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Prisoners Working With the Dying

How death can change prisoners.

Sarah Baker/Flickr/CC by 2.0
Source: Sarah Baker/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Angola State Prison in Louisiana is home to approximately 5,000 men. Their crimes range from murder, rape, armed robbery to drug offenses. It is described as the largest and most notorious prison in the country. It has the highest percentage of prisoners in the United States serving life sentences and it is estimated that 85% of these prisoners will die there. In the past, dying at the prison meant that you were left alone in a room, without medication, just waiting for death to come. After death, the body was put in a cardboard box for burial. In 1998, Warden Burl Cain changed the face of death in the prison by introducing hospice. The entire death and burial experience was transformed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the hospice program is that the caregivers of the dying are prisoners themselves. Prisoners apply for the position and are screened by staff and volunteers. Once chosen, they undergo weeks of training and ongoing supervision from nursing staff and the more senior volunteers. These men provide for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the dying. They bathe them, shave them, and change their linens and diapers. They feed them, read to them and sing to them. They pray with them and hold their hands when they are afraid. When someone’s death is imminent, the patient is never left alone. The men take 6-hour shifts to be with them. While working on a research project in the hospice, I had an opportunity to observe and talk with the caregivers.

Before working in hospice, the men described themselves as selfish, hard-core, hot tempered, impatient, and uncaring. One man stated that hospice is going to change you whether you want it to or not. Many said that hospice was the first time they were able to express love and kindness for another person. Another commented that he didn’t used to have an “empathic bone” in his body and now he cries all the time. From their comments, it appears that hospice provides many life altering and redemptive features for those who participate in it. Many said that hospice helped them show their soft side, have more self-control, patience and to be friendlier. Some of the caregivers claimed that the experience was the best thing that had ever happened to them. One man said “If I had been doing this on the outside, I would not be here now.” Hospice gave meaning and purpose to their lives. They developed compassion for others. “I try to help now and not hurt.” “I have a heart now.” “Doing something for someone helps me feel better about myself.” “I want my good to outweigh my bad.” “Hospice has made me a better man. I am not the monster people think I am.” The men say they are able to appreciate life more, to listen to others and to leave their personal agendas aside. Indeed, the hospice volunteers are respected throughout the prison and are often sought after by other inmates for advice and counsel.

One of the men told me that there are no atheists in hospice. Many said that their hospice work helped them to become more spiritual. They felt that working with the dying drew them closer to God and religion became more important to them. Some also said they now view death differently. Just as with people in general, the men expressed fears about death. After working with the dying, however, the majority of men said that death was no longer frightening for them. One man even said “death is not a curse, but a gift.” The men described being with the dying and witnessing their deathbed visions. They observed the dying greeting deceased relatives and friends. They saw them smiling and talking with the deceased helping them see that even though they may have been abandoned by their families, they would not be alone when they died. Perhaps the measure of attachment and compassion these men develop can be found in the grief that they experience after a death. As the Tin Man said to Dorothy, “Now I know I have a heart ‘cause it‘s breaking.” Grief is a necessary and understandable part of caregiving. A number of the men said that they go off and cry by themselves. Some sought comfort from the nursing staff and older volunteers, while some turned to religion to help them cope. One of the volunteers told me “when you are with the dying, something in you is going to open up or you’re not human.”

It has been proven that rehabilitation in prison decreases the chance of inmates returning to previous criminal behaviors on release. For that reason, programs are set up for education, job training and religious training. It seems as though working with the dying, however, provides the ultimate in rehabilitation for all—learning how to be compassionate and caring towards others.