Kentucky prison hospice program lets inmates help others, selves

June 14, 2010, from the Courier Journal:

Steffon Cantrell had been sitting with the dying man for six hours. Occasionally he would rub the man’s head, or take his hands, or sing a hymn — anything to remind the man he was not alone.

Cantrell, an inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory, had only known this fellow prisoner since the beginning of his bedside shift. But like a caring family member, he would stay, watching over until the man took his last breath.

Cantrell is one of eight inmates at the prison in LaGrange who volunteer as hospice workers for ill and dying prisoners.

The volunteers’ backgrounds are varied, but they are linked by similarities. Most are serving time for murder. Some are unsure whether they will ever leave prison. And all view their caretaking roles as a way to atone for the lives they once led.

“I know how it is to be alone,” Cantrell said. “For me to be there for somebody who’s about to pass away, just to let them know that they’re not alone and that I’m there — that’s priceless for me.”

The Kentucky State Reformatory is the only prison in the state to have a hospice program, and one of the few in the country, said Robin Sublett, chief psychologist at the prison and manager of the program, which began in 1996.

“I’ve found it to be one of the most significant things we do around here,” Sublett said.

The volunteers, trained by Hosparus, a Louisville-based non-profit that provides hospice care around the region, are charged primarily with serving other prisoners at the end of their lives. But the volunteers benefit as well.

“It helps them to be a better human being,” Sublett said. “We can teach them anger control, we can teach them how they’re supposed to act in public, how to get a job, but until you teach somebody to have empathy both to themselves and somebody else, you’re really just touching the surface.”

The need for such volunteers is great at the medium-security prison, which holds about 2,000 inmates and is home to the state’s seriously ill prison population. Just as medical needs are increasing for aging baby boomers across the country, the same is true in prison.

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