Starting A Prison Hospice

Starting A Prison Hospice:
New Program Launched In Connecticut DOC

By Nealy Zimmerman

It is December 5th, 2000; the first day of training for 19 volunteer hospice inmates at MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. It is gratifying to be present and to see our goal of prison hospice materializing.

Each of the inmates is invited to stand up and state why he wanted to be a hospice volunteer: Here are a few of the responses:

“It is easy to be hard but hard to be easy. I joined because there are a lot of negatives in prison, I want the satisfaction to give.”

“I was raised in a warm and loving environment. I want to make a contribution here that will provide growth and maturity – you know, the beauty and mushy stuff that guys don’t want to discuss.”

“I took so much from communities… I want to bring some blessings.”

“I have a life sentence, I want to be here for them, I know most of them.”

It all began in June, 1995 when Florence Wald, a founder of the hospice movement in the United States, Jane Kolleeny and I met to discuss the possibility of a prison hospice program in Connecticut. Later we were joined by Siobhan Thompson, an epidemiologist, and Diane Robbins, then a graduate student at the Yale University School of Nursing. We had heard about a program started in the late 80s by Fleet Maull and another inmate at the Federal Medical prison in Springfield, Missouri.

At that time we knew little about the enormous changes that had taken place in the criminal justice system, particularly the increased rates of incarceration and length of sentences; we had scant knowledge of the Connecticut prison system, and we had no connections in the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Therefore it is not surprising that we chose not to rush in, to do our homework, and to conduct a feasibility study. The results of this study are available on the NPHA web site:

We learned a lot during this time and met many people both in the prison system and outside who were interested and supportive of a prison hospice program. However, we found that while the DOC supported a hospice program, there was not support for the use of inmate volunteers.

At least not until Pat Ottolini, Director of Nursing and Field Services for the CT DOC, met the persuasive force of Tanya Tillman, the Inmate Volunteer Coordinator for the Prison Hospice Program at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

In the summer of 1999, Pat Ottolini presented the hospice proposal along with a CNN tape of the program at Angola to the Deputy Commissioner. It was immediately accepted. The next step was to choose the site for the pilot program: MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut, a maximum security prison with an acute infirmary.

We then scheduled a visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary to experience an existing program in operation. We spent time with Tanya Tillman and Assistant Warden for Treatment, Dwayne MacFatter. We met the inmate volunteers, attended their monthly meeting, and watched them relate to their ‘patients’.

There is an added dimension to one inmate helping another inmate die. There is a depth of remorse, anger and bitterness that these individuals have to process before and during their training as hospice volunteers. They also share the loss of freedom with the patients. The strength of their commonality allows a deep connection and in the face of death the usual aggression and violence that is more common in the general prison population can often melt away.

After the visit to Angola, we developed a procedure manual using Angola’s manual as a starting point. Rafael Sciullo, then President of the Connecticut Council for Hospice and Palliative Care, reviewed the manual making sure the program ‘inside’ met the community standards ‘outside’.

By the Fall of 2000, inmates were invited to apply to become hospice volunteers. Over 100 inmates expressed interest, 40 were interviewed, and 19 chosen.

Our attention then turned to training. A number of people in the outside hospice community had volunteered to help. A key source was Hospice and Palliative Care of Connecticut and their Director of Volunteer Services, Deborah Richards, who worked with me on the curriculum and participated in the training.

During the training, a contest was held to design a program logo. The winning design was silk-screened on T-shirts and will be worn by the volunteers when on duty. Also, a scrapbook has been started and will include any press relating to the program, patients’ life reviews written down by volunteers, and other memorabilia. Nursing Supervisor Elaine Lucas made a ‘hands on’ quilt. It has the outline of all the volunteers’ hands and will be used by the patients when they are dying. Volunteer Coordinator, Dee Rodriguez, is developing a resource library for staff and volunteers. Our community hospice volunteers have already donated a number of books.

The first Inmate Volunteer Graduation took place on February 2, 2001. Commissioner John Armstrong introduced the keynote speaker, State Representative Patricia Dillon.

The inmates were invited to write Pat Dillon a letter expressing why they had volunteered and what they got from the training. It was clear from the responses that these inmates were touched by the opportunity to volunteer. They spoke of the program providing an avenue to help atone for their crimes; to explore and express their long-buried compassionate nature; to face their own anger and bitterness toward themselves; to reevaluate their values and priorities in life; to give the gifts of friendship and family to their peers as they died; and frankly to experience a humane, nurturing alternative to the dehumanizing ethos of the general prison population.

One inmate succinctly stated, “I am a convicted murderer and as evil and negative as that term sounds, it is far from the man inside my body. In hospice I see the chance to give back to society that which I squandered so long ago.”

Another expressed the hope that the hospice program would be “…a stepping stone in a return to a more rehabilitative and compassionate concern within prison as well as in society at large.”

Nealy Zimmermann is Chair of the Connecticut Chapter of NPHA and on the Board of Directors.

3 thoughts on “Starting A Prison Hospice

  1. I am a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and am working on a literature review of hospice programs and the successes and barriers associated with them in America. Can you tell me how this program is doing now, nearly 12 years later and is there literature on it available. Thanks!

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