Caring for sick, prisoners learn compassion
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Dr. Byock, director of Promoting Excellence in End-of-Life Care (a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), recently visited the penitentiary.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've lost count of how many hospice programs I've visited over the years," he says, "but rarely have I been as excited as by what I saw happening at Oregon State Penitentiary. These guys ... are living out a commitment to this project and one another that inspires my deep respect."
Byock spoke at an informal meeting attended by some 40 inmates from the prison population. "Many expressed appreciation for what their fellows were doing and said they'd like to become volunteers at some point," he says. "I felt like I was looking into the creation of community at its most rudimentary form - it was a very vibrant energy."
The Oregon program is one of four demonstration sites in a project funded by a foundation grant to the Volunteers of America. Its GRACE project involves national groups from corrections associations to health agencies to prisoner advocacy groups, and is developing standards for hospice care in prisons. The other sites are in New York, North Carolina, and the federal women's center in Fort Worth, Texas.
When the idea arose for prison hospice programs with inmate volunteers, "some correctional practitioners worried there might be problems, such as inmates trying to deal in contraband or soliciting from the families of terminally ill patients," says Madeline Ortiz, a corrections specialist at the US Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections.
That concern was dispelled quickly, she says, "as it became clear that it was a positive development - both for the patient and the inmate caring for him."
The volunteers are usually looking to give something back. "Out of our first group of 18 volunteers, 15 were lifers," Chaplain Steele says. "[As murderers], they took something they know they can never give back, so they are trying to make amends to the extent they can."
Hospice patients, of course, are the first concern. Efforts are made to help them deal with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, with fears and regrets.
"The patients have issues of forgiveness that become very big," Steele says. "Forgiving someone for abusing them in childhood, or seeking forgiveness for their crimes or the way they have treated others."
Often problems relate to family ties. Many inmates have lost contact with family or been abandoned by them. If family members do live nearby, they are allowed more access to a relative in hospice - and so are members of the patient's prison "family."
"This gives inmates the sense the administration is trying to think compassionately about the situation," Steele says. "And there is a ripple effect in the prison."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society