Prison hospice gives dying inmates, volunteers dignity
Warren — Before there was a hospice program in the Maine State Prison, men would sometimes die alone, but now fellow inmates have been given permission by guards to aid the fated men.
Inmate Steve Carpentier, incarcerated for 25 years for murder, said that was what it was like at the Thomaston prison, when nursing personnel was short staffed and before the palliative care program began for inmates 14 years ago when the prison moved to Warren. Guards allowed some inmates to help fellow prisoners in their dorms, where they cleaned them, and in some cases, lifted them off the floor. Carpentier said those memories prompted him to volunteer with the hospice program at its inception.
"I'm passionate about this program. It's taught me to be more compassionate and care for others, respect people and their lives," he said.
The third annual hospice conference was held at the prison June 24 and 25, where professionals, prison staff and volunteers gathered to discuss end-of-life care at the institution.
Hospice volunteer Greg Warmke, convicted of murder, said everyday he learns and grows, and is grateful to work with his fellow volunteers.
The volunteers, 12 in total, work with four patients in the infirmary.
Volunteers work in pairs to support each other, and help dying patients by feeding, bathing, and escorting them from the infirmary to recreational activities. Sometimes they simply stay with them when they are afraid to be alone.
Once a man is actively dying, the volunteers share a 24-hour vigil, keeping watch over their patients, and friends.
Kandyce Powell, executive director of the Maine Hospice Council, who started the prison program, said she would match the volunteer's skills with any caregiver. "They are amazing individuals. There is more connecting us than there is separating us," she said.
In the last application cycle, she said 60 inmates applied to be part of the program. The prison administration and security personnel chooses who is allowed to volunteer with the program.
Carpentier said once he is released from prison, in four years, he hopes to continue volunteering in hospice, and perhaps come back to the facility to continue helping with the program. Former inmates must wait a period of five years before coming back to the prison to volunteer, he said.
Lori Doughty and MaryAnne Guenette's brother, Stephen Gravel, died of cancer at age 53 in January. Doughty said her brother was scared, did not want to die in prison, and did not want to die alone. She and her sister decided to keep him at the prison rather than transfer him to a nursing home for hospice care because, they said, he would not have gotten the emotional care he needed anywhere else.
"They never left his side and he was among friends with these guys," she said.
Doughty said her family believes when a person passes, their spirit needs to be let out of the room. When her brother died, one of the volunteers told her he opened the door.
"You took care of our brother, but you took care of us too," Doughty said to the men.
The volunteers are hoping to have policies drafted by the end of the summer to dictate what they are able to do to care for hospice patients. At the center of this policy clarification, is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was adopted in 2003 to prevent sexual assault in prison. Volunteer Robert Payzant, in prison for aggravated assault and robbery, said the inability to touch a patient restricts the quality of care they can provide. Payzant said he wants to champion the patients in the infirmary, ensuring their needs are met.
"I want to stay focused on the men in there and speak out for them," he said.
For hospice volunteers, this federal law limits the hands-on care they are certified to provide, including comforting touch like holding hands. Sometimes it is enforced, barring hands-on contact, and sometimes it is allowed, depending on the infirmary staff.
The volunteers want the law to be amended in consideration of palliative care.
Brandon Brown, an inmate at the prison and a hospice volunteer, said he is a son, a brother, and hopes someday to be a father. He said the outside needs to learn to see inmates in that light.
"Nobody wants to be recognized for their worst mistake," he said. Brown is serving a 17-year sentence for attempted murder.
Brown, commenting on the reaction within the prison the hospice program has garnered, said even if a response is negative, it is worth it, because the best thanks is a smile from a patient, or a compliment from a guard about the work the men are doing.
"For every one who just wants to punish, punish, punish, there are two who are grateful," he said.
Nathan Roy, serving a sentence for sex crimes, said there have been positive changes since the program started, and said the men have to remain focused on the purpose of the program and being present for the patient and family.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said he is sometimes frustrated by the limits of the department, but to see a program such as the hospice volunteer program, he said, makes him feel pride and accomplishment.
"It is a light in the Department of Corrections," he said.
Kevin Knight, of Rockland, is serving a sentence for murder and has volunteered with the program for four years. He takes care of fellow inmates because they have become like family to him, he said. Knight said he will always volunteer in any capacity he can.
"I will never do enough good to make up for my mistake," he said.
Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.