Inmates attend a hospice class at the Maine State Prison.
When 64-year-old Charlie Page died of health complications at the Maine State Prison in Warren last year, it was a loss not only to his wife, Kay, who visited him every day near the end, but to his fellow inmates.
Serving a life sentence for murder, Page was popular behind bars. Other inmates say he taught them how to serve long amounts of time. And he became the inspiration for this song, written and sung by hospice volunteer and inmate Nate Roy and the prison hospice band, known as the "Sounds of Comfort."
AUDIO OF SONG
"The first verse is what I witnessed," Roy says. "The second verse is how I would picture the patient feeling, and the third verse is after all it's been done and we get to go home to be with that person and live the rest of our life together."
"Through Tearstained Eyes" is just one of several songs the band will perform at a two-day hospice conference at the Maine State Prison this week, and one that has been played at the prison's annual memorial service.
Graduates of Maine's prison hospice training program say the experience of caring for dying inmates has been so profound that 68-year-old Alfred Saunders (right) and at least two others are trying to become certified nursing assistants.
Saunders says the additional training will help free up nurses in the prison infirmary for other tasks and allow him to administer practical aid to dying patients.
"A lot of times we're in that cell, locked in with a man, and there's a code or something, so we're locked in there for a long time and if he has an emergency we have to be able to take care of it," Saunders says, "sometimes with instruction through the glass from the nurse outside."
Susan Sharon: "So then you'd be able to just do more nursing-type care for people?"
Alfred Saunders: "Right. Similar to what a nurse would be doing."
Being a caregiver is something Saunders says he never imagine he'd want to do. Convicted of murdering his wife 26 years ago, Saunders says through hospice he has learned patience inside prison walls, and much more.
"When I first came to prison I'd lost everything and thought I'd never have anything again," he says. But patience is what it taught me more than anything, and to be a little more compassionate to my fellow man than I would have been before this."
Hospice work can be demanding. Shortly after graduating from the training program, Saunders and four other volunteers were asked to come to the aid of a patient who was not expected to survive more than a few days. They wound up providing exhaustive, round-the-clock care for three months.
Steve Carpentier (left) says he's learned to be resourceful when dealing with dying inmates, and to trust his instincts. He describes the first time he dealt with a patient who was delirious at the end of his life.
"His hands were outstretched and tears were coming down his eyes, and he was screaming he was drowning. So out of instinct I reached down, I grabbed him and I called him by name and I pulled him toward me and I said, 'I'm right here. I gotcha! I ain't gonna let you drown,'" Carpentier says. "And what seemed to be the longest minute, I held him and he just kind of eased, came down at ease, and a big smile came across his face. And I laid him down and his face was full of peace. You could see the peace in his face. Two days later the man died. I'll never forget. It was pretty touching for me."
The hospice program has also been successful from the administration's view. "We have education programs. We have vocational programs. We have substance abuse programs. We have a lot of different programs," says Jody Breton, "but this really gets down to people skills."
Jody Breton is the associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections. "We've put 15 inmates through the program now. As you can tell by being here it's being used on a regular basis," she says. "It's a great benefit to the inmates."
Breton says the department also wants to create a separate geriatric unit for aging prisoners, which might someday be a part of a new correctional center. Inmate and hospice volunteer Sergio Hairston (right, pushing patient in wheelchair) has a similar vision for a special unit, but not just for aging prisoners.
"In the pod I'm in, there's a few individuals in wheelchairs and stuff like that, and that's why as a group we want to set up an infirmary pod, which they don't have here, where we're able to give round-the-clock care to certain individuals that might need it."
Hairston says hospice has taught him that sometimes other peoples' needs come first - and that's made prison a much less lonely world.
Editor's Note: Tomorrow, in the third and final part of our series, we'll take a look at the unusual challenges facing two brothers who are both inmates at the Maine State Prison, and who are both living with Huntington's Disease.
Photos: Susan Sharon