomas, & EKR Foundation president, Ken Ross:
Photo (L to Right): Back row: Fernando Murillo (who spent the last six years of his incarceration serving in that hospice program), Dr. Michele DiTomas from the California Correctional Health Care Services, Ken Ross, and Alistair Shanks, one of our wonderful facilitators. Front row: Susan Barber, Lisa Deal, Laura Musselman