Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing laws in the United States, and as a result the state has an increasingly large group of elderly prisoners who grow ill and die behind barbed wire fences. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola houses the majority of the state’s incarcerated population; 5, 108 prisoners–most of whom are black men–live with the knowledge that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of those who serve a sentence at Angola will die there.
A former plantation, which sits on what the prison’s website declares to be “18,000 acres of the finest farm land in the south,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary is a world unto itself. In fact, the entire town of Angola is surrounded by the prison’s fences. Residences for the guards, including a school and baseball diamond for their children, lie inside the boundaries of the prison. The prison fences also surround a fully operational farm and the warden’s personal golf course–both tended by prisoners laboring on the same land their enslaved ancestors were forced to farm. Angola is so geographically isolated that many prisoners’ families cannot afford to visit regularly or at all. Many of the men at Angola are so cut off from the outside world that no one claims their bodies when they die. Even some who do have family willing to bury their remains ask to be put to rest at Point Lookout, Angola’s cemetery, because after having spent decades in this prison, they know no other home.
Faced with the logistical, financial, and psychological toll of a high number of aging and infirm prisoners, Angola’s warden Burl Cain instituted a hospice program. A trained staff of hospice nurses and volunteers from outside the prison work with both dying prisoners and incarcerated volunteers who wish to add meaning to their lives behind bars by helping others. The Angolite, a news magazine entirely written and produced by Angola prisoners, has provided very moving coverage of the hospice program. Angolite staff writer Lane Nelson volunteered for many years in the hospice program and wrote about his experiences in the magazine. (Nelson has since earned his release from prison.) In July 2011 the Oprah Winfrey Network aired an original documentary about Angola’s hospice program. Produced and narrated by Academy Award winner Forrest Whittaker, Serving Life follows four new prisoner volunteers in the hospice program through their training and first few experiences with terminal patients. The film’s narration falls into some stereotypical descriptions of the patients and volunteers as “hardened criminals” and often identifies the prisoners speaking to the camera by both their names and their crimes. Despite this unhelpful reinforcement of the idea that each man is irrevocably criminal, the film ultimately argues that both the dying and their incarcerated caregivers are vulnerable and compassionate individuals, strong in their humanity and fragile in their inescapable corporeality. They are, in fact, just like the dying and the care-giving who are not in prison.
Prisons have many rules about physical contact. Sexual relations among prisoners or between prisoners and guards are prohibited, though, of course, such things happen regularly in secret. Physical fighting, too, is against the official rules but happens with a certain regularity in all prison populations. Even hand holding and hugging are off limits in most prisons. In hospice care the rules change dramatically. Patients have to be touched for reasons of medical necessity and the principles of compassion which form the foundations of hospice care. Incarcerated volunteers must bathe the ill, moisten their dried mouths as they gasp for breath, change their diapers, and hold their hands. Those deemed to be in their last days of life are put on vigils where prisoner volunteers keep watch at their bedsides around the clock in four hour shifts until the patients expire. Touch in these moments becomes essential to human dignity, and no hospice patient dies alone.
The incarcerated hospice volunteers also design and sew personalized quilts for the patients, to keep them warm in their last days and to drape over their bodies when they die. The quilts viewers see in Serving Life are adorned with butterflies soaring above open hands with handcuffs at the wrists–a suggestion that even those in prison will fly free in the next life.
To say that the labor and the extraordinary strength of the hospice workers are inspirational would be both trite and a drastic understatement. Hospice care providers do incredibly difficult and sensitive work, and those who do this work in prison with people who will not live to see their freedom must face not only their patients’ deaths but the stark reality of the lives they’ve lived as well. This film brings into focus the experience that many prisoners’ families fear most–watching their loved ones die in a place where we cannot be the ones to keep vigil. At least the families of those at Angola know that someone will be with their fathers, brothers, and sons when they pass from this world. My gratitude extends to the incarcerated and free hospice workers at Angola and to the prison administration that enables them to serve their fellow men in this most significant manner.
Watch the trailer for Serving Life, and look for it in your local TV listings.