"A person is a person through another person. My humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours."
A life sentence at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, means life. Because Louisiana has some of the toughest sentencing laws in the country, about 80 percent of the 5,100 prisoners at Angola are expected to die there. In the past, prisoners died alone and unattended in the prison hospital. But, a hospice program changed that. Inmate volunteers, now certified as hospice caregivers, have helped create an environment inside the prison where compassion is unconditional.
There are many reasons to tell the story of the Angola Prison hospice program. As our sense of public safety decreases, the American prison population continues to expand. In 2008, 1 in every 99 adults in America was incarcerated. As the number of inmates increases, so do the costs of housing them. States spend an average of $50 billion a year on correctional services.
I photographed the inmate hospice volunteers at Angola Prison because I see many lessons in their efforts to bring humanity and compassion to an environment designed to isolate and punish. Over the three years I’ve documented the program, I’ve witnessed how the hospice team sparked a movement of empathy that not only spread throughout the inmate population, but also influenced the prison’s security and medical staffs. Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent maximum-security prisons in the South into one of the least violent institutions in the United States.
I focused on moments of connection between caregiver and patient, which can reveal both love and vulnerability. I am inspired by the inmates’ courage to confront their own regrets and fears in order to accept their capacity to love. The inmates have allowed me to visualize what I believe is at the core of addressing social inequalities: the recognition of our shared humanity.
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Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer whose photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She has reproduced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Vaccine Fund. She is a recipient of the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s 2009 Individual Photographer Fellowship, a 2008 Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute, the 2007 PhotoNOLA Review Prize, and the 2004 Southern African Gender and Media Award for Photojournalism. Waselchuk was also a nominee for the 2009 Santa Fe Prize for Photography, a finalist in the 2008 Aperture West Book Prize, and a finalist in the 2006 and 2008 Critical Mass Review.