OXSACKIE, N.Y. — Allen Jacobs lived hard for his 50 years, and when his liver finally shut down he faced the kind of death he did not want. On a recent afternoon Mr. Jacobs lay in a hospital bed staring blankly at the ceiling, his eyes sunk in his skull, his skin lusterless. A volunteer hospice worker, Wensley Roberts, ran a wet sponge over Mr. Jacobs’s dry lips, encouraging him to drink.
“Come on, Mr. Jacobs,” he said.
Mr. Roberts is one of a dozen inmates at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility who volunteer to sit with fellow prisoners in the last six months of their lives. More than 3,000 prisoners a year die of natural causes in correctional facilities.
Mr. Roberts recalled a day when Mr. Jacobs, then more coherent, had started crying. Mr. Roberts held his patient and tried to console him. Then their experience took a turn unique to their setting, the medical ward of a maximum security prison. Mr. Roberts said he told Mr. Jacobs to “man up.”
Mr. Jacobs, serving two to four years for passing forged checks, cursed at him, telling him, “‘I don’t want to die in jail. Do you want to die in jail?’ ”
“I said no,” said Mr. Roberts, who is serving eight years for robbery. “He said, ‘Then stop telling me to man up,’ and he started crying. And then he said that I’m his family.”
American prisons are home to a growing geriatric population, with one-third of all inmates expected to be over 50 by next year. As courts have handed down longer sentences and tightened parole, about 75 prisons have started hospice programs, half of them using inmate volunteers, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Susan Atkins, a follower of Charles Manson, died last month in hospice at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla after being denied compassionate release.