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A lone man walks through cell block #7 at Eastern State Penitentiary
Photo by John Van Horn. Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Dying in prison is becoming more common for people without a death penalty or life sentence. Global Forum Online’s special project on aging in prison highlighted that fact earlier this year. And recent data have continued to underscore the growing trend.

According to the University of California, Los Angeles, Law Behind Bars Data Project, more than 6,000 incarcerated people died in prison in 2020, largely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. This amounts to a 46% increase in deaths from the previous year.

While the pandemic exposed shortcomings in prison health care, COVID-19 isn't solely to blame. According to researchers, many prisons’ rough living conditions, lengthy sentences and inadequate oversight also play a role.

Watching friends and peers die, many incarcerated people have occasion to contemplate mortality, and write about it. Some contributors to PJP have described it as a kind of purgatory, others as “death by incarceration.”

To explore this urgent and unsettling reality, PJP has curated a selection of stories about all the ways of dying in prison.

A lone man walks through cell block #7 at Eastern State Penitentiary

Life Without Parole Is America’s Hidden Death Penaltyby Brandon J. Baker: “No human should have to suffer what prison has to offer those of us with interminable sentences.” 

White caps and peaks of rushing river water

Drowning,” a poem by Larry N. Stromberg: “Trying to survive, hoping to stay alive. Dreaming for a second chance. Fighting for every breath.”

Planning for Deathby Bob R. Williams Jr.: “The beauty I’ve discovered is that a death sentence, if one allows it, can force a body to come face-to-face with one’s own mortality, making the contemplation of death, the acceptance of death, a whole lot easier.” 

Dark prison cell with light reflected through window bars on the wall

In the Depths of Death Row, a Lightby Chef C: “I find it somewhat ironic that a person can learn to live life in a place where they were sent to die.”

Death Row Elegyby Bob R. Williams Jr.: “They found their own meaning, their own purpose, right here in this dank and dark earthbound purgatory.”

A small gray mouse sits on the palm of an open hand.

What a Dying Mouse Taught Me About the Death Penaltyby Jeffrey McKee: “I may be able to parole if I can convince the parole board that I am fit for release. Otherwise, I too will die in prison.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Elena Townsend-Lerdo is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She has been writing about prison journalism since 2017.

India Claudy is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She is passionate about inclusive, accessible journalism.