Life After Life: Offering Dignity to Fellow Prisoners Through Hospice Care

VACAVILLE, CA - John Gillis (the prisoner's name has been changed at his request), age 73, grimmaces while an open wound -- a development due to terminal colon cancer -- is treated by fellow prisoner and hospice care worker JP Madrona, in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, California. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

At the New York Times Magazine, Suleika Jaouad and photographer Katy Grannan document how some inmates serving life sentences at The California Medical Facility work 10-15 hours a day, seven days a week, stripping soiled beds, helping with personal hygiene, and at the very end, sitting vigil so that terminally ill fellow prisoners do not have to die alone.

The workers make a point not to find out what the patients have done. They worry that knowing too much could affect the quality of care. When a patient’s past sins cross over into the realm of the horrific, it can be hard to keep creeping judgments and questions at bay. How do you reconcile the dissonance between the serial killer and the elderly patient, bedridden, incontinent and lost in the fog of dementia? The workers are also in prison for crimes, but that doesn’t make them immune to judgment. “Death can be an equalizer,” Lyman said. The past falls aside. Time is grounded in the shifting demands of the body as it begins its decay.

Each of the workers has his own style of caregiving, but if there is one trait that stands out about Murillo, it is the tenderness with which he handles the patients. When Jimmy Figueroa needed a shower, Murillo stood in the stall with him to make sure he didn’t fall, fidgeted with the water temperature until it was just right and gently helped towel him off. A few days later, when Ralph Martinez’s health took a sudden turn for the worse and he began sobbing on his bed, it was Murillo who sat down next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. “I’m just returning something I didn’t get as a kid,” Murillo told me, rocking back and forth in his chair, punching his hands together. “All I wanted was kindness and to be held as a boy. Now I get to do that for somebody else. There’s also the regret of not being able to do that for my victims, for the people in my community who I hurt.”

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