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Compassion for Terminally Ill Non-Violent Inmates

An example and discussion on how non-violent offenders may be expedited out of the system so that they may die in peace with their families.

Photo of Mandy Hancock Anderson
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My father was incarcerated late in life for non-violent drug offenses. He was sentenced to 3 years in the Georgia Department of Corrections system, in a medium security prison. His sentencing was delayed twice, due to health complications he experienced. Despite that, they hauled him off to prison.

Near his temporary parole month, which is when he would get out if all of his paperwork were in order, he suffered a bi-lateral stroke. It was the beginning of August, 2015 when he suffered the stroke. He was in ICU in Savannah for 3 weeks. None of his family members were notified. My father said he pleaded for them to please call his daughter, but he was told it was against "SOP" (standard operating procedures). He thought he was going to die alone.

I received a call from him on August 24, after he had been released and transferred to a maximum security prison, which was the only one that could handle a man as disabled as my father after his stroke. I knew immediately that something was wrong, hearing his warbled, weak voice over the telephone. "What's wrong, Daddy?!? Are you okay?" 

"No," he strained. "I had a bi-lateral stroke 3 weeks ago." I was instantly devastated, furious, outraged, incredulous - so many feelings at once. Worry for my father dominated them all.

I went to see him the very next day. He was completely paralyzed on the left side. His dentures had been lost at the hospital in Savannah, so he had no teeth. He looked terrible and his emotions were all over the place. He was in a cell, alone, in a hospital bed. It was a terrible sight, under the harsh prison lights and the dirty cinder block walls. I was terrified for my fathers well being and safety.

Research yielded that it is not mandatory for the system to notify family of an inmate's hospitalization unless it seems that death is imminent. Apparently 3 weeks in the ICU does not meet this parameter.

I immediately began the process to have him released. I called the Chief Counselor of the prison and asked him what I needed to do. In the process, I discovered that my father was potentially to be released on October 1. However, due to his extreme disability, he was unable to return home. There was no where in Georgia for him to go, so his parole was instantly revoked. I then began the onerous process to get him transferred to Florida to be with me. I was told this process would take 45 days. Despite my professional background in advocacy, the bureaucratic behemoth that I faced proved to be an invincible foe that successfully beat me and killed my father.

Without teeth, he was barely able to eat. Since he was considered a "sleeper," he was still "property" of Coastal State. For this reason, he was unable to get his identification to order food from store to have things around to keep his blood sugar regulated, as he was also diabetic. In the mornings, when his sugar was low, they would give him an apple - which he couldn't eat because, again, he had no teeth. They had him in diapers that they sometimes would not change for 6 hours. 

One time, he was choking on a piece of rice. He tried to yell to get the staff's attention, but they couldn't hear him. He waved as much as he could without being able to fully sit up and banged on the bed. He told me he was imagining how he could muster the strength to throw himself on the floor so they would come. When they finally came, he asked them if they heard him. The staff person replied that they can't come running every time someone yells. "You do know where you are, don't you?" The implications of this question infuriated me. As if my invalid father didn't deserve treatment because he was incarcerated.

At the beginning of November, after 3 solid months of hundreds of phone calls to everyone in the process: Georgia Parole Board, Georgia State Prison, Coastal State Prison, Florida Department of Corrections, Florida Interstate Transfer, Alachua County Probation, Georgia Interstate Transfer, Georgia Department of Corrections - every department relevant, and personal connections that I had; I finally got everything pushed through Florida. Despite my father's dire condition, and the promise that his case would be expedited, no such flag was placed on his case. And it sat for days and weeks on each desk that it crossed.

The last time I saw my father conscious, he was moving his fingers on his left hand. He was lifting his left arm, and he even managed to pick up his left leg. All of this, he did on his own, since the rehab that was ordered for him was delayed for weeks because they thought he would leave soon. Even when he received it, the sessions were only a few minutes and only twice per week. I never saw my father so strong as I did in his weakened state. He tried so hard. Despite his depression, despite his incarceration, despite his extreme disability, he was getting better. He worked as hard to recover as I did to get him out. I had never seen my father fight so hard for his own well-being.

The last time I spoke to my father, he told me that he had told the Chief Counselor that Florida had finally finished all of the paperwork. My dad was excited, he thought we were finally at the end of this nightmare. We planned for him to go into a rehab nursing home to get his strength back. All signs were showing that this was possible and even probable. The Chief Counselor informed my dad that it could take another two weeks for the prison to get the transportation orders.

"Mandy, I can't make it in here another two weeks," he said. I could hear the desperation in his voice. I begged for him to please not give up, that we were so close. Two days later, I got the call that he was in ICU with pneumonia. 

In order to visit my dying father in the hospital, my siblings and I first had to go to the prison to check in. Then, we could visit him in the room with the guards that were still guarding him, despite the fact that he was in a coma. He was handcuffed to the bed.

In those three weeks that my father lay dying in the hospital, I could not get any information directly from the hospital. Since my father was "property" of the state, my power of attorney rights did not extend to the hospital - at least that is what I was told. So, all of my information came from the medical person at the hospital, sometimes 2 and 3 days after the fact. I never knew what was happening.

On November 18th, my father's doctor called me and told me that it was unlikely that my father would recover. His kidneys and heart were failing, and the sepsis wasn't showing any signs of leaving his body. I had placed a DNR on his file a few days before. 

I called my siblings, drove myself to the doctor in the middle of an anxiety attack, and got a prescription for Xanax. I couldn't see facing this day of driving hours to go say a final goodbye to my father. It felt like the biggest failure, defeat, and loss of my life. It still feels that way, as I write.

Even as they 'pulled the plug' on my father, he was handcuffed to the bed. Armed guards were in sight as we said goodbye. Three of my four siblings were there. No one else in the family could be there because they were not already approved for his prison visitation list. Otherwise, my other brother and my step-brother would have been there to say goodbye to his "Pops."

This is one story among dozens that I have learned since this experience with my father. Nonviolent offenders should have some rights to die in a compassionate way with their families. The processes to release people that are disabled while serving their sentence for nonviolent crime should be streamlined to get them out and into recovery as soon as possible. But the law, as it currently exists in Georgia, was not broken. I spoke to an attorney and he said he sees it all of the time.

This was the outcome for a man who had someone on the outside fighting for his life. A person with professional skills and experience well suited to fight for him. Despite that, it was a losing battle from the start. 

The only thing that helps me through the injustice of it all is having those memories of my father, trying his hardest and showing us more love than I knew he had in him.

Forever in his memory, my father's eldest. His "PeeWee."

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Departments of Corrections should streamline procedures to accommodate the expedited release of terminally ill nonviolent offenders.

Tell us about your work experience:

I work in nonprofit management and public education.

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

Gainesville, Florida, United States

*FOR THOSE SUBMITTING TO THE CREATIVE EXPRESSIONS MISSION*

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Hi Mandy, thanks for the post! It'd be great to add an image with this. Images help grab attention and tell a story. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

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