CHICAGO — Ralph Pollock, in the ninth year of a 25-year sentence for a drunken-driving crash that killed two children, bent forward in his chair, rested the book on the bed in front of him and quietly read to a man lying under a blanket.
Propped up against a pillow, his eyes closed, the man listened as Pollock read from “The Purpose Driven Life.”
The man’s life is drawing to a close. He no longer speaks, but Pollock understands him nonetheless.
“Just by his squeezing me or looking at me, I know if he’s uncomfortable, or if he wants something, or if he’s just angry and just doesn’t want to put up with things,” Pollock said. “I kind of know his moods, just by sitting with him.”
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Pollock, 55, is a volunteer in the hospice program for prisoners at Dixon Correctional Center, one of only about 20 prison hospices nationwide where the caregivers are also inmates.
Both patients and caregivers have been convicted of grievous crimes. But the hospice program is based on the belief that everyone deserves compassion as they are dying. And the program’s supporters say inmates who extend that compassion as volunteers can be transformed.
Pollock has been caring for the same patient for 2½ years. Four days a week, he comes to the infirmary and reads to his patient, bathes him, helps him to the bathroom.
“I give him a bath practically every time I’m up there, just because it’s some kind of activity, gets him out of bed,” Pollock said. “Even if he grumbles sometimes, I think, ‘Well, I’ll wait a little while and talk him into it.’ ”
Prison officials considered the patient too ill to consent to be interviewed or named, and they declined to reveal his condition.
Most patients in hospice care have cancer. They are assured they will not die alone.
Pollock also finds comfort in the hospice, where he has forged a genuine relationship with his patient while also receiving, perhaps, some kind of redemption.
In 2005, Pollock was drunk when he ran a red light. His pickup collided with a van carrying a family. The van burst into flames, killing a 5-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister.
“I know the damage that I’ve done to that family,” Pollock said. “And I know that I can’t pay that back. But I know that I can do good things with what’s left of my life.”
Such are the dual benefits of the prison hospice, said Cheryl Price, who helped design the program and served as its coordinator for 17 years until she retired in July.
The inmates who are patients get one-on-one care, “the opportunity in what can be perceived as a noncaring environment to latch onto someone whose interest is them and them solely,” Price said.
Many hospice inmates have no family contacts, she said. The prison is their family. And in hospice, they know a member of that family will be with them to the end.
The prisoners who volunteer can become different men, too.
“It changes them,” Price said. “They find out things about themselves that they never knew. They find out that relationships are important; they find out that caring is important.”
And some get a chance to try to make amends for their crimes.
“I think that a lot of us, at least I know myself, that have done such a disastrous deed, we do feel an obligation to want to give back, to want to help,” said Eugene McDaniel Jr., 62, a onetime Wheaton police officer who is serving a 60-year sentence for killing his wife.
Dixon’s warden, Nedra Chandler, said the volunteers provide an important service for no tangible gain.
“I thank God every day for the inmates who are willing to do this, because they get nothing from us,” she said. “They do it out of the goodness of their heart and their willingness to assist their fellow man.”
Earl Johnson, 56, who is serving an 80-year sentence for killing a man during the robbery of a Chicago store, volunteered for the hospice to soften the harshness of prison life.
“Prison sometimes has an effect where it hardens you. By doing this here, I wanted to try to not be hardened by this prison experience,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to keep my humility or whatever — to be able to care for another human being and not just walk through here just like a zombie.”
Johnson developed a kind of friendship with his patient that he did not find with other inmates.
“We talked about more things” than sports or prison jobs, he said. “I was able to talk about my family; he was able to talk about his family. Things you probably didn’t share with someone else.”
Need is there
The hospice at Dixon, which began accepting patients in 1995, was one of the first programs of its kind in the country, Price said.
The need for hospice care is clear. The number of older inmates in Illinois has grown with the increase in the total prison population, the advent of longer sentences and the fact that inmates are serving more time because of truth-in-sentencing laws.
From June 2005 to June 2014, the number of prisoners 65 and older in Illinois increased from 278 to 706.
The Dixon program was modeled after community hospice programs. Price was executive director of Hospice of the Rock River Valley before becoming coordinator of the prison’s hospice and adult care program in 1997. She and other community hospice officials helped design the program and trained the prison staff and the first volunteers.
A central tenet is having lay volunteers visit patients. “We felt very strongly that inmates should serve as the volunteers,” Price said. “This is their community.”
Inmates proved eager to serve.
“Every year we get about 40 to 50 men who apply for the position,” Price said. “Generally between six and eight men are selected. It’s a very elite group, in a sense. They go through a very, very thorough evaluation process.”
Those accepted undergo five or six months of training, then are assigned a patient, either in hospice or adult care, on the floor that is the prison’s equivalent of a nursing home.
The work is personal, intimate. Volunteers hold patients’ hands, wipe their sweaty brows, change soiled diapers.
As a patient’s death draws near, the hospice tries to arrange a 24-hour vigil, even summoning inmate volunteers at 2 a.m.
Johnson was with his patient almost every day as the end neared.
“You sit there with him,” he said. “He couldn’t talk, so I would talk to him and stuff like that, and he’d be able to hear my voice. Maybe that gave him some comfort or something like that because it was a familiar voice.
“It was just a humbling experience to be able to sit there and to be able to do that for him. Nobody should die alone.”
The man died July 18, and he was not alone.