What It’s Like Watching My Friends Die in Prison

Sitting with death as a hospice worker in a maximum-security prison.
Dec 07, 2023

I work in hospice at a maximum-security prison. The question I get the most is, “How can you do that?” Honestly, it’s not easy. We are literally sitting with death.

Hospice is a program that we sign up for, where we sit with another prisoner while he dies. That’s not all we do; there’s far more to it than that. But for now, that’s what I’ll say. When someone who is sick and has signed a “do not resuscitate” order gets to the point of no return, they call us in. I or one of my comrades sit with them while they die.

When I started hospice, I didn’t really know what it meant. I understood how to do the job itself, but I didn’t really understand its gravity in full. The toll it takes on you. How mental it is. How much love it takes. How much forgiveness you have to give to the man who’s dying in front of you, even when it’s not yours to give. How much it makes you want forgiveness for your past actions.

I go into each room knowing that death is on the other side of that door. By the time I show up, there’s no more hope. Can you imagine being in prison without any hope? I don’t think it’s right for any human to die in prison, but I’ve seen it so many times. I walk with death. I sit with death. With every new hospice patient, I try to assess the situation, to understand how far along he is. Some are further along than others, but they are all on the same path. Some crawl to the finish line. Some race. Some are brave. But some are so scared that it scares me. Some fight it. Some want it so bad that I want it for them. They all understand what is happening. And they all want somebody there. They will wait for us, whichever one of us they feel comfortable with to come. Every single person I have watched die, none of them wanted to die alone. That was their biggest fear. Can you imagine having to take that walk all by yourself?

Sitting there and holding hands with death while someone passes through that threshold changes you. As another man lays there dying, not much else matters. Not his crime. Not some stupid thing he may have said. Money, things—none of them matter. At that moment, the only thing that matters to him is that grip he has on my hand—that death grip—no matter how strong or how weak it is. That grip is what reassures him that he is not alone.

When it’s time, they can’t see. For some reason, they all can’t see.

Once, I sat with my friend D for nine months. In that time, we became good friends. I would come through that hospital door, and he would perk up. Some days were better than others, but he would always perk up when he saw me. Mostly, he would jump up and start smiling, telling me about his day or what had been going on since I’d last been with him. He would turn on his music and we would hang out my whole shift. We would talk about girls, his kids, his mom, his family.

Boy, he loved his family so much. He would go on for hours about them. They would come to see him, and, once, he wanted them to meet me. They wanted to thank me for everything I had done. But what they didn’t understand—and what I couldn’t express at the time—was that it was me who should’ve been thanking them. I should’ve been thanking D. He was making me a better person. He was letting me have my first experience of sitting with death.

When D got to the point where he could barely talk, I had to get really close to his lips to hear him. He would get so frustrated when I didn’t understand him. I had a few things going on, and I couldn’t see him for a couple of weeks. I would ask my comrades how he was and get the same answer: “He’s not good. I don’t think he’ll last much longer.” I thought for sure I would never see my friend again. Everybody, including myself, couldn’t believe how long he was hanging on.

When my day to work came, he couldn’t talk at all. He was so much smaller, weaker. But his eyes lit up, so bright, and he started moving around in the bed. And I lit up as much as him. I smiled, and it was like we were talking. I sat down next to him, and he reached for my hand. I held his hand and said, “I’m here, bro.” And he relaxed. I went to get up and turn his radio on, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand, so I sat back down. He squeezed my hand, and I told him, “I’m here,” again.

Out of nowhere, he said, “I’m scared.” I said, “Don’t be, I’m with you.” And he died like that, with me holding his hand. That’s when I realized that, for all that time, my friend had been waiting for me to get there so he could die.

So, to answer that question I get most: I do this because my friends need me to.

Martez Johnson is a husband and a father of one. He is also an advocate for prison reform, a writer, a hospice volunteer, and a mentor. He can be reached on JPAY at Martez Johnson, 10b3469 NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

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