When the hospice at the California Medical Facility, located inside a California prison, opened its doors in 1993, it was in response to the AIDS crisis at the time, leading the state to offer prisoners more humane treatment as they lived out their days behind bars.
These days, however, the hospice isn’t populated by young men with AIDS, but rather by greying men in their latter years, wanting to finish their checkered lives with some dignity. For these prison inmates, caring for these patients is a “new lease of life”…
Fifty Five Plus
Interestingly, prisoners older than 55 make up the fastest growing age demographic in prisons across the nation, with an increase of more than 500 percent since 1990. Experts point to various policies which created this situation, including long sentences as well as a steady increase of older people entering the prison system.
Like Death Row
Until recently, if a person was admitted to jail with a terminal disease or a severe illness, it was like they had simply been sent to death row as correctional officers are not equipped to deal with such cases. In the old days, back in the 80s, prisoners would even be greeted by other inmates who would say jokingly, “welcome to death row.”
One of the main problems inmates, and therefore correctional officers face in the prison system is the lack of purpose that many prisoners have as they sit extended jail sentences. That lack of purpose often leads to a lack of hope and that can lead to depression, violence, and even suicide.
To that end, prison bigwigs decided that it was high time to try and give inmates some purpose, while simultaneously solving another growing problem in jails; that of old or sick inmates who need hospital care and in some cases even hospice care in terminal cases…
Fortunately, even if they are hardened criminals in some cases, there are some brave men behind bars and those who want to do the best they can as they serve out their time. At the same California jail, there is currently a dedicated team of 25 men, called ‘Pastoral Care Service Workers’ and some of them are serving life sentences for murder.
Dignified In Death
Even if they are behind bars, and even if not everyone agrees; everyone deserves to die with dignity and with some self-respect. Three men, Lyman, Saephanh and Murillo head up the group of pastoral care workers and take great pride in their work, wanting to offer assistance to people who are at the apex of their life…
Obviously, in order to qualify for the position, Lyman and his buddies needed to pass a series of tests including interviews and random drug tests. They all received around 70 hours of training on the job, learning about end-of-life care, bedside etiquette, and the bereavement process. This team of dedicated carers takes care of other patients in need with great pride and care.
The hospital is manned on a 24/7 basis, and the men pull 10-15 hour shifts and sometimes need to work overtime. It’s the lowest paid job inside, earning just about 30 cents per hour, but that doesn’t stop the men from doing their jobs. They brush teeth, offer sore limb massages and generally attend to the needs of the people in their charge…
Nobody Dies Alone
The facility pride themselves on giving those who are dying some hope, even if it can only be temporary. Bedside vigils are performed whenever someone takes a turn for the worst or is in fact dying. A motto of the men who work at the center is “No prisoner here dies alone.”
Older people can be cantankerous and that’s just part of the job that Lyman and his colleagues need to deal with. One patient, for example, called Lamerrill Dawson, was in the facility for five months before he passed away. During that time he would scream and holler at his carers, telling them “Change my diaper, [expletive]!” And “This food is [expletive].” It didn’t bother the carers though, who have learned great lessons in anger management as a result of their job…
Ignorance Is Bliss
Due to the nature of the beast, with people in close quarters and incarcerated, carers make sure not ask patients what crime they were convicted of. The worry is that knowing too much about a patient’s history could have a detrimental effect on the care they receive. As Lyman commented, “Death can be an equalizer. The past falls aside. Time is grounded in the shifting demands of the body as it begins its decay.”
Saephanh was sentenced to life for crimes we would rather not highlight. However, having appointed himself the unofficial hospice barber, he feels he has found redemption in his role, “I’ve done a lot of bad things in the past, and I feel like I can do some good to try and make it right with him. It’s the Christian thing to do.” He said.
It’s interesting to note that all the men who work at the facility have uniquely different styles when it comes to caring for patients. Murillo, for example, who has been incarcerated since the age of 16 for murder in the second degree, is known to be very tender when he deals with frail people, and always handles the people in his charge with extreme care.
When Murillo was asked why he was so careful with his patients, he said, “I’m just returning something I didn’t get as a kid. All I wanted was kindness and to be held as a boy. Now I get to do that for somebody else. There’s also the regret of not being able to do that for my victims, for the people in my community who I hurt.”
When Lyman first got to jail when he was 18, he noticed a lump on his right elbow. Thinking nothing of it, Lyman just focused on settling into his new reality behind bars. When the lump grew and Lyman went to get it checked out at the facility, he was lucky enough to be saved as that lump was cancerous. Ironically, he would never have been able to afford that kind of medical treatment had he not been put in prison.
Lyman spoke about the reasons why he got put in jail in the first place, after numerous gang-related murders, “I was lost. I was ignorant as to who I could be. Before, I was numb. Death didn’t hold the weight that it should have held.” He said, but it’s thanks to his work caring for other people that Lyman is happy…
Scared To Death
“Most people are scared to death of death, but I get the chance to be with people — to impart what I have, and they get to impart what they have,” Lyman said. “It gives me a chance to live.” And that just goes to prove just how effective the hospice is, not just for the patients dying there, but also for the carers who otherwise have little hope as they serve out life sentences.
Lyman had been caring for the cantankerous Dawson mentioned earlier for months. The two men had become close in a strange kind of way, but Lyman was devastated when after all that time, Dawson died overnight, alone in his bed. Lyman was upset but mainly with himself for not trying to do more to stay by Dawson’s side that night…
Just to drive the point home, after a long day at the facility, Lyman picked up the receiver of the old payphone inside the center to call his son. While his boy is only 3 years old, he asked his day what he was doing. When Lyman replied “I’m at work,” his son responded with blunt honestly that befits a 3-year-old, “You not at work — you in prison.”
While Lyman and his colleagues know that they are inside for the long haul, they take each day as it comes and are thrilled to have the opportunity to help those most in need. Due to the success of the facility, it is reportedly expanding its operation soon so that it can help even more inmates who are in dire need of end-of-life care.