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Palliative and end-of-life care in prisons: a content analysis of the literature

Tina Maschi (Associate Professor, based at Graduate School of Social Service, Fordham University, New York, New York, USA)
Suzanne Marmo (Doctoral Candidate, based at Graduate School of Social Service, Fordham University, New York, New York, USA)
Junghee Han (Doctoral Student, based at Graduate School of Social Service, Fordham University, New York, New York, USA)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 9 September 2014




The growing numbers of terminally ill and dying in prison has high economic and moral costs as global correctional systems and the society at large. However, to date little is known about the extent to which palliative and end-of-life care is infused within global prison health care systems. The purpose of this paper is to fill a gap in the literature by reviewing and critically appraising the methods and major findings of the international peer-reviewed literature on palliative and end-of-life care in prison, identify the common elements of promising palliative and end-of-life services in prison, and what factors facilitate or create barrier to implementation.


A content analysis was conducted of the existing peer-reviewed literature on palliative and end-of-life care in prison. English-language articles were located through a comprehensive search of peer-reviewed journals, such as Academic Search Premier Literature databases using differing combinations of key word search terms, “prison,” “palliative care,” and “end-of-life care.” A total of 49 studies published between 1991 and 2013 met criteria for sample inclusion. Deductive and inductive analysis techniques were used to generate frequency counts and common themes related to the methods and major findings.


The majority (n=39) of studies were published between 2001-2013 in the USA (n=40) and the UK (n=7). Most were about US prison hospice programs (n=16) or barriers to providing palliative and end of life care in prisons (n=10). The results of the inductive analysis identified common elements of promising practices, which included the use of peer volunteers, multi-disciplinary teams, staff training, and partnerships with community hospices. Obstacles identified for infusing palliative and end-of-life care in prison included ethical dilemmas based on custody vs care, mistrust between staff and prisoners, safety concerns, concern over prisoners’ potential misuse of pain medication, and institutional, staff, and public apathy toward terminally ill prisoners and their human rights to health in the form of compassionate and palliative care, including the use of compassionate release laws.

Research limitations/implications

Implications for future research that foster human rights and public awareness of the economic and moral costs of housing the sick and dying in prisons. More research is needed to document human rights violations as well as best practices and evidence-based practices in palliative and end-of-life care in prisons. Future studies should incorporate data from the terminally ill in prison, peer supports, and family members. Future studies also should employ more rigorous research designs to evaluate human rights violations, staff and public attitudes, laws and policies, and best practices. Quantitative studies that use experimental designs, longitudinal data, and multiple informants are needed. Qualitative data would allow for thick descriptions of key stakeholders experiences, especially of the facilitators and barriers for implementing policy reform efforts and palliative care in prisons.

Practical implications

This review provides a foundation on which to build on about what is known thus far about the human right to health, especially parole policy reform and infusing palliative and end-of-life care for the terminally ill and dying in prisons. This information can be used to develop or improve a new generation research, practice, policy, and advocacy efforts for that target terminally ill and dying in prison and their families and communities.

Social implications

There are significant social implications to this review. From a human rights perspective, the right to freedom from torture and cruel and unusual punishment is a fundamental human right along with prisoners’ rights for an appropriate level of health care. These rights should be guaranteed regardless of the nature of their crime or whether they are in a prison placement. The information provided in this review can be used to educate and possible transform individual's and society's views toward the terminally ill and dying who are involved in the criminal justice system.


This paper extends the extant literature by using both quantitative and qualitative analysis methods to organize, summarize, and critically analyze the international literature on palliative care and end of life care in prison. This review is designed to increase awareness among the international community of the pain and suffering of the terminally ill in prison and the facilitators and barriers to providing them compassionate care while in custody.



Maschi, T., Marmo, S. and Han, J. (2014), "Palliative and end-of-life care in prisons: a content analysis of the literature", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 172-197.



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