Working the Family Network

A Meeting with Angola’s Inmate Volunteers
“This group has been screened very carefully. As incarcerated people, they have been dealing with the consequences of their own actions for a long time, and will probably continue to do so. They are engaged in a process of exploration that will probably go on for the rest of their lives; it’s not that they can say, “Okay, uh well, I’ve dealt with it, so I don’t need to deal with it anymore”It’s apparent that these people, as a group, have done a great deal of rehabilitation and changed their lives in huge ways.”Carol Evans, BCSW
University Hospital Community Hospice

In October 1997, journalist Anne Seidlitz and NPHA representative Nancy Craig spent five days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) at Angola, observing training sessions for the inmate volunteers who would be part of the interdisciplinary team of the LSP Hospice. Together with Carol Evans, they interviewed five of the volunteers at the R. J. Barrow Treatment Center. The following excerpt has been edited.

Anne Seidlitz: I’d like to know why you decided to join the volunteer group, what your experience has been with this kind of work, and what you expect to get out of it.

Charles Buie: The way the hospital used to be here, before they changed it to the Treatment Center, inmates would more or less die alone, with only the hospital staff around. So some of us came up with the idea of doing some kind of hospice work. We used to come over here and visit our friends. The administration used to let us do that, but then they stopped it, and that really worried some of us, because we had friends who were really ill or even dying. So that’s how the idea got started. We sent the idea to Warden Cain, and he sent it to someone else and this hospice program came about. This all really came out of love for our fellow inmates. The important thing is that now when we get sick, we won’t be afraid to come to the hospital. Some of us were terrified of coming to the hospital because of the perception that if you came here you died. Now we are working on changing that perception in the larger prison population.

Orderlies receive hospice orientation and are eager to receive more training and act as volunteers when off-duty.

Claude Donald: This program is really needed here at Angola. I’m an orderly on this ward and for a long time, I’ve thought about how wonderful it would be for guys to get involved in this type of program, not only for the patients but for the inmates themselves. You’ve got to sit back and imagine: how would it be “and this is deep” when a prisoner is dying? You never know what state of mind that prisoner is in. But you do know that he doesn‰t even have a family member around; he doesn‰t even have a close friend around. That’s where you come in you be that family member, you be that friend. You know, I’ve gotten so tied up in this ward, with these guys, that I’ve often told myself, I’m not going to get involved anymore. I’ve been through it over and over, with guys dying on me. But it’s something you can‰t avoid; you’ve got to get attached to these guys and their families. To know that someone is dying, and take care of him like this and he says, “I appreciate that well, that’s more to me than anything I could get in a material way. In the end its just a joy to be able to do that.

AS: Were there any times when you felt that you could have used some help in dealing with the patients’ needs?

Claude Donald: Well, I was reading this hospice volunteer manual and I saw things in there that really could have helped me over the year. This morning on the [training video], I saw that when a person is in his last stages and he don’t want to eat, you don’t force that eating upon him. When he don’t want to sleep, you don‰t force that sleep upon him. That little bit of information right there was a great help. In the past, I’ve tried to persuade a guy to eat, but I learned today to let them do whatever they want to do, and whatever is comfortable for them. This program is giving us some first-class knowledge.

David Veal: I agree that the knowledge of hospice is very important for us to hear. Like Claude said, now we know what to do for the patients. Our desire is to help them, but without the right information we got to figure out things by ourselves. Like the food issue, it would have been easier for Claude to relax and talk to the fellow to where that brother would have felt comfortable about eating or not eating-rather than trying to convince him to do it.

Michael Singletary (a patient as well as a volunteer): The thing about being in prison for any length of time is that you begin to lose family members, or they forget about you. I’ve got one friend who is dying on the ward right now; he’s been my friend for my fifteen years of incarceration, and I can be there for him. My family and friends are now at Angola. I’ve been over here for twelve days and I’ve had numerous cards from my friends down the Walk since I have been sick. And that’s my strength; that’s where it comes from.

Charles Buie: “What will happen to me in years to come if I don’t get parole or a pardon, when I get old, sick?” That’s a question we’re asking ourselves. We see so many of our friends, people we are growing old with, getting sick. Who takes care of them? We have to become our own family, and believe me that happens. Even if someone is in one of the outcamps, he’s still my friend; I can still send messages and letters to him because we’ve bonded together. But if he’s in the hospital-it used to be that you might not know that for a while. Then you find out and worry about him. Before, there was no way to make contact with him. That set-up is going to change with the hospice program. The volunteers come from every area of the institution, and we can take information back to friends, so it becomes like a big family network. Someone is in the hospice program from every area.

I can tell you this: from attending last night‰s meeting and from talking to some of the guys in my dormitory that saw us on the Walk and wanted to know what was going on, everybody is excited. The inmates are happy because someone is here who cares about them; the myth and the concept we have about the treatment in the hospital is fading away. That especially goes for the inmates who live where David lives in Camp F, where most of the elderly people live.

David Veal: Those guys in Camp F are maybe 74 years old; they haven’t seen their families for 25 years or so, and they‰ve got life sentences. This one guy the other day was shooting horseshoes. He was from Baton Rouge, and he started talking about life there in the ’50s, way before I was around! I found out that he really needed to share the things that he knew and had experienced. I gave him so much ear play, that it burnt my ears up! But it was a learning experience for me, to help me understand that talking was what he needed to do. And right now, today, with this hospice program, people are being trained to provide just this type of attention and caring. We understand the social workers’ position, but we have to come along and make it work for one another. We‰ve got to really do it. It’s not that we want to push for the staff to do it, because these folks don‰t live with you at night. At eleven or twelve at night, they are not there we are there. We are right there next to one another. This guy sleeping next to me, if he’s in a bad way, I’ve got to wake up and understand.

Point Lookout Cemetery, Angola

AS: People on the outside think that kind of sensitivity would be very hard to develop in this environment.

Larry Landry: I’ve been in trouble all my life. This is my second time at Angola. In the early seventies, there was no such thing as this program. You had to lead a macho life; no matter how much fear you had, you couldn’t show it. You couldn’t have compassion for another guy, because they would take it as weakness. Over the years it changed. Now my feeling is that this is my community, this is my life, I want to put something back.

In 1995, I had to come in here and be operated on. I saw a friend I hadn‰t seen in ten years because he was in an outcamp. He was dying of AIDS. His leg was smaller than my arm, and I just felt so hurt ’cause I couldn’t do nothing for him. [Starts to cry.] Even if I could have come back to see him after I left the hospital, I couldn‰t get to him ’cause he had AIDS. I heard that he would ask for me to come and see him, but I couldn’t. I said to myself, “My God, that could be me.” I would want somebody to care for me; so now I try to do that, to show that somebody cares. My family gave up on me, and most of the guys in here-nobody cares for them, so who’s gonna care for them? This is our community. If we don’t take care of each other, who’s going to take care of us? I have friends in the infirmary right now. I want them to know that I care. Just to see their faces, I can tell it means a lot to them.

Charles Buie: It has a lot to do with our Warden Cain. He genuinely cares about human beings even though his job is to keep us here. If you explain things to him and show him a need, where it makes sense he’ll do something. He’s changed this penitentiary. Now sometimes people don’t like to hear that, but he has changed this institution and I’ve been here a long time. Some hardened criminals are changing, going to church more. Now security can take you to church almost any time. And that was once unheard of. Now we would like to have a wake service in the chapel when somebody dies. But that’s another project.

Carol Evans: One of the greatest needs of family is a funeral service of some type, some sort of ritual in which they can say good-bye to their friends, at least at the burial site.

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