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The death sentence is alive and well

A sentence of life in prison is a sentence of death in prison. In fact, many inmates know they will likely die in prison. Say you’ve been incarcerated twice before and you catch this new case. Three strikes and you get a 30 year sentence. You’re 50. As they say, do the math.

When I closed my rural family practice after nearly 40 years, I went to prison. Although I doubt I’ll die there, I might just retire, again, from there. It’s a liberating job given the craziness of private practice. And, being a prison doc, teaches you stuff you don’t learn, as they say, on the street.

One of those learned things is how many inmates say they’ve a received a life sentence ... but backwards. Namely, they know they are alive today because they went to prison. They knew they couldn’t escape the habits and circumstances that sent people on similar paths to early graves. Many people they personally witnessed.

Life in prison has many similarities to life outside the wire. Try to find and do your job. Try to get along with and keep up with your neighbors. Try to find things to do when you’re bored yet stay out of trouble. Day after day. Year after year.

You become part of a community. Some acquaintances become good friends. Some things you do take on enough meaning to make a life. You can develop new skills. You might rebuild some of the bridges that got burned. Many find there actually is a God.

And you get old. Some faster than others. We have a couple 90-somethings among the 3,000 plus at my prison who keep up with much younger men ... for the most part. We have 40 year-olds who have been rode hard and put up wet ... and shot a few times for good measure, who can barely walk or breathe.

But there comes the end time for everyone. Most of us can see and feel it coming pretty clearly. On your own it can often mean agony and terror. How much worse would that be if you’re also in prison?

This is another of the things I’ve been privileged to learn here. In prison you’re not on your own. Your sentence may mean you die here, but death isn’t part of your punishment. Those who die here usually have everything you would hope for when your time comes.

This prison has 24-hour on-site nurses who can and do call me whenever there is something they can’t handle – and they can handle most everything that comes up ... for which my phone and I are grateful. This includes our infirmary where most everyone, who can’t get well, stays.

If you have a terminal, or any awful disease, this prison does whatever it takes to provide adequate treatment. Whatever kind of bed and diet and other care your condition needs. However much pain and relaxer medication it takes to keep you out of misery. Another helpful inmate at your bedside at all times.

The warden and custodial staff make sure that family of a dying patient is kept informed and have all their questions answered. They are accorded opportunities to visit inside the prison ... which never happens otherwise. Counseling, pastoral and doctor visits at your bedside as much as you need.

Were they not incarcerated, many of our terminal patients would stand a good chance of dying, writhing on an emergency room cart in a corner. Or under a bridge. Dying in prison is never good. But those I’ve seen die here got to rest in peace before they finally went to rest in peace.

Bruce Ippel is a physician at the New Castle-Correctional Facility who attended medical school in Chicago. He operated a private medical practice near Blue River schools for 40 years. He and his wife reside in rural Delaware County, where they raised 10 children.