Inmates Help In Prison Hospices by Rick Jervis 11-30-09

Posted: December 13, 2009 in News and politics
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
ANGOLA, La. — Ted "Animal" Durbin expected prison life to be about brawls and knife fights — not changing adult diapers or bathing grown men.

Four times a week, Durbin, 51, who’s serving 140 years for armed robbery at Louisiana State Penitentiary, meets with frail, dying inmates at the prison’s Treatment Center. He bathes them, provides other personal care and often squeezes skeletal hands as their bodies succumb to shriveled livers or stomach cancer. It’s the best job he has ever had, he said.

"I can’t repay society for some of the things that I did," Durbin said during a recent shift at the prison’s hospice program. "But I can do it right here where I’m at."

The program at the penitentiary, better known as Angola state prison, is one of a growing number of hospice programs for dying inmates, said Carol McAdoo, a coordinating consultant with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. More than 75 state and federal prisons in 40 states, from California to Iowa to Texas, have hospice programs, she said.

Volunteer inmates shave debilitated prisoners, give them bed baths, help them to the bathroom or clean their rooms. Many of the volunteers are lifers themselves who hope the favor is repaid when they are unable to walk 10 paces to the bathroom.

"I know one day I’m going to be there," said Scott Meyers, 35, a volunteer at Angola who’s serving 149 consecutive years for armed robbery and second-degree murder. "All I can do is hope there’s going to be someone like me to be there for me."

The hospice programs underscore the challenges prison officials face in taking care of a rapidly graying prison population. The number of state and federal prisoners age 50 or older has soared from 41,586 in 1992 to more than 167,000 in 2005, McAdoo said. About 3,300 inmates die in prisons each year, she said.

"Tougher sentencing laws have created a huge growth in the number of aging inmates and people who aren’t going to get out before they die," McAdoo said.

Before the programs, inmates died alone in prison medical wards and often suffered through painful ailments, said Fleet Maull, a former inmate who helped start the nation’s first hospice program at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. The programs also save money by reducing hospital visits, he said.

"When we started, people were being given aspirin for bone cancer," said Maull, who served 14 years on drug trafficking charges. "Today, people can have a self-administered morphine drip. We’ve figured out how to do these things in a safe and a compassionate way."

No prison in the USA houses more life-term inmates than Angola, where 3,712 inmates — 74% of the prison population — are serving life sentences, Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said. More prisoners die a year at Angola (32) than are paroled (four).

Inmates volunteer for the program, which has served 134 prisoners since it began in 1997. They are taught basic hospice practices and how to counsel a dying inmate. Gary Tyler, 51, who’s serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, joined in 1997 after witnessing four of his friends die.

"I didn’t want the situation I’m in to dehumanize me," he said. "Everything I thought about life has changed. This program has reassured me of my humanity."

Warden Burl Cain created the hospice program after reading about one in the local newspaper, he said. The program has fostered compassion among inmates, he said.

"That’s the real road to rehabilitation: to learn to give to others rather than take from others," Cain said.

Hospice patients live in six small, windowless rooms in the prison’s Treatment Center. They’re given a hospital bed, a TV with a DVD player and a bedside table.

George Brown, a volunteer inmate, is there often, making sure patients have enough water and are not in pain or in need of bathing. Often, he just sits and listens to them talk — about their families, their crimes and how their lives could have unfurled differently.

Last week, he sat through the night with one patient, Anthony Duke, who was wilting from liver cancer. Brown left him at 2 a.m. Five hours later, Duke was dead.

When an inmate dies, volunteer prisoners wash the body, zip it into a body bag and wheel it to the prison morgue, he said. From there, the body is either delivered to the family or ferried in a horse-drawn hearse to the prison cemetery for burial.

Losing a patient is at once painful and reassuring, said Brown, 49, who’s serving a life sentence for killing two men.

Durbin, who earned his nickname after biting off a man’s nose in a fight, says a prayer each day for 11 months when one of his patients dies. He also collects pictures of all his dead inmates. One day a year, he spreads them across his bed and meditates.

"This program has brought me to my own existence, my own humanity," Durbin said. "When I was young, I didn’t care about nothing. This gives me something to care about."


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