Prison hospice program blesses both the living and dying _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Hospice of Acadiana, whose volunteers include, from left, Martie Beard, Lyle Ann Hernandez, Ann Wallace, Lewis Bernard and Charlene Miller, annually visit state prisons to support inmates administering end-of-life caregiving to fellow prisoners.

According to Luke 23:42, a thief crucified alongside Jesus said to him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” to which Jesus replied, “Amen, I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Hospice of Acadiana takes the verse to heart and annually sends volunteers to support inmates administering end-of-life caregiving to fellow prisoners.

Volunteers bring bags of supplies to their prison hospice counterparts, inmates taking on death watches in addition to other prison duties.

The bags are handmade by a Lafayette woman and contain a blanket, candy, snacks, socks and toiletries, all supplied by the volunteers themselves or by donation. The blanket doubles as a prayer shawl and comes with the blessing, “Know that even in the middle of the darkest night you are not alone.”

“We do continuing education, but we leave with more than we bring,” said Ann Wallace, Hospice of Acadiana volunteer director.

The volunteers mostly talk about hope.

“We try to talk about topics to help them be better volunteers,” she said. “It’s a very special program and they (inmates) have to apply. It’s an esteemed position.”

While Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has the first and oldest prison hospice program in the state, the volunteer group also serves Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson and Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, both in St. Gabriel.

There also is a hospice program at the B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Correctional Center in Washington Parish, near Angie.

Started in 1997 by directive of Warden Burl Cain, who recently announced his retirement, Angola trained 40 inmates in issues that affect end of life and how to take care of fellow prisoners.

Hospice of Acadiana mentors from the outside.

“We talk about the four most important things,” said Lewis Bernard, a volunteer for 15 years. “I’m sorry, I love you, thank you, and I forgive you. We start with that.”

Volunteers from Hospice of Acadiana assist inmates in practicing basic care, helping the terminally ill to die comfortably and making sure inmates don’t die alone. They offer advice in all the aspects of social, emotional and physical care, including bereavement, spirituality and reconciliation with family.

Anywhere from 10 to 20 volunteers are mustered for the yearly visit in December.

“We put an email out that we’re going to the prison and ask who wants to come,” said Wallace.

“No one really knows until you experience it,” she said. “My Bible study group didn’t even understand.”

Whether they’re serving 10 to 20 years or life, the reality is terminally ill prisoners are not transferred out to die, and if family doesn’t claim them, they are buried on site in coffins made by prisoners.

“I remember one inmate saying, ‘I know I’m like a broken car, they’re going to fix me and I’ll run better,” said Bernard. “At St. Gabriel and Dixon, there’s hope.”

He said that’s not the case at Angola. “They (prison hospice volunteers) see their work as more of a ministry,” said Bernard, “You can’t be a wimp and do that work. They become the nurses. At the moment they die, nothing’s left but their relationship with God. They’ve been stripped of everything else.”

“It’s the way all hospice should work,” said Jamie Boudreaux, executive director of the Louisiana and Mississippi Palliative Care Association. “They are caring for their fellow inmates in a most remarkable way. For 24 hours they don’t leave their side. It’s one of the most incredible programs in the country. We have correctional officers who come to Angola to see it.”

Prisons in Louisiana have a particularly bloody aspect to their history, said Boudreaux.

“Angola is still a maximum security facility,” he said, “but there is a new level of cooperation between inmates and guards.”

According to Boudreaux, prisoners themselves notice a difference, a newfound dignity.

“It truly is the most transformative story I have seen in my lifetime,” he said.

The Angola hospice program is documented in “Serving Life,” a film narrated and produced by Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker.

The film takes viewers inside Angola, where the average sentence is more than 90 years. With prison sentences so long, 85 percent of the inmates will never live on the outside again.

Charlene Miller, a 23-year volunteer, explained that before hospice, prisoners died in their cells or the infirmary.

“It’s something to see those big, burly men soothe the dying and pray with them,” she said. “It makes me feel good. I love it. It’s a privilege to be in on the last moments of their lives.”