As elderly inmates in the Maine State Prison face their own deaths, there’s a lot of soul searching – particularly among the incarcerated veterans.
“One vet asked me, ‘Who is going to forgive me before I die?’” remembers Kandyce Powell. “Tears were running down his face. He said, ‘I have spent so many years of my life keeping things stuffed away inside myself. Things I don’t want my family to know. But I don’t know what I will tell them when I’m dying and I don’t have the strength to keep it stuffed in anymore. And who will like me after they learn what I have done? I did those things because I was told to do them, but that still doesn’t make them right.’”
It was a tough moment for Powell, executive director of the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End of Life Care in Augusta, Maine.
And it’s getting tougher as our prison population ages. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates 55 years or older rose from 3 percent nationally in 1991 to 8 percent in 2011. About a year ago, 270,000 prisoners out of a total population of 1.5 million were 50 years or older, it said.
That trend holds true at the maximum-security Maine State Prison, where about 21 percent of the inmates are older than 50 years and 15 percent of the 980 inmates are veterans, said chaplain Kevan Fortier, who is a vet himself.
In the prison, Powell and her colleagues have put together a remarkable program to train inmates to help their fellow inmates dump their emotional baggage in their waning days. And in helping others prepare for their own deaths, the volunteers are also beginning to find the keys to their own atonement.
“We are all searching for forgiveness and atonement, but especially the vets who have done some things they’d still rather not talk about,” Fortier told me. “It’s a struggle, especially for the vets who don’t feel worthy of forgiveness and acceptance. Some have held out for so long they don’t know to approach forgiveness.”
One way of helping imprisoned vets accept themselves is through a pinning ceremony, which is essentially an honoring ceremony.
“Self-forgiveness is a critical piece,” said Karen Flynn, director of the hospice unit. “So we all come in with an unconditional positive attitude to help them see themselves differently. One of our most active volunteers, a Vietnam vet, started to cry at his pinning ceremony and said no one had ever done that for him before.”
Since vets prefer to talk with other vets who have a better understanding of what they have been through, the hospice program tried to pair them. All the volunteers are inmates, however.
“Almost all the vets who have died in the infirmary have had some level of PTSD, so we call in the vet volunteers to help them,” Powell said. “One former helicopter pilot was having a flashback and screaming that he was drowning, so one of our volunteers went to his bed, put his arms around him and told him he was going to take care of him. He worked on calming him down until the vet finally started crying and went to sleep.”
In addition to the volunteers, about half the prison staff are vets “and some, by their own admission, have PTSD,” said Powell. That made for a very supportive environment for the prison hospice program when it began more than seven years ago.
Since then, the Veterans Administration has recognized its effectiveness and used its principles for its national Hospice-Veteran Partnership program, in which the VA partners with hospice organizations to provide end-of-life care for vets and their families.
In the prison, though, here’s an additional benefit. Helping others turns out to be hugely therapeutic for the inmates.
“You get a sense of purpose as far as your life having meaning,” Robert “Paco” Payvant, serving an 18-year-sentence for robbery and aggravated assault, told Kelley Bouchard of the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald. “I’ve been doing time since the 1980s. Opening myself up, working in partnership with other men, it’s changed my life. When the needs of another person aren’t just equal to my own, but greater than, it’s love. You give love, you get love.”
Brandon Brown, serving a 17-year sentence for attempted murder after shooting a man outside a bar in 2008, said it had also changed his life.
“We get so much thanks from the staff in the infirmary, I feel like I matter for once,” Brown told the Press-Herald. “We’ve all caused someone a lot of pain along the way. I live every day with the pain I caused my family, my victim and his family. It’s an unpayable debt. But this work is a second chance to do something meaningful. This is the most important work I’ve ever done.”