One of my professors this semester presented an opportunity for us to go to the state medical facility for prisoners located here on the south side of Columbus. I decided that it was an opportunity worth taking.
About a year ago one of my friends went on a mission trip and they worked with a half way house (a place to help people who have been incarcerated get back into normal life) and she was greatly impacted by this experience. Which, I have preconceptions, and prior today probably believed the stereotype more since I didn’t know otherwise. After knowing my friend’s experience and my own thoughts on inmates I wanted to take an advantage of this opportunity that was being offered to me.
My mind was blown.
I’m definitely still processing what I encountered and experienced today, but what struck me was just how…. human… these people are! (which sounds awful, I know….) We listened to one inmates story, who had been incarcerated for over 20 years. While listening to her story I was holding back tears, seeing this woman compassionate and empowered who made a difference in her community, and who wants to do all she can to help other women also incarcerated to be empowered, especially the “short-timers” as she called them – to realize they do have a chance and a choice to head down a different path, that they can still be a parent from the inside.
After talking with this woman we headed over to the palliative (comfort) care and hospice unit in the facility. Before I go any further, you need to know that the more I learn about what hospice and palliative care nursing looks like, the more I think I’ll end up in that area.
Now, this unit is all male, and it is a palliative care/hospice unit. These men have been incarcerated for a long time, but they’re also human and ill, and suffering. We spent the afternoon dying easter eggs and talking with these men. My world was completely flipped. Talking to these people was just like talking to anyone else. They wanted their story to be heard. I sat and talked with the same man for over an hour. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask a single question. He told me stories about his high school days, his young adult life, where he worked, about his brother — I just sat and listened. I treated this man like a human being. I’m not entirely sure what caused him to be incarcerated, but it actually didn’t matter. I don’t want to know what he did, that was the past. He’s been in prison for over 20 years as well. I don’t need to know. What I see is the man he is today — who quite enjoyed coloring Easter eggs and was really proud of them might I add.
Another inmate who talked the group of us students together is what they call a Steven’s Minister. He went through one of the programs offered by the facility to become a Steven’s Minister and what a Steven’s Minister does is they sit with inmates as they’re dying. They hold their hand, pray with them, are just a presence… whatever the dying man needs, they are there to make the end of life feel a little more comfortable because nobody deserves to die alone. This particular man is hoping to get out soon and when he leaves he wants to do something with hospice care.
There’s one other inmate who I want to talk about… he broke my heart. He’s really sick, and actively dying (I think…). He was just skin and bones, his hospital gown kept falling off of him and I could see his rib cage. He had a gray/ashen look to him. One of the other inmates said something to my professor about how he was worried about him because this guy wasn
‘t eating (often that means someone may be nearing the end of their life). I didn’t have a lengthy conversation with this man, but he stood out to me. I could tell immediately that he was not doing well. And again, I don’t know what he did or what his story is — I knew he was having a rough day. And what I got to do today was treat him with dignity, was remind him that he matters by talking to him.
I don’t know the stories of these people. I don’t know why their in prison. Heck, I don’t even know what disease process is causing them to be in this facility. What I do know is that I saw each of them as a person. I had real, human conversation with them. They were respectful towards me. These men thanked us when we left! They thanked us for coming to spend ti
me with them, and asked us to come back.
As we headed back to Capital our instructor told us that we didn’t even know what today meant to these guys – what going in and just listening to them meant. What a gift! What a gift we have to remind people that despite their history, we still seem them as human beings and they still have dignity, they still have worth.
I can’t break the stereotypes… as much as I wish I could…. but I can love each person I encounter. I can treat each person I encounter as a person. I can treat them with respect, with dignity, with value, with worth. I can listen to them and show them I care.
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them” -Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta