Profile: Tanya Tillman

By Nina Quinn
Tanya Tillman is exactly where she wants to be – Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Not serving time, but giving it, along with an abundance of care, good humor, acceptance and enthusiasm toward the inmate volunteers and the terminally ill patient’s in the hospice program housed in Angola’s 40-bed medical treatment center.
Born in Mississippi; raised in Louisiana; Tillman returned to Mississippi to earn her R.N. at Alcorn State University in Natchez. Not shy of hard work, she successfully completed the training while single-parenting two daughters and working two jobs.
Her goal was to be a psychiatric nurse: She grew up with a mentally ill mother who spent years undiagnosed and misdiagnosed. Once properly diagnosed and treated, the change in her mother was so marked it motivated Tillman to work in this area.
At the end of her training, a highly respected teacher counseled her first to get experience in medical-surgical work. It was as an ER-surgical nurse that Tanya Tillman came to Angola for what she thought would be one year. Just short of the year, she took a job closer to home in the private medical industry as an inhouse psychiatric nurse. Four months into the job she was on the phone to Angola asking to come back.
For her, Angola held the right mix of surgical and psychiatric nursing. Many of the inmates have psychiatric diagnoses and chemical dependencies.

She was quick to leave the private industry, she said, because, “I saw that they didn’t want the patients to get better. You were to negative chart, to document why the patient still needed to be there: At LSP they give you a budget and it is up to you what kind of nurse you want to be. There is a whole lot of room to be innovative and an advocate. It is not always easy, but you are only limited by your imagination and how much advocacy you want to do.”

That was eight years ago. Three years ago, facing the reality that half the 5000 inmates at LSP die in prison, Warden Cain made the decision to start a hospice program. He asked for a volunteer to be the inmate volunteer co-ordinator: Tanya came forward. In her words, “It was the best decision I ever made professionally.”
Tillman is now Angola’s only full-time hospice employee. She is volunteer coordinator, case manager and co-ordinates the program. She says, “I don’t work the floor anymore. I get to do the things the nurses want to do but are too pressed for time. I can sit with a patient for an hour or make fifteen phone calls to reach a patient’s family if it is a priority. If security has a problem, I get to fix it. I’m the liaison between inmates, families and staff.”
Tillman makes sure to give credit to the interdisciplinary team that works with the patients and adds, “I can take the concept of hospice, the ideas and concerns of a group of professionals and be the catalyst to pull it off.” It is, she stresses, a team effort.

And what a team. In just three years they have won the American Hospital Association’s 1999 Circle of Life award and were winners of the 1999 Foundation for Improvement of Justice award. Tanya Tillman was honored with the Heart of Hospice award by the Louisiana Hospice Organization. And at the inmate volunteers banquet in November 2000, she was presented with a sculpture made by one of the inmates as a tangible gesture of thanks from the inmate volunteers.

Gracefully pushing aside all the attention and awards that the LSP hospice program has earned, Tillman prefers to stress that, “This powerful, positive program can happen in any institution. The creativity comes into play when looking at how to apply principles of hospice care in a correctional setting. We have had support from the top. Not every institution has that. It is an idea that you have to sell. You have to show how it benefits the institution and society. Any inmate touched by hospice inside and influenced by its positive philosophy, leaves here a better person. If it does its primary job of allowing inmates to die with dignity, to be treated humanely in the last days of life, and other inmates see that, they go back into society with an understanding of the sanctity of life.”

Tillman is an unabashed champion of inmate volunteers. Asked to comment, she says:
Prisons are communities, cultures unto themselves. The concept of bringing volunteers from the outside, and not letting inmates participate, is like having a colony on a remote island where some are dying from terminal illness and you bring in people from England and say these are the people who are going to bath you, brush your teeth, spend time with you and know what it means to be living and dying on this island. You are saying that the inmates are not good enough to take care of their own and that they have no knowledge base whatsoever.

People from the outside can have the training but the bottom line is that they can walk out the door. If they get stressed, they can leave. I can leave. I don’t know what it is like to do time. These volunteers know what it is like. It goes back to the central concept of community.
Initially, there were a lot of concerns that there would be victimization. That they would traffic drugs, that different things would happen that would be detrimental. This has not happened. These are human beings that traditionally have not followed society’s rules. There are going to be things that happen within a prison. The security is only as good after hospice as it is before hospice. Hospice is not a detriment to security.
What I’m seeing is that hospice is a mechanism for positive change. Positive change in the type of care patients receive and positive change for the volunteers and how they view their role as human beings and their role in society in general.

When one man takes care of a patient, and if what he gets out of that is a concept that he has something great to give another human being, and if he likes that feeling so much that he wants to help another human being, that is progress, that is correction.
When speaking of the volunteers, it is clear that she doesn’t condone their crimes but, as she says, “It is not all black and white, there are many shades of grey to human behaviour. They want to move on. Life is not wasted just because they are here.”
She illustrates the impact volunteering can have by citing the case of a volunteer who was imprisoned for beating a man to death. He sat in her office and cried. “I didn’t understand what I had done until I sat with a patient and he died in my arms,” he said. “I was loaded on drugs and didn’t realize what it meant and what I had taken from him and his family. I took his right to die in old age, in his bed, surrounded by people who love him. I didn’t understand that.” Tillman adds, “If they don’t understand what they took, why won’t they do it again?”

Tanya talks about the victims of crime and includes families of inmates. “They are doing time, too. It is hard to talk to a mother and hear her crying and saying, that she rocked him as a baby and now he is dying of cancer, and she can’t be there.”
In speaking of the patients, Tillman says, “We take care of them the way we want our family members taken care of. We don’t know when a family member of ours may end up in prison. There are no guarantees it won’t happen to one of our loved ones. I can’t change what they did to the victim, but I have the opportunity to do my job and do the best that I can.”

It is this philosophy that has earned Tanya Tillman the nickname of Mother Goose. Hearing her mother called this, Tillman’s little daughter asked, “Mom, why do they call you Mother Goose?” Tillman replied, “Because I try to look after the patients the best that I can – by feeding them, nursing them, listening, and doing whatever I can for them.” Her daughter considered this and replied, “I think I want to be Mother Goose when I grow up.

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