WARREN, Maine — When the men from Sounds of Comfort pick up their instruments to play tunes about love and loss, sorrow and regret, it’s obvious from the first notes that they are singing directly from the songbook of their lives.
Nathan Roy’s voice arced mournfully above the sounds of guitar and mandolin Friday morning on his song “Rainbows and Butterflies.” He wrote it about his children, who live far away from him while he serves the rest of a long sentence at Maine State Prison in Warren, but it clearly had significance for the other inmates who listened to him sing his heart out in the spartan prison classroom.
“So wipe the teardrops from your eyes, my child, there’s no need to cry,” Roy, 35, of Bangor sang. “We belong together with the rainbows and butterflies.”
Kandyce Powell, the executive director of the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End of Life Care, has worked for years with this group of a dozen inmates, all of whom are volunteer prison hospice workers. They have all been convicted of terrible crimes that include cold-blooded murder and child sexual abuse, but that doesn’t stop them from performing hospice work with absolute love and compassion, she said. And it doesn’t keep their music from affecting others who hear it, even those who live outside the barbed wire fences that surround the prison complex.
“A lot of the music is raw grief,” she said. “There’s a pathos about it. I think that’s why it resonates so much. It is heartbreakingly beautiful.”
The resonance is powerful enough, in fact, that she recently obtained a grant to have a music engineer come into the prison’s chapel to record an album with Sounds of Comfort. The album’s release will be marked by a historic event — a public concert at the prison on Feb. 19. That’s major, Powell said, especially considering the prison hospice program’s unassuming beginning 14 years ago. At that time, “the policies screamed no, no, no,” when it came to allowing inmates to work directly with sick and dying prisoners, she said.
But years of hard work and respectfully fighting the status quo have led to major policy changes at Maine State Prison. Those changes have made room for the hospice program to help care for an increasingly ill and aging prison population, with the first class of volunteers graduating in 2010 and the second class in 2012. Nationwide, there are 124,900 prisoners age 55 and older, with that number projected to increase to more than 400,000 by 2030, according to a study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union. Two years ago in Maine, 95 prisoners were over 60 and 163 of the state’s 2,063 prisoners were over 55.
“It’s a win-win for the men, learning so much about themselves through working with others,” Powell said. “It’s a win-win for the general population. It’s a win-win for the administration, because it takes the harsh edge off behaviors. And it’s a win-win for the Maine Department of Corrections, because it’s a program that works.”
To a man, the prison hospice volunteers said they want the focus to be on the program — not the musicians, the CD release party nor their individual stories of how the work has changed them. They wear dark red t-shirts that mark them as hospice volunteers, and which help them move more freely to the prison infirmary, where they change colostomy bags and diapers, wash sick inmates, calm angry or panicked men and keep watch at deathbeds, among other acts.
“We’ve made a bad choice in life that landed us here,” Wes Knight, 44, of Rockland said. “Now we are blessed to be part of hospice.”
Steve Carpentier, 60, of Camden, who plays mandolin with the band, remembers the days of the old state prison at Thomaston, when men were left alone to die.
“You could smell death in that place. It stank of it,” he said.
Now, things are different, with prison staff asking the inmates for help.
“One of our consumers can be very angry,” Knight said of a 76-year-old who fights authority figures, including his nurses. “We get him in the shower. We tuck him into bed. We clean his cell out.”
Another man, a friend of theirs, was dying of cancer. The hospice volunteers on watch closed his eyes when the life in them finally flickered out, hugged his sister and let her sob on their shoulders. The prison uniforms didn’t matter then, but their caring did.
“It was very heartbreaking, but at the same time I felt very privileged,” Roy said. “Being able to share a person’s last moments — it meant a lot to me. I felt like I did my job. You can say they got to pass with dignity.”
Robert “Paco” Payzant, 46, of Freeport, sings and plays with the band. He said that the music is for everyone, but especially for people left behind by loved ones.
“It’s not hard to see it comes from a place of pain,” he said. “That’s where healing begins, when you tap into that pain and confront it.”
The healing of the work, and the music, has impacted the volunteers, too.
“Even though the original intention wasn’t to create redemption stories, it definitely does,” Payzant said.
“It is a true privilege to be part of a program that sees more in me than I see in myself,” he said.
For Powell, the inmates’ work is a labor of love that reflects the pure form of hospice, and is not tarnished by the acts they committed to be incarcerated in the first place.
“In caring for another person, they plumb the depths of their own humanity,” she said. “They are people, and we should all be identified and designated by more than the mistakes we’ve made and the crimes we’ve committed.”
More information about the concert, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, can be found at the website www.mainehospicecouncil.org.