The Maine State Prison hospice room, where patients spend their final days in the infirmary.
"Thank you very much, sir. Have a good day."
Kandyce Powell of the Maine Hospice Council has been coming into the prison about once a week for the past 13 years, as part of the council's mission of bringing hospice care training into underserved populations.
With quiet persistence, Powell has outlasted three wardens and two corrections commissioners, but eventually convinced prison officials to let her undertake a training program for inmates on how to care for the dying. Powell is fond of saying that a prisoner should not be soley defined by his worst crimes.
"You know how society feels about men and women who are incarcerated, and we don't try to get below the surface of who they really are as individuals," Powell says. "And that's what we're trying to do with this program."
The intensive 12-week seminar proved so successful that when it came time to begin a second class, several dozen inmates applied for a few select spots. Her message to these inmates was that they would learn about life by helping others through death.
"I said, 'Men, I can't change anything that's happened in the past, and I can't fix anything for you and I can't save you from yourselves. But what I can do is be a presence for you that will introduce new ways of thinking about the world, of thinking about yourself, about the way you look at life itself,'" she says.
Originally trained as a nurse, Powell has become a confidant, mentor and head cheerleader for men who most people might not ever consider capable of caregiving or worthy of a second chance.
"Hospice has really opened my eyes in life in a way that I didn't look at it before. And I'm ashamed to say that, but that's the truth," says Santanu Basu, a graduate of the training program. Basu is serving a sentence of more than 60 years for murder. He says the training has helped him find meaning in putting other people's needs first.
"Had I been looking at it this way all along, I wouldn't be here in front of you right now," Basu says. "I want to take care of the people that move on from this life to another, the same way that I would want someone to take care of me in my dying days."
Fellow graduate Robert Payzant (left) is expecting to be released in 2020. "When I do get out of here, I want to continue this. I don't want this to be a passing fancy - something that I did while I was in prison. I want it to be meaningful while I'm in here but I also want it to seque into something similar for when I get out there."
Hopsice volunteer Steve Carpentier can remember when things were very different. Carpentier began serving time for murder at the old state prison in Thomaston in 1988. He says back then, inmates who were terminally ill or dying were often segregated from the general population.
"Back then we were kind of really looked down on - like we were the scum of the earth," Carpentier (right) says. "There was, like, 15 guys tucked in this little dorm, and a lot of those guys couldn't do things for themselves, so they didn't take showers or baths and the place stunk - and some of those guys ended up dying. You could smell the death in there. We're all human beings, and no matter what we did, we shouldn't be treated that way. We should be able to die with a little bit of dignity, and have people around us."
Now, in Warren, prisoners are able to help each other. Sick and dying inmates are allowed visits from family members, or a hospice volunteer to keep a bedside vigil around the clock. There's even a designated hospice space in the prisoner infirmary, a room with painted murals on the walls to help them feel more comfortable than in a traditional cell.
Walter Foster, the former Maine State Prison chaplain, says the culture around death and dying in prison is changing.
"It seems the longer you're here, that other inmates become your family," Foster says. "And we opened the doors, that men who were friends of the dying inmate were allowed to visit him, which never really occurred until the hospice program was put into place."
What that means, says Foster, is that a dying inmate now has choices about how to spend his final days, and no one has to worry about dying in prison alone.
Photos: Susan Sharon