10 May, 2010Issue 12.2North AmericaPhoto Essays

Email This Article Print This Article

Grace Before Dying

Lori Waselchuk

……………………………………………………………………………………………

[imagebrowser id=27]

……………………………………………………………………………………………

Louisiana, USA—A life sentence in Louisiana means life. More than 85% of the 5,100 men imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice programme was created in 1998, most prisoners died alone. Their bodies were buried in shabby boxes in numbered graves at Point Lookout, the prison cemetery. But a certified and nationally recognized hospice program, initiated by Warden Burl Cain, has changed that.

Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live among the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here, inmate volunteers, many serving life sentences themselves, work closely with hospital and security staff to care for the patient. Then, during the last days of the patient’s life, the hospice staff begins a 24-hour vigil. The volunteers go to great lengths to ensure that their fellow inmate does not die alone.

Hospice volunteers plan a memorial service and burial. The casket is taken from the prison to the cemetery in a beautiful handcrafted hearse (both casket and hearse are constructed by the prisoners themselves), followed by a procession of friends and, sometimes, family members, who sing and walk behind the hearse.

The hospice volunteers’ efforts to create a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead have touched the entire prison population. Prison officials say that the programme has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the United States.

Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her images have been published in many newspapers, magazines, and new media including, Newsweek, Life, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Independent. She has produced photography for numerous humanitarian organizations and foundations including UNICEF, the United Nations World Food Program, and Médecins Sans Frontières. Grace Before Dying was the winner of the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s Individual Photographer Fellowship in 2009.

.