Over the past 40 years, as the U.S. prison population has increased by 500 percent, so has the rate of prisoners dying while incarcerated. It’s difficult to wait for a loved one to come home out of incarceration, never really knowing what they’re going through inside those walls. 

It is sad to note that some of those inmates never walk out.

“Death and dying issues are not yet part of the conversation,” David Schwed, executive director of the Eternal Freedom Project said. “Yet it is at the base of our humanity. It is something we all share.”

The top causes of prison deaths in 2016 were from cancer, heart disease and liver disease. That year, the average age of the men who died was 57 years old, while the life expectancy of American males in the free world is 76.

Women prisoners died at an average age of 54, compared to the life expectancy of 81 years for all American women.

While the majority of deaths in prison are due to natural causes from an aging prison population, there have also been rises in mortality rates due to suicides, homicides, accidents, drug and alcohol-related events and medical issues.

In California, a US Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s prison population resulted in a number of prisoners being transferred to county jails. Unequipped to handle the influx, those facilities have experienced spikes in homicides.

Schwed believes that deaths in custody need to be an essential part of the ongoing criminal justice reform discussions. His three-month-old nonprofit organization supports people of all faiths who mourn the loss of their incarcerated loved ones.

“Even people who don’t proclaim a faith,” Schwed said. “Because there’s such a stigma for anyone who goes to prison or jail, many people mourn in private and secret. One of our goals is to hold public memorial services.”

Another project goal is to create a band of volunteers, persons who can pay visits to mourners and relate to their sorrow.

“There’s a kindred feeling there,” Schwed said. 

The Eternal Freedom Project’s articles of incorporation were accepted by the California Secretary of State in July. Now Schwed and his board of directors are filing documents to become a federally recognized 501(c)(3) organization. 

After serving time in Chuckawalla Valley, Delano, and Avenal state prisons—where he witnessed inmate deaths—Schwed worked for a local re-entry housing program for the formerly incarcerated. There, after the death of a friend, he was inspired to start his own nonprofit.

“Overtime, what came to me was that a lot of people are talking about reform, but nobody is taking a holistic view of death,” Schwed said, relating the story of a former inmate who was dying from colon cancer. “No one would take him into hospice. This is what’s really happening today.”

Schwed advises that those persons who are still inside facilities get their personal items in order.

“Anyone in custody should create end-of-life documents,” Schwed said, adding that inmates should keep their emergency information updated, making sure that a younger family member receives vital information, so as to not shock an aging loved one, should any emergency occur.   

Unlike the families of those killed in the armed forces, who receive personal visits from military representatives, families and friends of convicts have learned about their deaths via telegrams, letters or phone calls. Often, inmate remains were cremated before families received their notification.

Prior to 2018, there was no time limit to make these notifications and families were not informed about suicide attempts.

Just last year, State Sen. Connie Leyva, (D-Chino), helped change the guidelines for informing families in the case of serious illness, injury, or death.

Leyva introduced a bill, SB960, that requires California prison officials tell families about suicide attempts, serious illnesses, injuries and deaths within 24 hours, as part of a larger bill mandating that each October, officials report to the state legislature on their efforts to prevent suicide. 

“It’s critical that we let families know. It’s just a matter of respect,” Leyva said. “I think sometimes people forget that they’re dealing with someone’s loved one. Being a mom myself, I can’t imagine not knowing for weeks what happened to my child.” 

SB960 was approved by former Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2018.

There are more than 119,000 men and 5,600 women currently in custody, according to the latest California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) report. California’s 33 state prisons individually post the number of homicides, suicides, expected and unexpected deaths on a monthly basis.

For additional information on the Eternal Freedom Project, visit its Facebook page.