Sebastopol woman works to dignify death for San Quentin prison’s ailing inmates
Sandy Fish’s life journey has been complicated, meandering and at times chaotic. But death is at the center of almost every turn.
That might seem implausible at first glance: At 66, she has long hair so blond it’s almost white, framing a smiling, roseate face. She wears dirty Chuck Taylors on her feet and her hands fly everywhere as she speaks.
She is full of vitality.
But death is always with her. It is her life’s work.
“I think about death everyday,” she said, grin unfaltering.
She sat at the wooden picnic table outside the one-room Sebastopol house she rents, which she calls her hut. The road leading from downtown was dappled with yellow sunlight penetrating the foliage overhead. Her hut sits among others on a property up a hill, surrounded by gardens and woods.
“Death makes me appreciate life and how precious every moment is,” she said. “It brings everything. It tends to make me want to feel everything.”
Fish has dedicated the past several decades to easing death — to increasing access to death with dignity for the most vulnerable people. A grandmother and recent transplant to Sonoma County from Mill Valley, she co-founded the Humane Prison Hospice Project in 2016, an initiative to train incarcerated people in San Quentin State Prison in end-of-life caregiving.
The goal of the project is to give people in San Quentin, and eventually all California prisons, the tools to care for each other as they die of terminal illness and old age.
The project is one of the first such hospice training programs in the state, and the only one with aims to expand statewide.
While the project has been slowed by the pandemic, which shut some programs indefinitely in San Quentin, the underlying problem Fish and her co-organizers grapple with continues to worsen: Hundreds of people are dying of old age and related ailments in California prisons every year.
Incarcerated populations are getting older due to war on drugs-era policies and punitive sentencing laws in the past several decades. Nearly a quarter of the state’s 125,472 people in custody were over age 50 in June 2019, the most recent year for which data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is available. And the average age within prisons has steadily increased every year.
People who are incarcerated on life sentences in San Quentin have few options for where and how they’ll take their last breaths:
They may die in the prison infirmary, alone.
If lucky, they may fill one of 17 dedicated palliative beds at California Medical Facility, a prison hospital in Vacaville, one of the only prisons out of the state’s 32 that has hospice services.
They may be brought to a hospital in the outside community, where they are chained to a bed and guarded until they die.
Or they die in their prison cell, with their cellmate sent to grieve afterward in isolation while the circumstances are investigated for any foul play — standard protocol in the case of an inmate death.
In most scenarios, people behind bars die without loved ones and without palliative care. Although reform advocates have pushed for compassionate release for people in prison near the end of their lives, Fish said that isn’t always what those people prefer. Approval for compassionate release takes too long for people on their deathbed. And often, their only home is their cellblock — their only family after decades of incarceration their fellow inmates.
Fish credits two early experiences for starting her on her path toward the Humane Prison Hospice Project.
She was born in Valley Forge outside Philadelphia and at 27 landed a role as an actress playing the younger version of the protagonist in “Getting Out,” a play about a woman returning home from prison.
Years later, she was by her best friend’s bedside when she died from cancer. She witnessed firsthand the healing power of supporting someone when their heart beat for the last time.
“After holding her hand, whenever someone needed a caregiver, I was there,” Fish said.
Prison hospice work was an inevitable destination for her, she said, even if it wasn’t immediate. She had her daughter, relocated to Marin County after meeting a man and then left him. Other love interests brought her to Oregon, Washington, D.C., Kenya, Istanbul and elsewhere. She worked odd day jobs while trying to sustain a career in acting and volunteered with her free time — as a census worker, a cat sitter, a camp counselor, and a volunteer in an orphanage for children with AIDS, because she “wanted to be around dying.”
In 2008, after she had returned to the Bay Area, she became formally trained in volunteer hospice care. It was around this time that Fish met Michael Satris, who founded the Prison Law Office providing legal services to people incarcerated at San Quentin.
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