Friday, November 9, 2018

Giving back when having previously taken away

Before I start, I'd like to acknowledge the sites noted below each photo, as Angola does not permit photography on the prison site. Thank you for your assistance in educating the public.

It's not every day a person voluntarily steps foot inside a maximum security prison. It isn't every day that a nurse who works "on the outside" has the opportunity to simply chat whilst holding the hand of an elderly, toothless inmate whose only wish is to die outside of thick concrete walls with his younger brother at his side. It definitely isn't every day that the same nurse cries over a group of men who have undoubtedly committed crimes that destroyed the lives of many, many people. It’s a heartbreaking conundrum and one filled with both self-questioning and the desire to know more.

Over five-thousand men currently call Angola home - specifically, Louisiana State Penitentiary. Over one thousand staff work on the 18,000 acre campus, and several hundred more staff reside in small houses scattered throughout the rich landscape - there is a two year waiting list for prison residences. The prison finds itself surrounded on three sides by the grand Mississippi River, further swollen by thunderous rains which sweep through the area almost daily. On the fourth side is a tall levy, maintained by staff and prisoners called "trustees" who have proven themselves trustworthy enough to work amongst staff, other prisoners, and the many visitors who tour Angola each year while earning a bit more pay per hour. There are no actual fences on the outside perimeter - nature is given that task. The Warden's home sits high on top of a hill, overlooking the land.

Several guard towers on the inside of the property stand vacant due to downsizing and budget cuts. To keep offenders within their Camps, a double layer of barbed wire fencing surrounds each camp. Cameras monitor the fences at all times. At night, dogs trained by an elite group of 12 trustees are set loose to roam the perimeters; these dogs aren't just a standard breed, however. German Shepherds are bred with wolves in order to instill a primal fear into offenders who may consider a chance at escape. Trained by men who are “lifers” for first degree murder, the preconceived potential fury of such a partnership is quite palpable.

The prison, called "The Farm," indeed does consist of much farmland, tended by trustees. Wheat, corn, soy, sugarcane, and all kinds of vegetables are grown on Angola. Cows, horses, and a lone camel reside on the green land. The prison sustains itself and sends produce and other goods (such as homemade jellies) out into the community. A dairy was shut down about twelve years ago. The land itself is saturated with recent rains as well as runoff from the nearby Mississippi River.

Many years ago, Warden Burl Cain (resigned in 2016) developed a hospice program for his inmates - determined to make every death a “good” one. As he states in the documentary "Serving Life," "I'll dig your grave, and someone else will dig mine." It is to be said, however, that Warden Cain was often seen by inmates as the leader of a great plantation, providing medical care and hospice services as somewhat of a “cold comfort,” as stated by A, one of the hospice volunteers in an article written many years ago. Although hospice services do assist in a better dying experience, men are still dying within prison walls.

Two nurses per shift work within the hospice ward, and 36 volunteer inmates are trained to assist the nurses in providing intimate, daily care for the seriously ill and dying patients. Volunteers are interviewed and put through an intensive 40-hour training program in which they learn to care for others, and for themselves. Many volunteers have become skilled sewers, making quilts for dying patients so they are covered beautifully while being taken to their final resting place on the grounds.

While in the Hospice Chapel, also built by offenders, I was struck by the beauty of the simplicity of the program. The volunteers are not able to use their volunteer hours for "brownie points" for parole - often, the parole board is completely unaware of the inmates' involvement. This is done intentionally so volunteering is done for reasons other than impressing the board in hopes of an earlier parole. While in the Chapel, we were joined by M, S, and A, who have all been volunteering since the inception of the program - well over 25 years. The nurse manager was also present to answer the more medical-based questions, however the session mostly focused around what the volunteers were describing. They all wore special hospice t-shirts, which identifies them across the prison. The Chapel itself has a labyrinth carved into the floor for the prisoners to use for meditation and reflection, and is where funeral services are held for inmates. The acoustics within the chapel amplified the harmonic voice of M, as he sang a hymn to us, much like the hymns sung at funerals. 

When I asked M later about the energy shift within the prison after the program was started, and if there even was one, he told me that the program is well-respected, and that the volunteers often find themselves given a bit of extra leeway by fellow offenders - that's not to say, however, that they're not held to the same strict behavior standards. Any tiny amount of misbehavior, and the privilege of volunteering is revoked forever. That is a fear many of the volunteers hold close to their heart. Many of these men verbalized their sorrow and regret for past actions - they know that they can never “set things right,” however they do desperately want to make retributions as much as they possibly can.

As 55 of us ventured into the hospital ward where the hospice and palliative patients lay, there was a definite sense of trepidation. Later, on the return to New Orleans, it was noted that many of us felt we were infiltrating the privacy and peace of these men. Several patients were seen pulling the covers over the head, while several others stared at us either with a variety of expressions - anxiety, hope, confusion. It was a surprise to us all to be set free within the large room to visit with bedbound prisoners, and immediately, the room swarmed with voices raised in open conversation. I noticed immediately that the group ensured that every man had someone at their bedside.

The hospice rooms themselves are on the sides of the large room - there are six rooms with doors - these rooms offer windows, televisions, and a large chair or couch for family visits. Families are encouraged to visit their loved ones, much as in the outside world. The large, central room, is a disarray of enormous oxygen tanks, electric and hand-cranked hospital beds, medical equipment, and a feeling of despair which the nurses and volunteers do their best to assuage.

As I was speaking with the nurses, inquiring as to whether or not they had any integrative therapy programs (they do have pet therapy,) I noticed that one of the hospice rooms had opened, and a small man was sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway, quietly watching the increasingly loud conversation in the larger room. There was an energy about him that I recognized immediately - a sense of wanting so much to belong, but a shyness about being turned away. I was drawn to him, and found myself sitting on the floor next to his wheelchair. His toothless smile upon my introduction and a handshake of his cool, extremely calloused hand, brought about a sense of comfort to us both. He has been a patient of hospice for a few months, and a prisoner of Angola for 25 years. I did not ask him what for, as I didn't feel it relevant to any form of conversation that would bring him a bit of joy on that day. I told him I was a nurse, a hospice nurse specifically, as he asked why so many people were visiting.

During our conversation. Mr. E opened up to me about his desire to see his younger brother again, and how he wanted so much to die outside of the thick, cold, concrete walls. He understood it probably wouldn't happen, a compassionate release, but that hope would not diminish. He was happy to not be in pain, although expressed frustration that he needed to be on oxygen 24/7. I shared that I understood the frustration, as I had spent 7 months of my life attached to a tank. He asked me if I knew of anything that would help his COPD symptoms, and I suggested a few things which the wonderful nurses had already been doing. Sadly, our visit didn't last for too much longer, as I noticed our large group streaming out of the medical ward. When I went to say goodbye, I noticed that we had been holding each other's hands for quite some time. I didn't even recognize my action as being anything special - but these men have such infrequent touch that I can only hope it offered some comfort. It is a struggle to not tear up when I think of his smile. "Well, what if he did such and such?" I don't know that he did such and such, all I see is a human being in need of human interaction.

Many of the volunteers committed atrocious crimes years and years ago - many were convicted of second degree murder or first degree assault and robbery. Not once did I feel like I was in danger, objectified, or at risk of being harmed. It wasn't that the security was amazing - which it was - there was a dual respect shown which was really quite incredible to witness. Staff gave the volunteers and trustees respect, and the volunteers and trustees afforded the utmost respect to visitors and staff.

After leaving the hospice, it was appropriate that we visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Angola by the hospital. I was not surprised to learn that this was also built by inmates, but I was stunned to learn that it had been built, by 50 inmates, in only 38 days. The architect was an inmate, and was dying of cancer while the building was being built and painted. He was hoisted bodily up to the ceiling of the church in order to paint the portraits of Jesus and other apostles, due to his weakness. He died only a month after completion of the church. It's incredibly stunning work, full of color.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I encourage all of you to reach out into your communities and see where differences can be made. I'm not suggesting that you visit sick prisoners, however perhaps check into how you can volunteer in hospices within your communities. It does make a difference to patients and families.

And check out "Serving Life," a wonderful documentary on the Angola Hospice Volunteer Program. There is also a documentary called "The Farm" which is about serving time in Angola.