Grace Before Dying
George Alexander's socks are marked with his nickname "Ghost". Alexander is a patient in the Angola State Penitentiary hospice program who is fighting brain and lung cancers. His nickname is short for "Casper, the Friendly Ghost."
A life sentence means life at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Because Louisiana has some of the toughest sentencing laws in the country, more than 85 percent of the 5,100 prisoners at Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners died mostly alone and unattended in the prison hospital. Their bodies were buried in shoddy boxes in numbered graves at the prison cemetery. But, a nationally recognized hospice program run by prisoner volunteers has changed that.
Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live in the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here a team of six volunteers works shifts to take care of the inmate. The volunteers, most of whom are serving life sentences themselves, try to keep him as comfortable as possible. Then, in the last days of dying, 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, made by prisoners, is taken from the prison to the cemetery in a beautiful handcrafted hearse, also made by prisoners. The hearse is drawn by two giant Percherons and is followed by a procession of friends and, sometimes, family members who sing and walk behind the hearse.
Dying alone in prison is no longer one of the deepest fears of inmates at Angola. The hospice volunteers' commitment to create a tone of reverence for the dead and dying has touched the entire prison population. Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the most peaceful maximum-security institutions in the United States.
Grace Before Dying is inspired b