December 5, 2010
Hospice program teaches convicts how to care

Within the walls of Angola State Penitentiary, there are an estimated 5,200 inmates. More than 95 percent of them will die there. Angola has a hospice program that is a part of the rehabilitation treatment offered to inmates.

Warden Burl Cain said it is a way for people known as "selfish takers" to finally give back. In their final hours, some inmates at Angola tend to the needs of other convicted criminals. Charles Rogers, in prison for armed robbery, has participated in the hospice program for five months. During that short time, he has seen eight inmates die. "It's a reality check," Rogers said. "One of the last guys that passed away was 49-years-old, and I'll be 49 years old when I get out of prison."

Rogers is a part of a small group at Angola that will actually has a shot at being released from the prison. Justin Granier is in for murder and will likely never get a chance at release. He said helping his fellow inmates do tasks as simple as feeding, shaving or bathing themselves helps him to appreciate the little things. "To watch them die is very difficult," Granier said.

One of the patients Rogers and Granier are watching over is Walter Chance, who suffers with a brain tumor. Other inmates in the hospice program also have terminal illnesses. "Just to be able to touch someone in their last days ,which are some of the most difficult, trying times for them, is very unique," Granier said. Warden Burl Cain said in 1998, Angola was the second prison in the United States to start a hospice program.

Since then, the program has grown to include dozens of inmate volunteers who go through a rigorous screening and training process. "We dig the graves by hand, with a shovel. They want someone to dig their grave. They want someone to build their coffin," the warden said. "They want someone to come to their funeral. They want someone to take care of them like they are caring for someone else."

Cain said inmates are learning to value life as they watch others lose theirs. More than 70 inmates have died of natural causes at Angola so far this year. The prison's hospice program serves as a model for others across the country.

In fact, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker is producing a film about the program called "One Last Shot: A story of Redemption."