Getting convicted of a felony and sentenced to a term in Angola State Penitentiary is most often a one-way proposition. Few ever regain their freedom. In many cases, that’s their sentence: life.
Life, of course, isn’t forever. It’s just until you die. And death, no matter who it takes, is a somber and sobering occasion that commands the respect of those who witness it. As a society, we want to treat the departed with dignity and try to honor their last wishes.
Except if they’re convicts.
That’s how it was until a hospice program was founded at the prison in 1988. The Angola hospice is manned by inmate volunteers who care for their fellow inmates who are terminally ill.
In 2006, photographer Lori Waselchuk, former Advocate employee and Baton Rouge resident, got a magazine assignment to shoot a feature on the hospice program at Angola. She would wind up returning again and again. For two-and-a-half years she brought her camera inside the prison’s walls and recorded the hospice program at work. This book comprises 47 of her black-and-white images from that period. (A few color images of inmate quilts are included at the back of the book.)
Powell’s essay tracks the history of Angola, from post-bellum times to today. He discusses the changing attitudes toward incarceration, rehabilitation, sentencing and race that conspired to create a prison system where a large majority of the inmates are black. Not everyone will agree with all of Powell’s assertions, but the ethnic breakdown of Angola’s inmate population is undeniable: it’s about 75 percent African-American.
Waselchuk points her lens at the sick, dying, hopelessly ill inmates. Like the makeup of the prison population, most of the faces in this book are black. Like Albert “Tut” Soublet, who is dying of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. As the hospice caretakers carefully lift him from his wheelchair, he stares into the camera with sad, resigned eyes, a slight smile on his face.
The power of human contact, of touch, is on display in these images. Inmates gently wash the faces of the sick, give them a drink, sit with them and hold their hand to help them get through the fear and pain of the end.
Not all are black. Richard Liggett, the prison carpenter, who was in Angola for a double murder, was dying from both liver and lung cancer when Waselchuk met him.
“Warden Burl Cain had first asked Richard to design and build coffins for inmates in 1998. Before that time, prisoners were buried in whatever was available. Richard spoke of one man who ?fell out the bottom of an old Styrofoam casket that started falling apart.’ Richard took pride in his work at the prison. It was valued by the other inmates; it gave death due diginity,” Waselchuk writes. “Before Richard became too ill to work, he made his own coffin.”
Six volunteers worked in shifts to bathe Liggett, change his sheets, feed him, write his letters, read to him, watch movies and try to keep him comfortable. The small comforts of care that had previously been denied the dying at Angola.
Waselchuk was there with her camera as inmates died and at the funerals for some in the prison chapel. She went to the graveyard on the prison grounds and followed behind the horse-drawn hearse that provides the dead inmates with one final bit of dignity as they travel to their last destination. This book, she writes, is not about death, however.
“This project is not about death. It is about life, its limits, and the choices made within those limits. I feel incredible respect for the hospice caregivers. Their day-to-day schedule is dominated by the timeline of their prison sentences. Despite the volunteers’ serenity and devotion to the patients, I sense the emotional undertow of the knowledge that they may one day themselves become patients in the hospice program that they helped create. The volunteers have to confront their own regrets and fears in order to accept their capacity to love.”
Waselchuk’s images are powerful and arresting. Many are disturbing, but not more so than similar images of people in hospice care outside prisons. The end of life is the same, it brings the same pains and anxieties. It marks the culmination of what Waselchuk describes as “our shared humanity.” That is something that is rarely photographed, yet this is a book filled with such images.