WARREN, Maine — When sisters Lori Doughty and Mary Ann Guenette walked into the conference room at Maine State Prison on Wednesday morning, they were met by a barrage of love.
The women had come for the second day of the annual Maine Hospice Council conference at the prison, but they also were there to say hello to the men they had met in unusual and intense circumstances over the winter.
Their brother, 53-year-old Stephen Gravel, died in January at the prison after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Although his worst fear was to die alone, the Maine State Prison hospice volunteers made sure that he was never left alone at the end.
“They were with him 24-7,” Doughty of West Gardiner said after greeting and embracing her brother’s caregivers. “He wouldn’t have gotten that out of a nursing home.”
In the prison infirmary, in addition to physical care, the hospice volunteers — all inmates — made sure that Gravel had emotional and mental support until the moment he died, his sisters said.
The hospice volunteers brought his fevers down with Popsicles and cold compresses. They rubbed his feet and shoulders. In short, the convicted murderers, sex abusers and others who make up the 13-man hospice squad treated Gravel with the kind of compassion and care that everyone should have when they are dying, the sisters said.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Doughty said. “When you’re dying, you’re dying. No matter who you are, you need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Those words were echoed throughout the second day of the conference, the third one held at the prison through a partnership of the Maine Hospice Council, the Maine Department of Corrections and Maine State Prison. It brought together hospice volunteers from around the state, academics, college students and others who were able to speak freely with the inmate hospice volunteers, who acted as solicitous event hosts for their guests.
Kandyce Powell, the executive director of the Maine Hospice Council, said that although there continue to be challenges for the program she has run at the prison for 14 years, the changes that have been made in that time are remarkable. Inmates who have completed the extensive hospice training are allowed to help prisoners who are sick and dying, which wasn’t the case when she first began working inside the thick metal and glass prison doors.
“We have indeed made a great deal of progress, and that is encouraging,” she said.
Powell moderated a panel discussion on delivering care in prison titled “Accountability, Responsibilities and the Importance of Partnerships.” In it, five of the hospice volunteers, wearing their maroon program T-shirts, talked about the particular challenges of providing care while behind bars.
In recent months, they said, prison officials have had a new and more restrictive interpretation of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. The new take has meant the hospice volunteers’ ability to do hands-on care of inmates, such as changing them or cleaning them, has been curtailed — and that has been frustrating to the men.
“Things can be difficult, but the No. 1 thing is the person in the infirmary, the person in the bed,” said Chris Shumway of Caribou, who is serving a 45-year sentence for murder.
Santanu Basu of Standish, serving a 62-year sentence for murder, said that doing the hospice work at the prison can mean digging deep into wells of inner strength.
“We are finding out that we have to be resilient and persevere,” he said. “We get caught in the daily rut of things here. We can’t see things happen as quickly as we like. But we have to keep moving forward.”
Mike Tausek, the deputy warden of programs, said that the hospice program is particularly critical because of Maine’s aging prisoner population.
“It’s a way to give the prison population a way to give back to each other,” he said. “It also symbolizes what we’re trying to achieve as a department and a facility in what can be a very hard environment. It’s a good program. It really, really is. By them helping others, it reduces their likelihood of reoffending. It gives them a focus. It gives them a purpose.”
That’s been the case for Brandon Brown of Portland, who is serving a 17-year sentence for attempted murder.
“Hospice is the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. “Although there’s a lot I want to do in the world, I can practice in here. I want to create social change when I get out. I can practice creating social change in here.”